by Roger Pierce
The bicycle is a hybrid vehicle. It can be, and is commonly, operated not only on roadways, but on sidewalks, sidepaths, and in off road conditions. The laws pertaining to bicycle use have been shoehorned into the traffic code in a legislative process that involved competing political interests, and as you will see, has resulted in some interesting paradoxes.
The existence of these paradoxes make your job as a cyclist on the roadway a bit more difficult, as most other roadway users will not know bicycle law. Even many law enforcement people will be perplexed by some of the intricacies, and may attempt to require us to ride in a manner that is not required by law, and in fact, puts us in a more hazardous situation.
When are we on the roadway?
The first thing we need to know is when we are on the roadway and subject to the laws associated with being on the roadway. The roadway exists between the outer edges of the marked traffic lanes. On most roadways, this is the white line painted on the outer edge of the road. When a paved shoulder exists, it is not part of the roadway (important!). When a bike lane is marked, it is a traffic lane and is part of the roadway.
Where on the roadway can we ride?
As a vehicle, a bicycle is permitted to use most roadways (the major exception is limited access highways, mostly interstates). Except on one-way streets, we must use the right most traffic lane (unless we are maintaining the speed limit). A bike lane is normally the right most traffic lane when present, and thus we must use it. A change in law explicitly requiring us to use a bike lane really only affects us when we are operating at the speed limit and would like to use a different lane (a rare situation).
Cyclists riding together must stay within a single lane. When a bike lane is present, we must ride within that lane.
When riding in the right most traffic lane (when there is no bike lane), we are permitted to use the entire lane unless there is room to share the lane with a motor vehicle. The Florida Department of Transportation defines such a lane as being 14 feet wide; this provides adequate room for the cyclist, a minimum three foot separation required by law, and the width of a typical motor vehicle. Very few 14 foot wide lanes exist in Florida, and virtually no country roads have them.
While we are permitted to use the entire lane, one or two cyclists riding down the middle of the lane on a country road are probably in for some harassment. You will need to use good judgment to determine when to do this.
Cyclists are permitted to ride two abreast except when impeding traffic. The last part of that statement is open to a significant amount of interpretation. When permitted full use of the lane, I believe the impeding traffic exception to be moot. If there are a significant number of cyclists (8 or more), when taking the lane and riding single file, they will be much harder to pass than when riding two abreast because they will take up much more room on the roadway.
There are important safety considerations when choosing whether to take the lane. When you are in a lane that is too narrow to allow a car to pass without crossing the center line, riding to the far right side of the roadway will encourage overtaking motorists to try to pass. It is very common for them to find themselves partially over the center line with oncoming traffic in the other lane; this sometimes forces the oncoming traffic to partially leave the roadway. If you are riding down the center of the lane, an overtaking motorist will normally slow until the passing lane is free. When there is a large group of cyclists, an overtaking motorist attempting a pass with oncoming traffic is especially worrisome.
When riding on the shoulder (that is not a designated bike lane), you are not on the roadway. There are not a lot of rules that apply on the shoulder (I cannot find anything that prohibits operating a vehicle against traffic on the shoulder).
Using a literal reading of the law, it is acceptable to have cyclists riding on the shoulder, with other cyclists riding in the traffic lane (and if it is narrower than 14 feet, two abreast). We do not recommend that you do this! The main impact of this is that a large group operating on a lightly used four lane highway may want to ride two abreast, with one line on the shoulder, and the other just left of the white line. This is not legal when the shoulder is marked as a bike lane (interesting paradox).