Anywhere that there is a public transit system, the city or town will have dedicated bus lanes to allow the buses to pull in and out and pick up passengers.
When there are no buses, the bus lanes become tempting places for everyone else-drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
After all, it’s a wide area that is set aside from the general traffic and is only busy when the buses come in; otherwise, it’s a quiet place to travel.
However, the legality of using bus lanes is another matter and its one that has caused some controversy in different countries such as Canada.
If you’re a cyclist eye-balling those empty lanes between bus times, you are likely wondering: can bikes use bus lanes as long as the appropriate caution is observed?
Why the Bus Lane?
There are a few benefits for experienced cyclists in riding in the bus lane. Bus lanes tend to be nice and wide, very flat, and of course, there is a lot less traffic to compete with while on the road.
In particular, very busy streets like main thoroughfares can be a lot more hazardous to ride in even when using the bike lane, so the bus lane offers some additional protection from other road traffic.
The bus lane may also simply be easier to ride on and since there isn’t a constant stream of buses, cyclists don’t have to worry too much about competition.
Finally, cyclists have noted that buses behave much more predictably than other traffic: they know that there will be frequent stops and starts, that there won’t be any other traffic, and that buses can only go so fast.
On the other hand, bus lanes have their disadvantages. Riding on one is usually best for people who are more experienced on a bike, can pay close attention to their surroundings and react quickly.
Buses are much larger and heavier than cars and so represent a much larger risk. Buses and bikes also have a hard time co-existing in bus lanes because the cyclist will keep going while the bus has to stop and then the bus overtakes the cyclist and stops again, resulting in one some call a ‘leap-frog situation’.
If there were many cyclists in the bus lane, then the bus system would stop working properly due to all the cyclists clogging the lanes!
Finally, some research contends that riding in the bus lane is no safer than riding on roads with no bus lanes. Safety really does fall on the shoulders of the rider.
What Does the Law Say?
A big difficulty cyclists have (and buses as well, plus sometimes taxis) is figuring out what the laws say about who can go where when it comes to bus lanes and this is because state and federal laws have nothing to say on the matter. Instead, bus lane use rules are left up to municipal and local law to decide and that is often quite fuzzy.
If you are fortunate, there will be appropriate signage to guide your way. For example, a bus lane may be marked as a shared lane between buses and bicycles (and will hopefully be constructed as such to be extra wide!)
If this is the case, obviously the cyclist is allowed to use the bus lane, though it still falls on the cyclist to be mindful of his or her surroundings and not try to play ‘chicken’ with the bus (you will lose every time!)
In many cities and towns though, the signs do not indicate a shared lane, and this means that cyclists have a tricky situation on their hands. Shared bicycle/bus lanes (or SBBLs) are relatively few and far between in the United States.
A study done on SBBLs identified 27 in municipalities across the country and almost half of them were only set up in the last ten years or so. This makes studying their impact and use tricky, as outlined by a massive paper written to look at design and operating policies around shared bus and bike lanes.
For example, when looking to see what states are doing, the researchers could only pull from four states: Maryland, Illinois, Washington, and the District of Columbia where there are some SBBLs in some of the cities.
Some scattered cities in other states were used as well: Tucson (Arizona), San Francisco (California), Albuquerque (New Mexico) and Minneapolis (Minnesota). These guidelines were developed by the city itself, not by any state or federal government.
Cyclists in the United States now have a tricky issue on their hands. Shared bus and bike lanes are rare but riding on a busy street is dangerous. Riding close to the curb, as cyclists are supposed to do, will likely put them in conflict with a bus when they inevitably hit a bus lane.
So, what is the best course of action?
Riding in the Bus Lane
For many cyclists, it’s easier to simply grit one’s teeth and go for the bus lane. After all, it’s not always going to be full of buses and it’s never going to be full of traffic, so the odds are with you that you’ll have a safer time of it.
If you’re going to use the bus lane, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Always make sure that you are aware of the traffic around you, particularly any buses coming up behind and beside you! Cyclists have run into buses before and the results are traumatic for everyone at best and deadly at worst. Don’t linger in the bus lane: get in and get out and quickly as you can.
- Unless there is signage saying otherwise, technically, cyclists don’t have the right to be in the bus lane, so always yield to buses and any other traffic that is allowed to be there.
- Watch out for pedestrians who may also be using the bus lane
- Bus lane riding is best done by more experienced cyclists who are able to react quickly to traffic and can make quick decisions.
Now, if you’re not going to use the bus lane, it’s important to stick to your bike lane (where it’s visible) as much as possible and keep the usual riding rules in mind.
And you should of course still pay close attention to your surroundings as now you may have cars on one side of you and a bus (or a few buses) on the other side.
The use of bus lanes by cyclists isn’t exactly controversial; however, it is a very grey zone because the law is by and large silent on it. If you have a shared lane, then you know you’re in the clear, but as noted, they are very rare in the U.S.
This means that using a bus lane falls to the cyclist to decide on and then the cyclist has to take responsibility for him or herself and ensure that there will be no conflict with buses.
Assuming this can be done, bus lanes can be advantageous for cyclists, as well as to some extent, other motor vehicle traffic since there won’t be as many bikes swerving out on the road.
But always make sure to yield to buses, keep your wits about you, and get out of the bus lane as soon as possible so that there is no clog for the transit system.
Stay safe and have fun!