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The Bicycles.SE blog states "Cyclists are vehicles, not pedestrians.". I think most of this community, plus most of the laws agree with that.

However, a cyclist has the speed, mass and maneuverability of a sprinting person (who is, of course, a pedestrian).

Why are bicycle riders considered vehicles and not pedestrians?

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"By definition", it's a human-propulsion-vehicle. It would be interesting to go after the definitions for "walking aid", too, since one doesn't use the bike to walk. –  heltonbiker Jul 6 '12 at 14:03
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Certainly there have been relatively recent developments with motorized wheelchairs/carts and the like that have "leapt ahead" of the law in many cases, and I wouldn't be surprised if some state legislatures attempt to redefine everything over the next decade or so. Could be good, could be bad. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 6 '12 at 14:52
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French traffic law consider cycles as vehicles if they have at least two wheels. Therefore unicycles are not considered vehicles. –  mouviciel Oct 1 '12 at 14:53
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8 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Traffic law (in the US): The law considers the bicycle, first and foremost, to be a mode of transport, and sees a need to regulate the flow of bikes the way it regulates the flow of automobiles. This dates back to the dawn of automobiles, if not before (though in some states it took decades for the law to spell things out as it does). This makes sense, since bicycles can attain speeds well in excess of a normal pedestrian and their speed creates hazards for both them and pedestrians if they ride on sidewalks or otherwise behave as pedestrians.

Besides, if bicycles were pedestrians we'd not be allowed on roads, in the flow of traffic. This would place a major constraint on cycling few of us would want to see.

I believe most states have an exclusion of sorts for children on bikes or maybe even for adults riding at low speed, allowing them to use (most) pedestrian paths. But this is an exception to the general rule.

There is a problem that a significant fraction of the general public does not tend to view bicycles as vehicles, but this is an education problem, and I'd definitely not want to confuse the issue by raising the above question "in public".

(I am reminded, however, of "Big Lip Louie", a guy who lived in rural Louisville, KY 50 years ago when I was a kid. He was, at the time, maybe 30-40, and didn't drive, but walked everywhere. He was tall -- well over 6 feet -- with long legs, and could walk at speeds I'd guess were in excess of 10 MPH. It was fairly common to encounter him walking along a rural road, pretty much right down the center of the road. He was more of a "vehicle" than a pedestrian.)

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It should be noted that there are two types of state laws regarding bicycles in the US. Most states regard a bicycle as a "vehicle" (with "motor vehicle" being a subcategory of "vehicle"), while a few states specify that bicycles are "like a vehicle", making some parts of their laws pretty ambiguous with regard to bicycles. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 6 '12 at 14:55
    
Thank everyone for the good answers. I am accept this one for "if bicycles were pedestrians we'd not be allowed on roads". –  Vorac Jul 9 '12 at 5:06
    
+1 for the Tale of Big Lip Louie –  Jacob Oct 1 '12 at 0:07
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a cyclist has the speed, mass and maneuverability of a sprinting person

Not really! The world record for 100 m sprint is 9.58 s, which equals 37.6 km/h, which is fast but not anything spectacular for a bicycle. The marathon world record equals to little more than 20 km/h, which is less than my average commuting speed. Going back to "human" speeds, I would estimate that an average biker goes roughly twice the speed of an average runner.

With double speed:

  • Braking distance is quadrupled (ignoring reaction time).
  • Kinetic energy = damage in case is collision is quadrupled (not even taking into account 10-20 kg extra mass & hard and sharp metal parts of the bike).
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Also - you don't generally sprint down sidewalks - particularly not for long periods of time that would lead you to pay less attention to what might be in the way. The more interesting comparison is to roller skates, or skateboards (neither of which, I think, is classed as a vehicle in the same way as a bicycle) –  Random832 Jul 6 '12 at 17:43
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@Random832: skateboards etc are usually classed as "toy vehicles" or somesuch, and are not allowed on the road. But they do have to give way to everything else on the footpath. It's one of the common sense laws - the more dangerous person has more obligation to be careful of others. –  Kohi Jul 7 '12 at 2:27
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In the UK, the law that says cyclists are vehicles rather than pedestrians pre-dates the automobile. The specific pieces of legislation are:

Highway Act 1835

If any person shall wilfully ride upon any footpath or causeway by the side of any road made or set apart for the use or accommodation of foot passengers; or shall wilfully lead or drive any horse, ass, sheep, mule, swine, or cattle or carriage of any description, or any truck or sledge, upon any such footpath or causeway; or shall tether any horse, ass, mule, swine, or cattle, on any highway, so as to suffer or permit the tethered animal to be thereon;. . . every person so offending in any of the cases aforesaid shall for each and every such offence forfeit and pay any sum not exceeding [level 2 on the standard scale], over and above the damages occasioned thereby.

Local Government Act 1888

Regulations for bicycles, &c.

bicycles, tricycles, velocipedes, and other similar machines are hereby declared to be carriages within the meaning of the Highway Acts

The decision to put bicycles in the same category as horse drawn carts seems perfectly sensible given the era in which it was made. While the situation on the roads is now very different, cyclists should still be classed as vehicles rather than pedestrians for the reasons given in the other answers to this question.

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I was reading in the CTC Cycle magazine that there is case law that covers when you are riding a bicycle and when you are a pedestrian. In summary if you have at least one foot on a pedal you are riding. –  DanS Jul 6 '12 at 12:46
    
I'll dig around for references, but IIRC there's precedent that even pushing a bike counts as riding, e.g. strictly speaking you shouldn't push a bike across a zebra crossing. I think the law hinges on the 'being in charge' hence a similar sort of situation where you can be done for "drink driving" while being asleep in the drivers seat; you are in charge of the vehicle. –  Unsliced Jul 6 '12 at 13:47
    
If you push it you're not riding it, but with one foot on a pedal you are - cyclecraft.co.uk/digest/pushing.html –  Tom77 Jul 6 '12 at 14:29
    
@Unsliced that was one of the examples used. If you are walking then you are a pedestrian. If you are scooting with one foot on the pedel then you are riding. –  DanS Jul 6 '12 at 14:42
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I'm going to try to answer the question about WHY are bicycles are considered vehicles rather than listing the multitudinous local laws that say as much.

The justifications that I see are:

  • a bicycle is a transport machine, therefore a vehicle. Tautologically.
  • cyclists behave like other vehicle users. They generally travel faster than pedestrians, are less maneuverable and weigh more.
  • treating cyclists as pedestrians would lead to silliness, like people riding bikes inside buildings and pedestrian malls.
  • without laws cyclists generally act much more like vehicle users than pedestrians. They ride on the road, they travel in straight lines, they load more onto their bicycle than they could carry without it, they abuse pedestrians for being slow and moving randomly.

Historically I expect it's because bicycles are machines and they behave more like other vehicles than they do pure pedestrians. I suspect the law developed in most countries in a simlar way to the UK as described by Tom77 in his answer. Originally power came from people and draft animals and the speed range was between ox carts and galloping horse riders. But a galloping horse is a fragile thing, so riders tended to be careful because if the horse falls the rider is likely to die. Note that this is the opposite to a motor vehicle hitting a pedestrian. But a horse at a walk or trot can move off the road and walk around a relatively slow-moving pedestrian or cart. So you had the pragmatic situation that pedestrians were expected to move out of the way of horses, everyone waited to pass carts until it was physically possible, and important people yelled a lot.

I expect that the formalisation went "the faster you go the more you have to avoid other road users. This is therefore the law".

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Bicycles are surely vehicles, since people "ride" them, they don't walk with its aid. Then, the bicycle would be considered a land, inline-two-wheeled, human-propelled vehicle.

In Brazil, where I live, the (sometimes confusing) Traffic Law states that bikes:

  • Are categorized as human propelled vehicles;
  • Have the right of passage over motor vehicles, and should be taken care of by them;
  • Must follow traffic signs and lights;
  • Should ride always along the border of the way, or in the slow lane, or in dedicated infrastucture when available;
  • Can overtake stopped vehicles by occupying the space between lanes;
  • Any rider pulling the bike is equal to pedestrians regarding traffic rights, and thus can go along pedestrian crossings.

It is interesting that traffic laws and regulations have two ambiguous functions: at the same time they force vehicles to follow rules, so as to "protect" the rest of society, it is possible to see a tendency to create traffic laws so as to facilitate motorized traffic, and someway put the rest of society "out of the way".

Using the bike for transportation, in this context (partly vehicle, partly "human") has been an interesting way (for the good and for the bad) to feel how difficult it is to "label" it one thing or another.

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But if bicycles are "vehicles" because people ride them, what is a wheelchair? Or even a power scooter used by a handicapped person? There aren't really the bright lines that one might want to draw. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 7 '12 at 3:25
    
@Daniel R Hicks: Indeed, and those are lines are drawn largely in legal terms (see also: "is tomato a fruit or a vegetable?" The answer is "varies by jurisdiction, for tax reasons"). In other words, the reasons for the distinction are not always dictated by the technical parameters, nor are they necessarily logical. –  Piskvor Jul 7 '12 at 20:46
    
The distinctions are mainly historical, and often relate to legal decisions (with relatively little to do with taxes). An accident occurs, a court, in settling the suit, decides that thing X (not previously categorized) is in category Y. After a few appeals that decision takes on the strength of law. Eventually it gets codified by the legislature. Mostly the decisions make sense when standing alone, but they're often not consistent when stood up side by side. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 8 '12 at 2:26
    
@Daniel R Hicks: the "taxes" reason was specific to the classification of tomatoes; in general, I agree with your comment. –  Piskvor Jul 8 '12 at 18:13
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Pedestrians (though not sprinters), wheelchairs, and pedestrians using walkers are statically stable, while cyclists are dynamically stable (with the exception of some fixie freaks).

Locomotion is defined to be the act or power of moving from place to place. Statically stable locomotion has the added constraint that the moving body be stable at all times. In other words, if the body were to instantaneously stop all motion, the body would still be standing. More specifically, the vertical projection of the center of gravity will be contained within the convex hull of the body's points of contact with the ground at all times.

Since pedestrians often assume that others can stop on a dime, they make sudden directional changes without thinking about what's around them. Mixing pedestrians and cyclists on narrow sidewalks where cyclists can't reroute is a recipe for collisions.

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A bicycle is considered a "vehicle" and is supposed to obey the same traffic laws as a motor vehicle...stop signs, turning lanes, signaling a turn, etc.. A bicyclist of average health and condition could ride a bicycle 50 to 100 miles in a day without too much of a problem. An average pedistrian, walking or running, could not likely achieve those same mileages. In Ohio, a bicyclist has the right to actually occupy a complete lane of travel when necessary. I've only seen a cyclist do this one time, and he was holding up traffic for about 4 blocks! It's no wonder with antics like this that drivers get upset with a bicyclist. Just because you have the right to do this, doesn't mean you should use that right! I prefer to stay as far to the right as possible, only moving to the center of the lane to execute a left hand turn. Creating harmony is much better than causing friction!

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I once occupied a full lane for several blocks, with non-trivial traffic behind me. It was going through a one-lane construction zone and I was riding a loaded touring bike, and it was impractical to pull over and let others by. No one honked. –  Daniel R Hicks Oct 1 '12 at 0:14
    
Fine if it's necessary like your situation, but the guy I saw was just doing 15 MPH on a 25 MPH street and holding up about six frustrated vehicle drivers behind him. He had a very wide street where he could have moved over to allow cars to pass, but instead choose to impede traffic. –  Stephen McCoy Oct 1 '12 at 0:21
    
+1 for Just because you have the right to do this, doesn't mean you should use that right! However, sometimes there are contradicting situations "act legally or act ethically" i.e. sometimes following a required rule causes delay or inconvenience to the others. But this is becoming philosophical tirade... –  Vorac Oct 1 '12 at 8:03
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My understanding of the law in the UK is that a bicycle is a vehicle (meaning that you must cycle them on the road and not the pavement, not that anyone around here seems to obey that particular law), but they are not motor vehicle, meaning you don't need to pay road tax, hold a license, are exempt from speed limits (but can still be pulled up and fined for dangerous cycling which can include excessive speed) and don't need an MOT certificate to prove your bike is roadworthy.

I am not a legal expert, however, so the usual disclaimers apply.

My opinion is that they're considered vehicles because getting hit by a fast-moving bike is a much bigger deal than being hit by a sprinter! Also, a pedestrian can come to a stop and not fall over, whereas a cyclist needs to put their leg out, hold onto something, etc, to keep from going over when stationary.

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