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Bike Lane Laws: Why You Should Claim Your Space in the Whole Lane


San Francisco bike lane laws can be a game-changer for cyclists riding in the city. Having a protected space for cyclists helps keep everyone safer, and gives a clear demarcation for cars to know where they should be looking for and yielding to people on bikes.

However, bike lanes, and laws as robust as the San Francisco bike lane laws, don’t exist everywhere. And simply riding along the right-hand side of the road — while it keeps you out of the fray of car traffic for the most part — comes with its own dangers and risks.

In a situation where there isn’t a bike lane, do you feel comfortable taking your place in the main lane of traffic right along with all the cars?

Here is why you should.

Why riding in the whole lane can be preferable to hugging the right curb

Staying to the right-hand side of the road works for cyclists…most of the time. But there are a few scenarios that come up all the time where riding along the right shoulder just doesn’t work out safely:

  • When a car is making a right-hand turn at an intersection, they can turn right into you without ever seeing you
  • A car pulling onto the road from a driveway or side street doesn’t check the shoulder to see if bikes are coming and pulls out directly into you
  • A car wants to pass but doesn’t have enough space, pushing you into the curb or worse
  • A car wants to park on the right-hand shoulder, and merges into your bike path
  • A car already parked on the right-hand shoulder swings open their door without checking to see if a cyclist is approaching, causing the unsuspecting cyclist to crash into their door

So many of these scenarios have to do with not being visible or predictable to drivers, and that comes from riding your bike in a place where they’re not seeing (or expecting to see) you on your bike.

The best way to stay safe on your bike and to avoid a bike injury is to be visible and predictable. And in a situation where you’re not in a bike lane (where you are visible and drivers know to expect cyclists there), deciding to take up space in the center of the whole lane can often be the safest choice for a cyclist to make.

How and when to ride safely in the whole lane of traffic

In most states — including California — you can legally ride in the main lane as long as you are moving as fast as the traffic around you. Remember, San Francisco bike lane laws are designed for your protection.

If there is a bike lane available, you should ride there, especially if you aren’t moving as fast as the rest of the traffic on the road; however, you are still legally permitted to join the main lane of traffic for necessary movements like left turns or if the bike lane is obstructed.

If you’re on a road that is wide enough for you to safely stay to the right without risking getting doored or sideswiped, then you can ride on the right shoulder. If the road is tight and you feel squeezed over to the right, then move into the main lane of traffic.

Once you’ve decided to “take the lane”, there are several things you can do to keep yourself safe while you’re there.

First of all, make sure you are wearing a helmet and that you are visible. Being closer to the cars means an increased risk of a crash, so everything you can do to be seen and protected is for the better.

Make sure that your speed is appropriate for the street that you’re on. As long as you are going as fast as the traffic around you, you are good. If the speed on the road changes and you can no longer keep up (or if it slows down so much that it’s stop-and-go), you should change your route and either move to the right shoulder or find a less impacted side street.

Be clear and communicative with the cars around you. Drivers often get nervous riding with cyclists in their lane, so be proactive and use lots of signals and eye contact to communicate your intentions with the drivers around you and avoid confusing, dangerous situations.

Stay safe and claim your space on the road

At the end of the day, we want you to ride where you are comfortable and safe. Sometimes that’s a bike lane, sometimes it’s the shoulder, and sometimes it is in the main lane of the road.

There is no perfect rule of thumb here, so use your judgment about what will keep you safe.

Are you up to date with San Francisco bike lane laws?

If you are ever injured in a crash in traffic, call Bay Area Bicycle Law for help and a free, confidential consultation at 415-466-8717. We can help you understand your rights and help you get back on your feet (and on your bike!). You can also subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on San Francisco bike lane laws. Click HERE to subscribe!