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Incorporating Bicycles into Your Municipal Code


February 9, 2021  by  MRSC Insight
Category:  Cycling and Walking

Incorporating Bicycles into Your Municipal Code

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, with no clear end in sight, spring 2021 will likely be a repeat of last year, with people looking for alternatives to public transportation, as well as finding new ways to get outside and get exercise. Bike sales rose by more than 120% in 2020, and analysts expect this year to be no different.

Did you see more people on bikes in your city, town, or county this past year? It’s likely: Many communities in Washington were already seeing an increase in bike ridership. Add to that the introduction of electric-assist bicycles (e-bikes) and pandemic fatigue, and more people are likely to be hitting the streets as soon as the weather allows.  To help local governments prepare, this blog explores some potential “gaps” that they may have in their code provisions addressing bicycle use. 

The Challenge

Many cities, towns, and counties throughout the state have enacted ordinances that 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 if left unaddressed these gaps may lead to much confusion for cyclists, drivers, and even police officers.

The most common areas of concern include bike lanes, parking, sidewalk riding, use of helmets, and how to regulate electric-powered bikes (and scooters).

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.

Bicycle lanes can be an effective, relatively cheap way for a jurisdiction to create a safer environment for bicycle transportation, hopefully encouraging more people to use bicycles. However, state law does not expressly define what constitutes a bicycle lane and does not create any specific rules for such facilities. Thus, local governments 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 lanes that bicycles, e-bikes, and e-scooters may be using.

Here are some examples of provisions that address bicycle lanes:

Where can bicycles be parked?

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. 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 it being impounded. 

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:

Jurisdictions can also set requirements on parking to be allotted to bicycles, such as what the City of Port Orchard did in Municipal Code 20.124.140.

Can bicycles use the sidewalk?

State law does not bar cyclists from riding on the sidewalk, but many local governments 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. 

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

Should riders wear helmets?

Washington State law does not require it, but over two dozen local governments have passed laws requiring riders to wear helmets according to Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), including Aberdeen, Spokane, Lakewood, King County, Port Orchard, Lynnwood, and Vancouver, to name a few.

These ordinances tend to require helmet use for bike owners and for anyone participating in a public bike races or events, but also call for helmets to be supplied when bikes are rented by an agency. Some require helmets to meet safety standards set by the American National Standards Institute or a similar organization.

Where can electric bikes be used?

One trend that is quickly rising, thanks to the emergence of shared micro-mobility companies, is the use of electric-assisted bicycles (or scooters). In recognizing the hole in state statutes concerning e-bikes, the Washington State Legislature in 2018 passed Senate Bill 6434, which added further definition to RCW 46.04.169 by classifying three levels of e-bikes dependent on the highest speed a rider could achieve. In addition to adding this clarification, the statute also allowed two of the three types of e-bikes (e.g., the slower versions) to gain access to sidewalks and multipurpose trails, something e-bikes could not formerly do. However, any pre-existing local regulations barring e-bikes on sidewalk or trails take precedent over the new state statute.

While many municipal codes contain rules and regulations for “bicycles,” before 2018 they very rarely addressed whether these applied to e-bikes. Such confusion can be easily cleared up by municipalities wishing to do so. Below are some local regulations both defining electric-assist bicycles and regulating their use:

  • Bremerton Municipal Code Chapter 10.13.040—Specifically addresses “motorized wheeled transportation devices,” including e-bikes defined in RCW 46.04.169. The chapter prohibits their use in parks, public places, recreational trial/pathways, and streets with a posted speed limits over 25 miles per hour (MPH). E-bikes are allowed on sidewalks only if operated under manual power.
  • Spokane Valley Municipal Code Chapter 9.20 — Specifically addresses “motorized personal transportation devices,” including all three classes of e-bikes, and requires such devices be equipped with back brake and front and rear lights. The chapter also prohibits their use in parks, sidewalks, public trails, and streets with a posted speed limits over 25 MPH (except in the designated bike lane).
  • King County Municipal Code Sec. 7.12.295 — Bans e-bikes from the county’s extensive trail system because they are defined as a “form of transportation powered by an internal combustion or electric motor.”
  • Kirkland Municipal Code Section 19.40.020 — Restricts “motorized vehicles” from using the Cross Kirkland Corridor (CKC) trail and restricts speed on the CKC to 15 MPH.

Resources

Here are additional resources on bicycle regulation.

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.

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MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.

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