Your Guide to Biking California’s Freeways
Freeways are a normal part of a Californian’s life — as they connect major cities and most often provide the fastest route — but if you’re a cyclist, there are a few things you should know before you start cruising any of the state’s more than 200,000 miles of interstates and highways.
While access is much more limited on freeways, it’s not impossible to find a route that allows cyclists to use them, especially if you’re riding across the state. Riding on freeways, however, should come with extra caution, as traffic can move a lot faster and there may not be designated lanes for cyclists like there are on urban center streets.
What’s Available to Cyclists?
Only a fraction of the total number of freeway miles around the state are accessible by bike, about 1,000 miles, according to Caltrans. Unfortunately for many urban cyclists, many of these freeways are far from cities like San Francisco.
Most accessible freeways are located in Southern California’s desert region. These include I-8, I-10, I-15, and I-40.
Other freeways allow cyclists, but mostly only in short spurts. In the Bay Area, for example, there are several spots where cyclists can ride:
- Napa River Bridge: Cyclists may ride both directions on Highway 37 over the Napa River in Vallejo.
- North Concord: Bicycles are permitted to ride both directions of Highway 4 between Port Chicago and Willow Pass Rd.
- San Quentin: There is a short stretch eastbound Interstate 580 approaching the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. A new bike lane replaces access from the other direction.
- Crystal Springs: There are two short stretches of Interstate 280 above Millbrae.
Cycling is allowed on these major arteries because there is no other reasonable access. If you’re traveling long distances by bicycle, it’s a good idea to plan your ideal route and see what access looks like for cyclists.
Even riding on a permitted stretch might end abruptly with a “bicycles must exit sign.” This is because of the state law governing bicycles on freeways (California Vehicle Code § 21960). This law gives both Caltrans and local governments throughout California the right to restrict bicyclists from riding on freeways.
This ultimately means that while most rural and desert freeways are legal to ride per state law, local ordinances might make it illegal. This is why it’s important for bicyclists to check the laws of regional governments before riding through different areas.
Is It Safe to Ride Freeways?
The vast number of bicycle crashes and fatalities happen in urban areas with lots of traffic and where cyclists are regularly mixed among drivers. Because cycling is illegal on most of the state’s freeways, it’s harder to compare safety between the two settings.
However, the Association of Bicycling Organizations (CABO) has long been advocating for more freeway access precisely because of safety.
“The danger to bicyclists is overwhelmingly concentrated at intersections, driveways, and other places where traffic patterns cross. Elimination of cross traffic and the reduction of turning maneuvers are among the features that make freeways so safe for motor traffic,” CABO explains in a position paper on the issue. “These same advantages benefit bicyclists, and many surface streets are more dangerous than freeway shoulders. The experience of having over 1000 miles of California freeway shoulders open to bicyclists shows that such use is also very safe for them. High volumes of ramp traffic can sometimes create a hazard for bicyclists, but this hazard may be mitigated if bicyclists exit and then re-enter the freeway.”
Speeds on highways are typically much higher than they would be around a city, and that can be a fatal variable in a crash, so it’s important to remember that even less crowded rural freeways may also be dangerous due to the speed at which vehicles travel.
Preparing to Ride Freeways
In the event your route permits cyclists, there are a few things you should keep in mind for your health and safety.
First, most of these accessible routes are concentrated in rural desert regions of the state, so the weather is likely to be hot and dry and resources are limited. Dress appropriately for sunny weather (wear sunscreen or breathable UV-protective clothing) to keep you cool and safe from the sun.
It’s also important to pack enough water and snacks to keep you comfortable throughout your ride.
As for safety, the same rules and laws for regular street riding are in play. They include:
- Ride with traffic, not against it
- At night, cyclists must have: a white headlight visible from the front, a red reflector or a red light with a built in reflector visible from the rear, reflectors on the pedals, reflectors on the front half of the bicycle and a reflector on each side of the rear part of the bicycle.
- Any rider under the age of 18 must be wearing a helmet
- Cyclists cannot have headphones covering both ears – only keep in one earbud if you must use one
While cycling freeways throughout California can seem a bit trickier than on other roadways, especially those with built-in infrastructure, it’s not entirely impossible. You might just need to take extra precautions and planning into account.
If you’re planning on a longer route that may require riding on freeways, consult these maps to make a solid plan. They include routes from across the state and can help connect you to the necessary resources to successfully ride long distances.