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Many blogs and other sources of information on cycling advocate "riding like a car" or "taking the lane" as a way to increase safety and visibility when riding on a road. But such advice presupposes that doing so is legal.

Is it generally the case that bikes may use the "full lane", or is it better to check with local ordinances? Is there a general rule of thumb one should apply in cases where one is not certain about local rules?

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Depends on local laws, but falls into two categories: take the lane, or lane sharing (car & bike, side-by-side). My understanding is that "taking the lane" is the most common. – OMG Ponies Oct 23 '11 at 5:38
up vote 14 down vote accepted

For any question about law, you always have to check local laws.

The general rule is that you go with traffic and ride as far to the side as safe, taking the lane when it makes you safer. In many places this is how the law is written, but even when it isn't you may wish to do so.

From what I recall of the League of American Bicyclists safe cycling class I took, in the United States you're allowed to "take the lane" basically anytime that doing so is safer. The exact laws vary from state to state, but they all basically allow this same behavior.

Reasons to move away from the side include:

  • hazards (glass, gravel, bad pavement, possibly opening car doors)
  • the lane isn't wide enough for a car to pass safely (to discourage dangerously close passing)
  • where a right turn is possible (to avoid right hook hazard)

Whether or not you're required to use a shoulder or not is different in different states. In California you're allowed to use a shoulder, but not required to; a narrow lane and wide shoulder allows you to legally use the full lane (but riding on the shoulder might be better).

Police often don't know the proper rules for bikes and mistakenly think you're always required to ride as far to the right as possible. Other road users often have that same problem.

The key phrase to look for to learn more is "vehicular cycling". There was a big move to vehicular cycling in the 60s and 70s, an I've noticed many laws that make it explicitly legal date to the 70s.

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This is recommended in the UK as well - "be assertive within your own lane" in order to maximise visibility and awareness and to dissuade drivers from passing too close (and to give you some safety space if they do) – Rory Alsop Oct 21 '11 at 20:41

This depends on the local situation I'd say. for instance the German road traffic act (StVO, Straßenverkehrsordnung) says in §2:

(2) Es ist möglichst weit rechts zu fahren, nicht nur bei Gegenverkehr, beim 
    Überholtwerden, an Kuppen, in Kurven oder bei Unübersichtlichkeit.

(2) One has to drive as much on the right side as possible, not only with 
    oncoming traffic, at hilltops, in corners or on complexity


That rule is not specific for bikes but all sorts of vehicles which are allowed on roads.

Besides the legal situation: Going on the right makes it simpler for faster cars to overtake one. When driving too much on the left car drivers can, in my experience, become annoyed easily. While one should be riding at the edge of the road but keep some space to the right so one can navigate if there are issues on the road.

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This may well be absolutely correct, but the question asked for a general answer, not one about any particular locale. – Neil Fein Oct 21 '11 at 2:14
@Neil, you're not going to get a general answer - different countries, different laws. Asking for a non-specific answer is just going to have a single answer of "maybe, check your local laws" which isn't very helpful. – Unsliced Oct 21 '11 at 8:32
That's also why I'Ve added the last paragraph. This will also depend on the cycling-culture. The less common cyclists are in an area the more on the right I will go. – johannes Oct 21 '11 at 9:35

So far as I know, in the most if not all states in the US it's legal. The laws may specify "as far to the right as safely possible" or something like that, but they generally leave it up to you to evaluate what's safe.

Minnesota law, eg, states:

Subd. 4.Riding on roadway or shoulder.

(a) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:

(1) when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction;

(2) when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway;

(3) when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions, including fixed or moving objects, vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or narrow width lanes, that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.

The problem, of course, is that you may encounter others (both drivers and law enforcement people) who do not interpret the law this way (mostly because they've never read it), but that's a problem for all cycling-related laws.

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In some states, such as New Jersey, the law specifies as far to the right but does not specifically indicate that bikes can use the shoulder - like it does in New York state. – Neil Fein Oct 21 '11 at 3:16
That's the crux of the question. There seems to be some confusion among bloggers, etc. about an important distinction between the general idea of "riding like a car", and the idea of taking the "full lane". While the former seems widely legal, the latter is often explicitly not. – 2u2 Oct 21 '11 at 3:23

In Ontario:

HTA 147 - Slow moving traffic travel on right side

any vehicle moving slower than the normal traffic speed should drive in the right-hand lane, or as close as practicable to the right edge of the road except when preparing to turn left or when passing another vehicle.

For cyclists, you must ride far enough out from the curb to maintain a straight line, clear of sewer grates, debris, potholes, and parked car doors. You may occupy any part of a lane when your safety warrants it. Never compromise your safety for the convenience of a motorist behind you.

"is it better to check with local ordinances?"

I've read that statutes about driving on the sidewalk and sharing with pedestrians varies (in North America) from city to city; but I expect that statutes about driving on the road vary less, and are set by the (larger) State (or Province, or Country).

Some roads are 'no cyclists or pedestrians' and signed to that effect.

I'd guess if you're going somewhere unfamiliar you should find out the local laws and customs.

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That's a particularly good statute in terms of the rights it gives cyclists, but like many it asks too much of drivers: can they really judge when my safety "warrants it"? – 2u2 Oct 21 '11 at 3:31
@raxacoricofallapatorius - I judge (i.e. I tell drivers) when my safety warrants it: for example when the lane becomes too narrow for them to pass me safely, I either take the lane (after a shoulder check and with a hand signal, which is normal for merging lanes), or stop until I can. – ChrisW Oct 21 '11 at 3:52
The 2nd paragraph isn't in the statute, but it is on that Ministry of Transport (Ontario Government) web page: so I expect it's their (official) interpretation of the statue. – ChrisW Oct 21 '11 at 3:59

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