How Do Bicyclists and Pedestrians Get Equal Rights in America?

Written by Micah Denton

After concluding in Pedestrian and Cyclist Rights Are a Horse of a Different Color that non-motorized road users have a theoretically equal legal and moral right to public roads alongside cars, it’s now time to look at how this actually plays out in reality.

Pedestrians are legally entitled to walk on the road when (and only when) there is no sidewalk available, which seems perfectly reasonable. If there is no shoulder present, then pedestrians must “yield” to cars (see 506d), presumably by getting off the road entirely. For a rural road with no shoulder, medium, or greater flow of traffic, this constitutes a severe limitation on a pedestrian’s “right” to public roads. Sidewalks can be vanishingly uncommon in America outside of city centers, which greatly reduces the usefulness of a huge portion of roads for travel by foot.

Here is a typical semi-rural road: Virginia Highway 11 in the Shenandoah Valley, about 3 miles from the center of Staunton (pop. 24,000) and about 2 miles from Verona (pop. 4,000).  It is reasonable to think that a person might walk to either town along this road. The lack of even a narrow shoulder is a particularly glaring omission considering that enough lane space was made available for a climbing lane.

a residential street in reston, vaOr how about another example of road infrastructure lacking pedestrian facilities? I took this picture on a residential street in Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C. There is a bus stop with a newspaper box visible directly ahead and the side path in the grass is well worn, showing regular use. There are no sidewalks on either side of the road, despite having a sufficiently wide right-of-way to provide space for free street parking. (The presence of free street parking is a tremendous and typically unacknowledged subsidy to drivers. In his book, The High Cost of Free ParkingDonald Shoup estimates the annual value of free parking at $127 billion. Yet despite the huge cost of this free service for drivers, pedestrians are too often given little consideration.)

Where sidewalks do exist, they sometimes may not be particularly useful due to bad design or poor maintenance.

Compared to pedestrians, cyclists have a much more active advocacy bloc and cycling is seeing a surge in popularity in metro areas across the U.S. Legislative progress, however, remains slow. The 2013 Virginia General Assembly saw three bills presented that would have encouraged cycling. These included an anti-dooring bill, one aimed at drivers following too closely, and one mandating that drivers exercise due care. All were defeated. This was hardly unexpected: I attended a townhall early this year where legislators predicted that votes would split roughly along the urban/rural divide, which proved mostly accurate. This highlights an important characteristic of regional attitudes towards transportation modes that will be the topic of a future post.

If the law seems less than supportive of vulnerable road users, drivers can be far less so. A recent “sting” was conducted by Montgomery County police in Maryland targeting drivers violating the right-of-way of pedestrians in crosswalks. “Sting” is in quotes here because the operation was advertised in advance and officers wore brightly colored clothes, both efforts aimed at giving drivers every chance to avoid a ticket. Crosswalks are the only

bad sidewalk design and poor maintenance

road areas where pedestrians are given real protection by law, making the great number of violations that much more remarkable. A similar “sting” was conducted in D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue targeting illegal U-turns across the bike lanes that run down the middle of the street, where a median would traditionally be located. The extremely high rate of illegal U-turns continues unabated.

A final example of legal codes favoring motorized transportation regards bicycle theft. In the U.S., there is no standard form of vehicle insurance available for bicycles, despite the fact that a well-equipped bicycle can cost as much as a used car. There is no legal requirement for bicycle manufacturers to standardize serial numbers, as car manufacturers do with VINs.  Some serial numbers are partially obscured by other parts on the bicycle. In the event that a bike is recovered by police, they would have to remove the plastic cable guide or other parts in order to read the serial number. A less-concerned officer might simply move the bike to the auction pile. All this makes reporting and replacing a stolen bicycle a difficult and expensive task.

The laws discussed here help to reveal that the ideal of freedom of movement is often curtailed significantly for certain groups of road users. Oftentimes these laws hew closely to broader public attitudes towards transportation. The next post in this series will look at some of the more personal aspects of these broader trends.

What do you think? Is fighting for bicyclist and pedestrian rights a completely lost cause in auto-centric America? What are some possible solutions forward? Please tell us in the comments below.

This post was originally published at Mobility Lab and The Mechanic Speaks


Main photo by Oran Viriyincy and other photos by Micah Denton


Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Antonia Kyprianou
Antonia Kyp4 years ago

I wish there were bike riders lane in my country too so I could drive my bike more often and be safer!

Antonia Kyprianou
Antonia Kyp4 years ago


Shannon Moody
Shannon Moody4 years ago

I also agree with you, Miranda, everyone just needs to stop being such selfish jerks, whether we are driving, biking, walking, but, let's face it, the majority of people are so selfishly absorbed in their own world, they have absolutely no consideration for anyone else.

Shannon Moody
Shannon Moody4 years ago

Lynn M - I absolutely agree with you. Cyclists, Scooters, if they want to be treated as an equal on the road, then they should obey the same damn laws as us. Just this morning on my walk in to work, some jackass on his bicycle, while the cards and bus were waiting at a "No right turn on red", he decides that doesn't apply to him, scoots up between all the motorists, and decides he is going to make his right turn (not using the arm signal that he is supposed to use), and of course, he pulls out right in front of a car who is dirving on a GREEN LIGHT. Jackass on the bike didn't even care that he cut off the driver...i see this stuff almost every day.

Lynn Mansfield
Lynn Mansfield4 years ago

When bicyclists and pedestrians obey the same traffic signals I have to while driving my car, I will be happy to share the road with them.

John S.
Past Member 4 years ago

When I use to run, that is what you did, stand on the grass. I'd rather be alive than right.

Sue Brewer
Sue Brewer4 years ago

Thanks for this.

Lydia Weissmuller Price
Lydia W4 years ago

There are some places I can't even get to on foot as it is too dangerous. A few bridges have no shoulders or sidewalks and the only place to walk is on the road with large trucks. Some towns have absolutely no bus service at all and require a ride or taxi to get to the train station. It does seem hopeless at times.

Miranda Lyon
Miranda Lyon4 years ago

Apologies, I'm being too long-winded here.

I also see problems between bikers and pedestrians. Recently I saw a bike rider continue fast through an intersection when the pedestrians had the walk light...causing an elderly woman to nearly fall getting back up on the curb out of the way. The bike rider seemed both the accident he nearly caused, as to paying any attention to traffic signals.

On the other hand, I also recently observed someone on the sidewalk throw an empty plastic water bottle at a bike rider who was riding safely and had the legal right of way.

For bikers, walkers, drivers, it all comes down to the same attention to what's going on around you...everyone obey the traffic laws...and have some simple consideration for other folks.