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Rules of the Road: Incorporating Bicycles into Your Municipal Code


August 24, 2017 by Nick Quijas
Category: Cycling and Walking

Rules of the Road: Incorporating Bicycles into Your Municipal Code

As I discussed in a previous blog, bicycles are increasingly being recognized as a legitimate and important form of transportation in Washington State. As such, municipalities need to consider how bicycles should be addressed in their municipal code.

Many cities and towns throughout the state have enacted ordinances that, in some way, address bicycle use; some simply apply portions of the model traffic code, while others have implemented customized rules and regulations. In both instances there are often gaps where, due to inconsistencies or simple oversight, the rules leave questions about the rights and duties of bicycles. Such gaps can often be easily remedied once they are identified, but can lead to much confusion for cyclists, drivers, and even police officers when left unaddressed.

This blog post explores some potential “gaps” that cities and towns may have in their code provisions addressing bicycle use. 

What is a Bicycle Lane?

One of the most common ways that municipalities have sought to accommodate bicycles is through the creation of bicycle lanes. These lanes are generally painted on the pavement to create a designated area for cyclists on the street.

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Bicycle lanes can be an effective, relatively cheap way for cities and towns to create a safer environment for, and thus encourage, bicycle transportation. However, paint on a road is only a half-measure if municipal codes do not explain what it means. State law does not expressly define what constitutes a bicycle lane and does not create any specific rules for such facilities. Thus, cities and towns need to ensure that their municipal codes are updated to not only define what bicycle lanes are, but also how they may be used. 

Can only bicycles use bicycle lanes, or can other non-motorized devices do so as well? Are there instances when a car can cross through a bicycle lane? Will such areas for crossing be marked? These are all important questions that municipalities should seek to answer when updating their codes to ensure that all road users are clear about how to interact with bicycle lanes.

Here are some examples of city and town code provisions that address bicycle lanes:

Electric-Assisted Bicycles

One trend that is quickly rising among bicycle commuters is the use of electric-assisted bicycles (aka “e-bikes”), which are bicycles with a small electric motor that assists the rider. As they’ve become more affordable, e-bikes have been quickly gaining in popularity in many circles of riders, including older or less abled riders, and those living in hilly areas. RCW 46.04.169 has long differentiated between bicycles and e-bikes , and RCW 46.61.710(3) bars e-bikes from use on sidewalks.

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While many municipal codes contain rules and regulations for “bicycles,” they very rarely address whether these apply to e-bikes. Codes may, for instance, define bicycle lanes as being exclusively for bicycle use, or may bar motorized vehicles from trails. However, it can be unclear how these rules apply to e-bikes. Are they allowed to ride in bicycle lanes? Are they allowed on trails?  Such confusion can be easily cleared up by municipalities wishing to do so. A good example of how this might be done is found in ORS 814.405, an Oregon statute, which states that:

An electric assisted bicycle shall be considered a bicycle . . . except when otherwise specifically provided by statute.

Bicycle Parking

Many municipalities have installed various types of bicycle racks, but occasionally there are areas without them, or there are circumstances where high ridership leads to an insufficient number of racks.  In these situations, it is not uncommon for cyclists to lock up to street signs, fences, or various other objects; however, the legality of doing so is often ambiguous. It can be helpful for cyclists to know where they are legally able to lock their bicycle without fear of impoundment. 

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Municipalities should also consider adopting procedures for removing bicycles locked to bicycle racks or other public property that are deemed to be abandoned or an obstruction. Here are some sample policies and procedures:

Riding on the Sidewalk

State law does not bar cyclists from riding on the sidewalk, but many municipalities have prohibited riding bicycles on the sidewalk either throughout the municipality or in certain areas. Others have placed additional duties on cyclists who choose to ride on sidewalks, such as to maintain safe speeds or to dismount in congested areas. Municipal codes that clearly state where, when, and how bicycles may be ridden on the sidewalk are extremely helpful to both cyclists and pedestrians. 

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Here are some sample code provisions pertaining to riding on sidewalks.

Questions? Comments? 

If you have questions about these or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Nick Quijas

A former MRSC legal intern, Nick is a law student at Seattle University School of Law and the Editor in Chief of Seattle Journal of Environmental Law. Nick is an avid bike commuter who has also worked at a Seattle firm that represents injured bicyclists.

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