“Taking the Lane” With Florida Bicycle Laws

Taking the Lane

Everyone’s familiar with the rules for bicyclists riding on the road in Florida, right? OK, check the Florida Statutes section 316.2065 for a quick refresher. I’m especially thinking of part 5(a), which spells out when a bicyclist is allowed to “take the lane.” Commute by Bike and Carectomy had some discussion of this issue recently, and their respective posts are worth checking out. My preference is along the lines of Carectomy’s stance, taking the lane when needed. I’m not going to go into all the benefits of taking the lane that they mention, but I wanted to focus on the legality.

From part 5(a), the third situation where bicyclists are not required to ride “as close as practicable to the right” is:

3.  When reasonably necessary to avoid any condition, including, but not limited to, a fixed or moving object, parked or moving vehicle, bicycle, pedestrian, animal, surface hazard, or substandard-width lane, that makes it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge. For the purposes of this subsection, a “substandard-width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

So you can take the lane when you have a narrow lane, right? As a roadway designer, the first thing that comes to mind for a standard lane width is 12 feet. But that last sentence in the law makes the difference. It is not referring to a 12-foot lane, but a lane wide enough for bicycles and cars to share. I used to believe this included 12 foot lanes, as they seem fairly wide; but I have been enlightened.

Last week I attended classes in bicycle and pedestrian facility design taught by Michael Moule, president of the engineering firm Livable Streets, Inc. He clarified that a substandard-width lane for the purposes of this statute meant anything less than 14 feet wide. Agencies only build 14-foot wide lanes when they are specifically trying to accommodate bicycles and the road cannot be widened enough for a 4-foot bicycle lane. FDOT does not really even do that any more, preferring to stripe out a 3-foot “urban shoulder” next to an 11-foot lane if a bicycle lane cannot be built. (Unless it’s District 6 building Alton Road…) Most roads have lanes narrower than 14 feet. So bicyclists are legally entitled to take the entire lane if they so choose.

Think about the reasoning behind the 14 feet. You need at least 8 feet of lane width for a car. (That’s the narrowest parking lane width allowed, so it should be 9 feet for a moving vehicle—but we’ll say 8.) Florida Statute 316.083 states that motorists must pass bicycles at least 3 feet away. It’s safe to assume we need another 3 feet for the bicycle with a rider. Add it up and you need a 14-foot lane for bicyclists and automobiles to safely travel side by side. 

Tell that to the next cop who tries to tell you to ride farther right! Someone even recommended carrying a pocket copy of the Florida statutes to show them. Anyone know where to find those?

Photo by Flickr user richardmasoner.

3 Responses to ““Taking the Lane” With Florida Bicycle Laws”

  1. 1 John Hopkins

    A good piece, JM! Readers may go to http://www.floridabicycle.org/ to download the Florida Bicycle Law Enforcement Guide, containing all the Florida laws about bicycles. Or you can order the pocket-sized version.

  2. 2 Richard Masoner

    I really appreciate the attribution on my photo; thank you!

    Even in enlightened California, where I live and cycle, police interpretation of the law often differs from that of cyclists. In Santa Cruz a couple of weeks ago, the police chief told cyclists at a recent meeting that they would cite cyclists for impeding traffic if they take the lane on Mission Street, which has 11 foot lanes, and if the cyclist disagrees with that interpretation he invited them to take it to court for the judges to decide.

    I don’t know how the system works in Florida, but in many areas traffic cases are heard by municipal judges who frankly don’t generally care about the nuances of roadway engineering and cyclist rights.

    Like you, I encourage cyclists to take the lane for their own safety, but it will take some concerted effort to convince motorists and law enforcement that taking the lane is indeed legal.

  3. 3 JM Palacios

    Thanks for the tip, John.

    Nice photo, Richard. Thanks for using the Creative Commons license!

    As far as I know, the interpretation of substandard-width lanes to be 14 feet is specific to Florida. If California law is similar, which I think it is, then the safety reasons should still make it 14 feet. Cops do tend to be clueless on this issue, which is unfortunate. I had a cop in Gainesville, Florida’s most bike-friendly city, harass me about not keeping to the right because I was going around some rutted pavement (on 10 or 11 foot lanes). When I responded that we were allowed to ride around obstacles, she had the audacity to tell me I needed to get on the sidewalk!

    It would be best for all parties if the law spelled out 14 feet. Cops and motorists may think it safe to share a narrower lane with bicyclists, but any bicyclist would disagree. For your 11-foot lanes, that doesn’t even meet the normal definition of a standard width lane, 12 feet. It should be straightforward to point out to cops or judges that the California DOT considers 12 feet to be a standard lane width. See the standard for the basic lane width in chapter 3 of their Highway Design Manual.

    That police chief needs to be corrected of his misunderstanding of the law.

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