As a cyclist, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ll have figured out that in British Columbia under Section 183(2)(d) of the Motor Vehicle Act, an operator of a cycle must not ride abreast of another person operating a cycle on the roadway, You may have learned this rule having been on the receiving end of motorist road rage, or you’ve heard or read about it. What you might not know is how ridiculous this law is. Understanding just how ridiculous this law is requires understanding the term roadway defined in the Motor Vehicle Act.
Many simply ignore the rule and ride side by side deliberately, either for safety concerns, or simply to be able to converse with each other as they cycle much like a passenger and driver would do. It’s a significant social aspect of cycling that is appealing. A recent YouTube video illustrates the reasons for riding two abreast, a lawful act in the UK, but not here in British Columbia. In order to make some sense about the law, we need to understand two definitions: roadway and highway.
roadway means the portion of the highway that is improved, designed or ordinarily used for vehicular traffic, but does not include the shoulder, and if a highway includes 2 or more separate roadways, the term roadway refers to any one roadway separately and not to all of them collectively;
A roadway is defined almost universally in North America this way. For example, Washington State defines (46.04.500) roadway as that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk or shoulder even though such sidewalk or shoulder is used by persons riding bicycles.
So to understand the term roadway, we need to understand what a highway is. First off, it is not what you commonly think of when we say highway; it’s not that primary roadway that allows you to travel at great speed safely with minimum interruption. It is really nothing more than a term used to designate the full span of the legal right of way that is used for a roadway (or roadways). The Motor Vehicle Act defines highway as:
(a) every highway within the meaning of the Transportation Act,
(b) every road, street, lane or right of way designed or intended for or used by the general public for the passage of vehicles, and
(c) every private place or passageway to which the public, for the purpose of the parking or servicing of vehicles, has access or is invited, but does not include an industrial road;
Let’s look at four scenarios
So to understand what’s lawful and what’s not, I’ll use some typical scenarios. These hope to illustrate the many possibilities for riding abreast of other cyclists and from there assess which of these, if any, is lawful.
1. Cyclist on roadway; cyclist on shoulder
Scenario 1: Cyclists on roadway and off roadway on shoulder.
A roadway does not include the shoulder and so one could argue that a cyclist riding on a roadway whilst another cyclist is riding on the shoulder is not in violation of Section 183(2)(d) since they are not abreast of another cyclist on the roadway. However, the cyclist on the roadway may be interpreted as failing to ride as far to the right of the highway as is practicable – Section 183(2)(c), since they could conceivably ride further to right on the paved portion of the highway – Section 183(3). So, the cyclist on the roadway is well within his rights according to the law, provided we understand what is practicable. The fact that a cyclist has chosen to ride on the shoulder alongside him is not his concern and beyond his control. The shoulder may be littered with glass and other debris that makes it not practicable for the cyclist riding on the roadway to consider riding on the shoulder. The other cyclist is attempting to adhere to rule 183(2)(c), but in doing so may be repairing a flat tire very soon. These cyclists do not know each other, necessarily, and are not colluding to ride abreast.
I have found myself in this situation whilst commuting to work: a cyclist on the shoulder accelerated to match my speed (I would have overtaken the cyclist) and my speed was dictated by the traffic in front of me. If I were to be ticketed for riding abreast in that case, I would have argued that I wasn’t in violation of 183(2)(d) and in fact, the cyclist on the shoulder was in violation of Section 158(1) – passing on the right or alternatively was in violation of Section 157(2)(b) – must not increase the speed of the vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle*.
2. Two cyclists on roadway, each in their own lane.
This is a scenario one might see in ‘rush hour’ traffic or any other reason why traffic might slow. I personally was involved in this exact scenario. I was the cyclist in the left lane.
Scenario 2: cyclists in lanes but abreast of each other.
I didn’t know the cyclist who was riding in the right lane on the roadway. I was readying for a left turn and traffic was moving slowly at around 25 km/h. The right shoulder was blocked due to construction – a repair of a sidewalk curb and so the shoulder wasn’t available to be cycled on.
In this situation, according to Section 183(2)(d) the two cyclists are in violation of the law. They are riding abreast on the roadway. Unlike motorists, driving beside another motor vehicle in a separate lane on the roadway is not an offence. But here, the situation applied to cyclists puts them in violation of the law. Section 183(2)(d) is a ridiculously written law, and should be repealed if simply for this scenario alone. By including the span of the roadway, the law makes this otherwise common occurrence for any other type of vehicle, unlawful for cyclists.
“laned roadway” means a roadway or the part of a roadway that is divided into 2 or more marked lanes for the movement of vehicular traffic in the same direction;
3. Two cyclists in designated use bicycle lane
This scenario is a common situation when a cycling club is out on a ride whether a large group or just two of them. For these experienced cyclists, riding close to each other is comfortable, and they can often easily both fit into the bike lane, riding alongside, chatting. However, if we consider that the roadway includes the bike lane, then the cyclists riding abreast within the bike lane are in violation of Section 183(2)(d).
3. Cyclists in designated use lane.
But, if we consider that the bike lane is a designated and restricted use lane, intended for cyclists and cyclists only, and not part of the roadway, then the Motor Vehicle Act is silent on the lawfulness of this action, and one could assume that a cyclist is free to ride abreast of another cyclist within the lane. The trouble is, the Motor Vehicle Act doesn’t clearly identify whether a bike lane is or isn’t part of the roadway.
4. Cyclist in lane; cyclist in designated use bike lane
Scenario 4: cyclist in lane and cyclist in bike lane.
This scenario is difficult to assess whether the law is being broken. If the bike lane is not considered to be part of the roadway then Section 183(2)(d) is not being violated, but consideration for whether the cyclist on the roadway is riding as far to the right as is practicable is up for debate, since the law does not require the cyclist to ride in the bike lane. If traffic and the cyclists in the bike lane are going the same speed, the cyclists would be considered to be each in their own lane, and so to the scenario 2, above, much like other vehicles, this should not be a violation.
If the bike lane is considered part of the roadway, then this scenario is essentially the same as scenario 1, above, and the cyclists are in violation of the act.
It takes two cyclists: who’s in violation?
So in the scenarios above, they show the other ridiculous part of the law: that it assumes collusion and cooperation by the two or more cyclists riding abreast on the roadway. The law infers that riding abreast is always deliberate; that the cyclists are deliberately riding abreast of each other. Do you deliberately drive your car beside another car on multi lane roadway? As illustrated in scenarios 1, 2 and 4, above, there is a likelihood that the cyclists don’t even know each other and that they are simply moving in the flow of traffic and happened to situate themselves riding abreast. Remember, each lane is part of the roadway and cyclists must not ride abreast on the roadway. The law stated in Section 183(2)(d) is a ridiculous law.
Does the roadway include the bike lane?
Whether a cyclist is lawfully operating their bicycle in the above scenarios depends on whether a designated use “bike lane” is considered part of the roadway. The Motor Vehicle Act is silent on this. But given that a bike lane is a restricted or designated use lane, when painted with the diamond symbol, it must be considered, by definition, a lane. And as such, any lane, including a bike lane, is part of the roadway.
Many of the ‘diamond’-marked bike lanes became bike lanes by some local municipality painting white markings on what was formerly the shoulder, with little to no other improvement. This would provide an argument that indeed a bike lane is not part of the roadway since no further improvement was made. Many jurisdictions that are eager to offer ‘bike friendly’ routes simply slap paint on the road and deem what was formerly the shoulder, not part of the roadway, a ‘bike lane’. Many of these bike lanes do not meet the engineering standards for a designated bike lane – at least 1 meter wide, and many are not adequately signed.
“designated use lane” means a lane of highway in respect of which a traffic control device indicates that the lane is reserved for the exclusive use of persons, organizations, vehicles or cycles or classes of persons, organizations, vehicles or cycles prescribed under section 209.1 or specified in a bylaw or resolution of the council of a municipality under section 124.2;
Oddly, a designated use lane is only defined in terms of it being part of the highway, and makes no mention of a designated use lane being part of a laned roadway. Is a bike lane adjacent to a roadway not part of a laned roadway?
In addition, a roadway is defined as the used for vehicular traffic. This is where the inconsistencies are found. Some jurisdictions define a cycle as a type of vehicle. In BC, the Act does not. To effect the laws applied to cyclists to include those applied to motorists, Section 183 says that cyclists must adhere to the rules as applied to a operator of a vehicle. In other words, the operator of a cycle is a specialization or sub-type of an operator of a vehicle, But a cycle is not a vehicle.
So, one could further argue then that since a roadway is define for vehicular traffic, whereas a bike lane is designed and restricted to cycle traffic, the designated use lane would not be considered part of the roadway.
This debate was made recently in Arizona. and an online article speaks to how significant the inclusion or exclusion of a bike lane in the roadway is. You can read the 2007 article, Is a Bike Lane Part of the Roadway?, on the Arizona Bike Law web site.
BC law is similar to Arizona State law, in that a cycle is not a vehicle, and the roadway is intended for vehicular traffic.
Is the bike lane part of the roadway?
The question is a significant one. If the roadway is considered (A) in the diagram to the right that includes the bike lane as it would any other lane, then violation of section 183(2)(d) would take place for scenarios 2, 3 and 4, above. If, on the other hand, the roadway excludes the bike lane, then scenarios 1,3 and 4 would be lawful situations.
However, scenario 2 would still be considered unlawful, even when the cyclists are in their own lane, since that lane is part of the roadway. That’s the ridiculous part of this law, since a cyclist is permitted to “take the lane” when appropriate, but heaven forbid they take the lane with another cyclist in an adjacent lane beside them!
A picture is worth zero words
I’m sure you’ve all seen cameras and video recorders in or on vehicles. They are put there to hopefully provide “evidence” of wrong doing in the event of an accident, etc. Recently, on the now all but forgotten Shit Cyclists of Victoria Facebook page, there was a photo posted that showed cyclists purportedly riding abreast. The problem with a still image is that it does not depict velocity. To ride abreast of another cyclist assumes a similar or same rate of travel, or velocity. Any difference in velocity and the action would be more fairly interpreted as an overtake. It is not unlawful for cyclists to overtake slower cyclists on the roadway. Especially when overtaking on the left hand side of the slower moving vehicle, er cyclist. A photo is useless as ‘evidence’.
To that end, what is a reasonable similarity of speed before cyclists would be considered to be riding abreast? Less than 1 km/h difference? Less than 0.5 km/h difference? This difference in velocity is a key consideration and can play in your favour should you be the victim of a ticket for violation of Section 183(2)(d). If you can make your point that your velocity was significantly different than the other cyclist(s) then you have provided in my opinion a reasonable argument that your action was not riding abreast but rather simply overtaking another slower moving cyclist. So, when someone snaps a photo of you and your buddies out for a ride to “prove” you’re riding two abreast, you will know that that “proof” is no proof at all.
What can you do?
Regardless of the law, you should focus your cycling habits on safety. This may mean ‘taking the lane‘ when appropriate, including riding abreast of another cyclist when an overtake by a vehicle is dangerous and you want to ensure no room for the vehicle to squeeze through. This is a common situation when cyclists arrive at a stop sign. They often fan across the front ensuring that they go in the order they arrived, following the rules. Otherwise, the vehicle behind will illegally overtake the cyclists and squeeze ahead.
But it also means giving way to vehicular traffic whenever possible to minimize conflict, adhere to the law and avoid becoming a victim of road rage. There is no point in being correct but dead and six feet under. You’re not going to win tête-à-tête with a 4000 pound vehicle.
What I’ve been witnessing more than ever, perhaps owing in part to the increased popularity of cycling, are cyclists that are ignoring common courtesy and not bothering to move over to allow the motorists to pass. As a motorist and a cyclist this is frustrating and it paints all cyclists with a bad brush. It’s no wonder drivers are getting annoyed.
For group rides, it makes sense to single-up when riding along narrow sections of a road without any marked shoulder so that vehicles can get by. I’ve been on club rides where the group is fanned out all over the road and the riders in the back yelling at everyone to move over and single-up to let the cars pass. No one flinches and at that point as a cyclist I am embarrassed and can empathize with the motorist’s frustration.
For roadways with wide bike lanes, keep within the bike lane even when riding a double-pace line, and avoid interrupting traffic when pulling off to float to the back. If you’re not comfortable riding elbow-to-elbow with your fellow cyclist, then perhaps double pace line riding is not for you. Consider your abilities and comfort level riding tight in a pack before jumping into a club ride.
Cycling clubs or group rides should consider using a single rotating pace line instead of a double pace line. I realize it is less social, but it can lessen the likelihood of receiving a ticket for violation of Section 183(2)(d). Rotate off the front in such a manner that the forward moving single line of cyclists are on the roadway, whilst the receding line of cyclists are either on the shoulder or in a bike lane. This is unusual, and I realize it places the larger group on the roadway over the smaller slower moving group receding to the back, but it’s la rigueur de la norme for many large organized rides like the Seattle to Portland ride. The method allows faster groups to overtake upcoming slower riders by overtaking on the left side, which is much safer, and follows standard law for overtaking slower moving vehicles. This way, I would argue that these cyclists are not riding abreast but are instead simply overtaking slower moving traffic, which is not a violation of the act. Further to this, if the bike lane is not considered part of the roadway, which is my argument, then this furthers the case that the action of a single rotating pace line is not unlawful.
When riding on a group ride and you are near the back and hear upcoming traffic, call it out and ask for everyone to return to single file moving as far to the right as is practicable. Consider stopping the group and reminding those in your club that fail to heed the call to make way for overtaking traffic. It’s plain ignorant not to, and it more often than not leads to road rage. This is the single most important etiquette maneuver that a club can do to avoid conflict with drivers and lessen the complaints leading to traffic enforcement, thus lessening the chance of being targeted and ticketed, such as the recent public notice issued by the Sidney/North Saanich RCMP.
When organizing a club ride, make a plan to let everyone know which sections of the route will be ridden single-file. Make sure you let everyone know their responsibility to keep it safe and avoid conflict with motorists.
Lastly, exercise safety above all else, including during that sprint to best your Strava time or win the town sprint. If that challenge leads to conflict with motorists ask yourself if it’s truly worth it. We all want a future where it is lawful to cycle on the roadways. Keep your part to ensure that is the case, and consider lobbying for reforms to the BC Motor Vehicle Act to promote safety over motorist priority.
City of Toronto. Cycling and the Law: Single File Cycling vs. Two-abreast Cycling. 2015.
Arizona Bike Law: Is a Bike Lane Part of the Roadway? 2007.
BC Injury Lawyer’s Blog: Cyclists and the Law: An Uncertain Path. 2011.
Queen’s Printer. British Columbia. Motor Vehicle Act. October 7, 2015.
Queen’s Printer. British Columbia. BC Motor Vehicle Act. Section 1: Definitions. 2015.
Queen’s Printer. British Columbia. BC Motor Vehicle Act. Part 3. Section 183. 2015.
YouTube. Side By Side. Blaine Walsh and Chris Boardman. August 2015.