Bicycling on the Freeway

Did I really just say “bicycling on the freeway” in the title? Am I crazy? No, I’m not talking about bicycling on Los Angeles area freeways.  Rather, I’m talking about using the shoulder of rural freeways, which is often allowed in the western US when the freeway is the only through route.

Believe it or not, a Statewide Safety Study of Bicycles and Pedestrians on Freeways examined bicycle use on rural freeway shoulders, and although reported car/bike crashes are rare, when they happen it’s usually at on/off ramps. Most rural freeway shoulders open to bicyclists have few ramps, and they can be dealt with by exiting and reentering the freeway. While a rural freeway shoulder may not always be a pleasant place to ride with road noise and debris, in my opinion it could actually be safer than some non-freeway rural routes.

So why all this about rural freeways from someone who lives in an urban/suburban area? Next week I’m riding with another cyclist as he travels across California.  Since we would have to use one of these freeway shoulders part of the way, I called Caltrans District 8 Public Affairs earlier today to see if there were any construction projects that would affect our trip. The good news was that the lady who answered the phone said that there was no scheduled work on that section of freeway.

But to my surprise, she told me I needed an encroachment permit and also needed to contact the California Highway Patrol (CHP). As someone active in local and statewide bicycling advocacy, I knew that wasn’t what the law said.  When I started to point out that my understanding was to the contrary, she mentioned something about vehicles powered with less than 15cc, and that I were stopped by the CHP they would want to see a permit.

When I questioned that, she raised her voice talking down to me like I was a child, mentioning that Caltrans and CHP needed to know that we were out there, lecturing me that it’s a public safety issue for both the bicyclists AND the motorists. (So how it is a hazard to the MOTORISTS? A motorist in the travel lane is going to become fixated on me and my bright bike jersey on the shoulder and then run off the road into a ditch???  By the way, according to the study referenced above, “the lack of Bicycle Status as a significant variable suggests that allowing bicycles on freeways does not have an adverse effect on the vehicle collision rate.”)

At that point, I knew wasn’t going to get anywhere arguing with her, and I had already gotten the information I needed that there were no road projects. So I politely took down the encroachment permits number and said I could find the number for the CHP.

After the call, I took a look at what the Caltrans website said:

Q. Can I ride my bicycle on the freeway?

A. Of the more than 4,000 miles of freeways in California, about 1,000 miles are open to bicyclists. These open sections are usually in rural areas where there is no alternate route. California Vehicle Code Section 21960 says Caltrans and local agencies may prohibit bicyclists from traveling on freeways under their jurisdiction and that they must erect signs stating the prohibition. There are no signs permitting bicyclists on freeways. When a bicyclist is legally traveling on a freeway, he/she may be directed off the freeway at the next off-ramp by a sign that says “Bicycles Must Exit.” The freeway will be posted at the next on-ramp with a sign that says “Bicycles Prohibited.”

No reference of an encroachment permit requirement there. The relevant portion of CVC 21960 is as follows:

21960. (a) The Department of Transportation and local authorities, by order, ordinance, or resolution, with respect to freeways, expressways, or designated portions thereof under their respective jurisdictions, to which vehicle access is completely or partially controlled, may prohibit or restrict the use of the freeways, expressways, or any portion thereof by pedestrians, bicycles or other nonmotorized traffic or by any person operating a motor-driven cycle, motorized bicycle, or motorized scooter…

(b) The prohibitory regulation authorized by subdivision (a) shall be effective when appropriate signs giving notice thereof are erected upon any freeway or expressway and the approaches thereto…

Furthermore, there are Caltrans documents, such as Chapter 1000 of the Highway Design Manual, which further reinforce the above points but are not necessary to quote here.

So to sum up: if a freeway shoulder is not posted off limits to bicyclists, then it is legal to use. And if it’s legal, it’s not a “use of California State highways for other than normal transportation purposes” and therefore, like any other place a bicyclist may legally ride, wouldn’t be subject to an encroachment permit. Otherwise, shouldn’t I be applying for an encroachment permit every time before I go for a weekend ride on California State Highway 1, a.k.a. Pacific Coast Highway?

Although I am not happy with the ignorance of the Public Affairs person I spoke with, I can at least sympathize to a certain degree, in that this is probably not one of the more common subjects that come up in their phone calls. But the attitude that went with it is inexcusable.  I’ve had other discussions with Public Relations staff for other agencies, and while there has been times where we may not see eye to eye, the discourse has at least been professional.

In any event, I am certainly not going to apply for an encroachment permit, though I will carry a list of freeways open to bicyclists that I got from the District 8 bicycle coordinator back in 2003 (I won’t share here because it was never published), as well as a District 8 bicycling map from 1992 (sadly the latest official documentation I’m aware of) in case we are stopped by the CHP.  I’ve cycled portions of I-5, I-8, I-10, I-15, I-40, I-280, and US101 in California in the past without any problems, let’s hope it is just as uneventful this time around.