Sometimes a cyclist shouldn’t obey the law

The Wauwatosa traffic engineer used cross-hatched pavement markings to discourage motorists from driving in the shoulder on State St. What he could have done instead was stripe bike lanes and parking lanes. That would have allowed bicyclists to legally ride in this area, out of the motor vehicle travel lane. The other benefit would have been lower future maintenance costs since the linear bike lanes could have been painted with a long line truck, while these transverse lines will need to be painted manually.

Bicyclists are often criticized for not obeying the laws.  I argued in a recent post that people riding bicycles actually are more law-abiding than people who drive cars. That said, I ended that post with a plea that those of us who do ride bikes could make life easier on ourselves if we were even more law-abiding.

I try to live by that philosophy myself and strive to obey all traffic laws whether I am walking, biking or driving a motor vehicle. It is actually pretty easy to obey the law when I drive a car, because the laws were written with motor vehicles in mind.  The signals are timed for cars, the speeds are posted for cars, most of the signs are for cars and except for the occasional bike lane, the lines are painted for cars.

So what is a person on a bicycle to do when the shoulder of the road is paved, but diagonal cross hatch lines are painted across that shoulder, as they are on State St in Wauwatosa?  According to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, CROSS-HATCHED (diagonal) lines mark pavement areas where driving is discouraged, such as gore areas, painted medians, obstructions in the roadway, and other “safety zones.”

So if I am to obey the law on State Street, I should be riding my bicycle in the motor vehicle travel land as far to the right of the as is practicable, but to the left of the cross-hatch painted shoulder.  This would block motor vehicles and force them to wait to pass me by crossing the center line. I assume that was not the intention of the traffic engineer who designed the road when it was recently resurfaced, so I ride illegally in cross hatched area of the paved shoulder.  It bugs me every time I do it. 

There are many other examples where because traffic engineers forgot to include all legal road users when they designed a road, people on bicycles are forced, or encouraged at least, to break the law.  Right turn only lanes are used all over the place, but they never say “Right turn only except bikes.” So technically, if a person on a bike is to obey the law, they should move into the next through travel lane, even if there is no car in the right turn lane.  Miller Park Way through West Milwaukee has a number of such right turn only lanes.

Where would you ride in on the street below?  In the curb lane, even though it is marked right turn only, or in the through motor vehicle travel lane?

Traffic signals are timed so the queue of stopped cars can clear before the platoon of cars traveling at the speed limit reach the intersection.  That often means a person riding a bicycle hits a red light every block.  Furthermore, we need traffic signals and stop signs only because of cars.  Even high volumes of bikes and pedestrians can negotiate intersections safely without traffic signals and stop signs.  Is it any wonder many people on bikes blow through red lights?

I do stop for red lights and stop signs, but for my own safety, I ride illegally in the cross-hatched shoulder on State St. and through the “right turn only” lanes on Miller Park Way. When I break these laws, I do it so as not to inconvenience people in motor vehicles, but because no motorist is inconvenienced or annoyed, they don’t complain about it. St. Augustine said an unjust law is no law at all.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached it is our moral obligation to break an unjust law.  These oversights by traffic engineers certainly don’t rise to the level of unjust laws in the sense that Dr. King was talking about, but they certainly make it difficult to ask people on bicycles to obey the law, when they were not considered when it was written.

I will continue to do my best to obey all traffic laws whether I am on foot, on a bike or in a car, but it is not easy.


About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
This entry was posted in laws, Rules of the Road, safety and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Sometimes a cyclist shouldn’t obey the law

  1. Bill Sell says:

    I negotiate the right turn only lane by moving to the left of that lane, which gives me an option – depending on what I see in my rear-view mirror – to cross into the forward lane or to use more of the right turn lane. Riding the stripe between the RTO lane and the forward lane is something cars cannot do, but it’s handy for quick adjustments.

    If there is a stop light, I pull away from the stripe leaning (and watching) a bit to the right so I get my wiggle room from the space that the RTO cars should(?) not enter.

  2. TosaGroupie says:

    About 1-2 feet to the right of the solid line, inside the turn lane, but way to the left.

    I stay out of the through lane as it usually has more traffic, but over so far as to prevent a right hook. I almost treat turn lanes as bike lanes with 6feet of undrivable curb space.

    At lights, if the right hand lane is a turn lane, then I’m over to the left of it since I’m not turning; if the right hand lane is not a turn lane and I get to the light first, I plop my boney biking posterier smack dab in the middle of the lane. If a car comes up behind me with a turn signal, I’ll scoot over to the left and let them turn; if a car comes up behind me going straight, I sit there. I’m visible. I think I’m at the safest spot, although, as you note, probably not legal as “as far to the right as practiable” at that point would put me at the curb–but then I’d get lost.

    • @TosaGroupie: When your biking posterior is smack dab in the middle of the lane in the situation you describe above, you are not in violation the “as far to the right as practicable” rule. You’re following it. Practicable means “safe and reasonable.” In these situations, it is both safe and reasonable for you to be in the center of the lane. It is NOT practicable for you to be at the right of the lane, for the reason you state: you’d be much less visible to motorists. And you’d be at risk of a right-hook when the light turns green.

      • daveschlabowske says:

        It remains technically illegal to ride through a right turn only lane, even if you are on a bicycle and staying to the far left of that turn lane. Although it is technically illegal, it is both sensible and safer. Riding in the left hand portion of the right turn lane signals to motorists behind you that you are going through rather than turning. It also keeps you out of the right hook area.

        WisDOT is getting much better at designing our highways with bicycles in mind and they have new cross sections for right turn lanes that accomodate bicycles. But when you get down to the county and local road networks, anything can be out there.

  3. Clarification: The situation I was responding to was “if the right hand lane is NOT a turn lane and I get to the light first, I plop my boney biking posterier smack dab in the middle of the lane.” (emphasis mine)

  4. @Dave But I would disagree with “Although it is technically illegal [to ride through a right turn only lane, even if you are on a bicycle and staying to the far left of that turn lane] it is both sensible and safer.” It is usually safer to be in the through-lane.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Take a look at Miller Park Way between National Ave and Lincoln Ave in West Milwaukee. The entire length of the right lane is marked with right turn only except buses pavement markings and signs. It is not safer to ride in the through lane in this situation. If you do, you will find yourself being passed on both sides. This is an example of an incomplete street where bicycle accomodations were not considered. In this situation, while you would be legally correct to ride in the through travel lane, you would not be safer.

      A similar situations like this is on Hwy 32 heading south into Racine County. The newly reconstructed highway has right turn only lanes that are almost 1/4 mile long. The through travel lane has very high volumes at peak hours and the speeds are well over 40 mph. In this situation it is again safer, though illegal, to ride in the far left hand portion of the right turn only lane, and then through the 4ft wide cross-hatched gore zones around the raised medians at the intersections.

  5. Russell says:

    If there’s a “Right Turn Only” lane and I’m going straight I usually position myself either squarely in the middle of the lane to the left of it or right on top of the white line betwixt the two depending on the road situation on the other side of the intersection.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      You are familiar with Miller Park Way (West Milwaukee’s version of Bluemound) near the Target store and such Russell. If you have to ride on that road, do you ride in the right lane and then sort of split the difference as you approach the intersections (marked right turn only) or do you just ride the whole way in the actual through travel lane?

      • Russell says:

        I’ve actually ridden that stretch once – that was enough to tell me to avoid it. I ended up riding in the center of the right turn lane. I felt if I tried to hug the curb I’d get buzzed by autos to the left of me, if I took to hugging the line betwixt the two I’d get buzzed by cars on both sides and if I took a full through lane I’d get run over.

        Truly a design done with no thought to the bicyclist. As a State Hwy (341) isn’t there supposed to be a regulation to ensure this doesn’t happen?

      • daveschlabowske says:


        Kathryn is correct, the new complete streets law should improve the odds that bicycle accomodations are included on roadway projects that are reviewed by WisDOT. But most roads are local, and for those roads that WisDOT does not review, we need to be vigilant as citizens. State Street in Wauwatosa is something that could have been caught if ‘Tosa had a citizen bike task force at the time that adivised them. In the mean time, WisDOT is trying to get the word out to locals. Here is one example they put on the web page that deals with the local road improvement program
        Complete Streets initiative

        Budget Act 28 requires WisDOT to “ensure that bikeways and pedestrian ways are established in all new highway construction and reconstruction.” It requires the department to promulgate rules to specify when these are required. The department will move forward with a comprehensive rulemaking as soon as practicable to address implementation of this requirement. In the meantime, we expect communities to consider the feasibility of including bikeways and pedestrian ways in their LRIP projects.

    • The 2009 Complete Streets law regulated that state highways should be designed to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians in addition to motorists. But it only applies to new and reconstructed roads. It does not require roads that were built before the law passed to be retrofitted, so to speak.

      There’s a complete streets workshop in Waukesha on October 25 to explain the law. There was one in Milwaukee, but it already happened.

  6. Dan says:

    Howell Ave in the OC (Oak Creek) has hatch lines but also has huge sign saying right lane for bicycles and right turns only. With bicycle on it 1st. HUM does that give bikes the right away. Any how when I ride there I do it legally. You just have to watch out for car blowing stop signs and not stopping before crossing the sidewalk when leaving parking lots.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      A great example of good traffic engineering, even given the less than bike friendly land use. Thanks for the local reference Dan.

  7. Scott says:

    The MUTCD says that operating a vehicle on the diagonally-striped area is discouraged, but it does not say such behavior is prohibited. Your local ordinances may vary.

    In this case, laws governing operation of a vehicle on a shoulder would apply. Depending on the state, rules regarding operation on any shoulder can range from strictly prohibited except for emergencies and/or parking to limited to distances of 300′ for right turns only to allowed even in the case of bypassing left-turning vehicles.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Agreed, and bicycles are allowed to drive in the shoulders in Wisconsin, so the shoulder laws would probably trump the cross-hatched language if this ever went to court. I guess my point on State St. is that it would have been cheaper to stripe bike lanes and have created a more welcoming facility for people riding bikes.

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