Substandard-Width Lanes


What is a substandard-width lane, and what are the responsibilities of cyclists and motorists?


This is a revision of the earlier post about substandard-width lanes.

I must admit, even after much study and discussion, I am only now becoming fully aware of the real implications of the provision in the Bicycle Regulations that allows a cyclist to leave the right edge of the roadway in a substandard-width lane.

The significance of the substandard-width lane provision in the statute is profound.  The majority of roadways in Florida are comprised of lanes that are less than 14 feet wide and as such are substandard-width lanes for most motor vehicles.

Some have indicated concern about the lack of clarity in the definition in the statutes.  I hope this helps.

As always, we welcome any formal legal opinions or case law, and comments and questions about any of the subjects.

Substandard-Width Lane

s. 316.2065 – Bicycle Regulations

(5)(a) 3. For the purposes of this subsection, a “substandard-width lane” is a lane too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

Since it is in Bicycle Regulations section, some assume it is only applicable to bicyclists.

Some also feel that the statute should state a finite measured width.

When the true intent of the statute is fully understood, it is easy to see why those are not correct.

There are no responsibilities imposed on the bicyclist by the substandard-width lane clause in statute.

There is however, great responsibility placed on motorists overtaking a bicyclist in a narrow lane.

The importance of substandard-width lanes does not apply to the lane position of a bicyclist.  It is simply the presence of the cyclist in the narrow lane that the motorist is overtaking, even if the cyclist is far to the right.  Whether the cyclist is far right, far left, or in the center of the lane, the requirements are the same.

The lane is too narrow for the motor vehicle to safely pass within the lane, the definition of substandard-width.

The motorist overtaking and passing a bicycle is responsible for insuring that it is safe, as when overtaking and passing any other vehicle.

In a lane that is NOT of substandard-width, that can be safely and legally accomplished while leaving the required safe distance of not less than three feet clearance.

s. 316.083 – Overtaking and Passing A Vehicle

(1) …. The driver of a vehicle overtaking a bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle must pass the bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle at a safe distance of not less than 3 feet between the vehicle and the bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle.

When passing a bicycle in a substandard-width lane, the motorist must at least partially change lanes to pass.

That cannot be done legally and safely if there is traffic in the adjacent lane.

On two-lane roadways, the opposite lane must be clear of on-coming traffic, and the overtaking motorists must be able to safely pass and return to the original before approaching within 200 feet of on-coming vehicles, including other bicycles.

s. 316.085 – Limitations on Overtaking, Passing, Changing Lanes and Changing Course

(1) No vehicle shall be driven to the left side of the center of the roadway in overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction …. unless such left side is clearly visible and free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit such overtaking and passing to be completely made without interfering with the operation of any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction of any vehicle overtaken.  In every event the overtaking vehicle must return to an authorized lane of travel as soon as practicable and, in the event the passing movement involves the use of a lane authorized for vehicles approaching from the opposite direction, before coming within 200 feet of any approaching vehicle.

On multi-lane roadways, that means they must insure the adjacent lane is clear of other traffic.

(2) No vehicle shall be driven from a direct course in any lane on any highway until the driver has determined that the vehicle is not being approached or passed by any other vehicle in the lane or on the side to which the driver desires to move and that the move can be made in complete safety and without interfering with the safe operation of any vehicle approaching from the same direction.

When the motorist is delayed due to the presence of a cyclist in a narrow lane, even if the cyclist is far to the right, the motorist’s progress is impeded.  That is not unlawful. (See separate topic on impeding traffic)

The only application of this section to a bicyclist is their need to insure their safety.   When confronted with any unsafe condition, a bicyclist is not required to keep right.

The presence of a substandard-width lane is specified as one of those unsafe conditions.

s. 316.2065 – Bicycle Regulations

(5)(a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:

3. When reasonably necessary to avoid any condition or potential conflict, including, but not limited to, a fixed or moving object, parked or moving vehicle, bicycle, pedestrian, animal, surface hazard, turn lane, or substandard-width lane, which makes it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge or within a bicycle lane.

The unsafe condition of substandard-width lanes is that drivers may unlawfully and dangerously attempt to pass within the lane or use the adjacent lane when there is conflicting traffic.   Although that practice subjects the overtaking motorist and the on-coming motorist to some danger, the bicyclist is the one most likely to suffer harm in those circumstances.

The provision in the Bicycle Regulations allows bicyclists to protect their space for their own safety.

The way they do that is to control the lane.  They are not required to keep right.  It is legal and it is the safest cycling practice under many circumstances.

Cyclists hugging the edge of the roadway are communicating to overtaking drivers that,

“There might be room to pass, even though it is unlawful and dangerous, but let’s give it a try and see how it works out.”

Too often, it doesn’t work out well for the bicyclist, the overtaking driver and a driver in the adjacent lane.

Moving into the center of the lane communicates to the overtaking driver,

“There is not room in this lane for you to safely pass within the lane.  Please wait until the adjacent lane is clear and change lanes to pass.”

It is simply a reminder to the overtaking motorist that they must fulfill the responsibilities that exist in the law to insure the adjacent lane is clear of other traffic before attempting to pass, and when passing, insure the required safe passing distance.

The statutes do not define the width of a substandard-width lane as a measurement.  Overtaking motorists are responsible for insuring there is adequate room when passing.  They must know the width of their own vehicles, the three-foot MINIMUM safe passing distance, and that cyclists require some physical space to safely operate.

The burden is on the overtaking motorist to insure that the pass can be safely accomplished.

The driver of very small motor vehicle may be able to pass safely within a 12-foot wide lane.  A truck with a wide load could require a lane that is 15 or more feet width to safely pass within the lane.

One way to determine the width of a lane that can be safely shared by a bicyclist and MOST motor vehicles is as follows:

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) states that 40 inches to five feet is the essential or desired operating space for a bicycle.

Chapter 1 Planning

The Bicycle

Bicyclists require at least 1.0 m (40 inches) of essential operating space based solely on their profile. An operating space of 1.2 m (4 feet) is assumed as the minimum width for any facility designed for exclusive or preferential use by bicyclists. Where motor vehicle traffic volumes, motor vehicle or bicyclist speed, and the mix of truck and bus traffic increase, a more comfortable operating space of 1.5 m (5 feet) or more is desirable.

Bicycle lanes are typically a minimum of 4-5 feet wide.

Most motor vehicles are 6-8 feet wide.

Allowing the MINIMUM 3.3 feet of safe operating space and MINIMUM 3 foot safe passing distance gives us about 14 feet, which is the MINIMUM width of a lane that is wide enough for MOST motor vehicles to safely pass a bicycle within the lane.

6-8 Feet + 3 Feet +3.5 Feet = Approximately 14 Feet

That does not consider that some additional width must be allocated to account for the fact that the motorist will not travel exactly on the centerline if there is on-coming traffic.

The Florida Department of Transportation recognizes the importance of lane width in the safety of all roadway users and has established standards that reflect the figures above.  The standard for all new construction on state roadways is to install 4-5 foot MINIMUM width bicycle lanes.  Wide curb lanes of 14 feet in width are only allowed for repaving projects where bicycle lanes are not practical.

Plans Preparation Manual

Chapter 8 – Bicycle Facilities

Section 8.4.3 Wide Curb Lanes

Wide outside curb lanes are through lanes which provide a minimum of 14 feet in width.  This width allows most motor vehicles to pass cyclists within the travel lane, which is not possible in more typical 10-12 foot wide travel lanes. Wide curb lanes do not meet Departmental requirements for bicycle facilities on new construction or reconstruction projects.  However, in some conditions, such as RRR projects, they may be the only practical option for a bicycle facility.

Manual of Uniform Minimum Standards for Design, Construction and Maintenance for Streets and Highways (Florida Greenbook)

Chapter 9 – Bicycle Facilities

B.3            Curb Lanes

In restricted urban conditions, where it is not possible to include bike lanes or paved shoulders or on lower volume collector streets, an outside lane wider than 12 feet can help accommodate both bicycles and motor vehicles in the same lane. Fourteen feet is the recommended lane width for shared use in a wide curb lane, and is the minimum width that will allow passenger cars to safely pass bicyclists within a single lane.

The Florida Department of Transportation does not use the term “substandard-width lane”, but uses similar language to describe lane width, safe passing of a bicyclist within the lane.

It is noteworthy that FDOT standards consider MOST vehicles.  It is unrealistic to expect the roadways to be built to accommodate the optimum desires of all users.  The expense would be too great.

It is also unrealistic to expect the statutes to be written to include a measured lane width that would provide for all circumstances.  In the case of the definition of substandard-width lanes, if there were to be a measured width of a lane that would be wide enough to permit ALL vehicles to safely travel side-by side with a bicycle, the lane would have to be wide enough for busses and large trucks, for which the design standard width is 8.5 feet.

s. 316.515 – Maximum Width, Height, Length

(1) Width Limitation – The total outside width of any vehicle or the load thereon may not exceed 102 inches, exclusive of safety devices …. The total outside width of a noncommercial travel trailer, camping trailer, truck camper, motor home, or private coach …. may be more than 102 inches ….

8.5+3+ 3.5 = 15 Feet MINIMUM WIDTH

Trucks with permits for wide loads could require even greater lane width, and that is not determined.  Along with the added necessary distance from the centerline, that would certainly mean a lane of 16 feet or more.  Virtually all lanes can be substandard-width lanes under certain circumstances.

If a bicyclist is traveling in a 14-15 foot wide curb lane and observes a very wide truck approaching from behind, the safest thing to do may be to move to the center of the lane to remind the driver of the legal responsibility to wait until it is safe to pass.

What is important?

  • The burden for safety in passing bicycles lies entirely on the motor vehicle operator, as is the case with all passing situations with other vehicles.
  • The motorist is responsible for knowing that their vehicle and a bicycle can safely travel within a lane, and if not change lanes to pass.
  • Drivers cannot pass a bicyclist within the lane if it is unsafe and they cannot provide the minimum of three feet.
  • If the adjacent lane is not clear, they must wait.
  • Bicyclists can leave the right side of the roadway to avoid any unsafe condition.
  • Substandard-width lanes are specified in the statutes as unsafe conditions.
  • Experienced and educated bicyclists are not going to intentionally place themselves in positions that would endanger them.
  • Educated and experienced bicyclists know that riding far right encourages unsafe and illegal passing within the substandard-width lane.

The significance of the substandard-width lane provision in the statute is profound.  The majority of roadways in Florida are comprised of lanes that are less than 14 feet wide and as such are substandard-width lanes for most, but not all, motor vehicles.

The statute recognizes the facts of life; that all roadways cannot be built to accommodate unrestricted use by all users under all conditions.  Some restrictions on some users are inevitable.  Slower moving traffic may legally impede other traffic under certain circumstances.  Motor vehicle operators who attempt to pass within a substandard-width lane endanger bicyclists, themselves and others.

Bicyclists who stay far to the right in such lanes give the false impression that there is room to attempt to pass and encourage illegal and dangerous passing.  The laws allow the cyclist to move away from the right side of the lane to control the lane and the situation, become more visible, and encourage the motorist to wait for a safe opportunity to move into the adjacent lane to pass.

The statute does not specify the responsibility of the motorist, but it is clear that a driver overtaking and passing a bicyclist in a substandard-width lane must at least partially use the adjacent lane.  If there is on-coming traffic in a two-lane roadway, or if there is other traffic that would be impacted in a multi-lane roadway, the motorist must wait.

The desired progress of the motorist in this case is impeded, but legally so.

There is no statute that gives roadway users the right to travel at the speed they desire at all times.

There is also no statute that allows unsafe passing.  Passing a bicyclist within a substandard-width lane is unsafe and illegal.

8 Comments on “Substandard-Width Lanes

  1. SO, in essence, are we allowed to take any and all lanes (ride in the center) that are “substandard”, either single or double abreast?

    • Yes, you absolutely are. Refer to law and your safety for clarification. You are not required to leave open the enticing possibility of unsafe attempted passes. If drivers need to pass in a substandard lane, common sense seems to have nothing to do with it. They need to wait until the next lane is clear, and use it, period, so yes, you can be anywhere in the lane. It makes no difference.

  2. the newer Guide upped the 40″ to 48″:
    Figure 3-1, Bicyclist Operating Space (widths), AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities (2012). Minimum Operating space 48″

    Also, it seems to me, excepting actual wide load (i assume they need some sort of special use permit?), a truck’s load isn’t really a problem when doing the arithmetic — as you noted they’re limited to 102″; the problem is that *excludes* mirrors. and even a modest pickup, e.g. the very popular Ford F-250 (equivalent size class from GM, etc are similar) measures out at 104.9″ w/standard mirrors; wider “towing” mirrors are available.

    I don’t see any mention in your article of gutters vis a vis width. On roads with curb and gutter without an edge line, how is the lane width measured?

    • Ed B,

      The lane width does not include the gutter pan. It is measured from the center of the white line to the gutter pan.

      • Any obstructions on the right are justification to leave the right position anyway, as are driveways, intersections, blind turns, ruts, etc. The standard is an engineering standard defining the minimum width of good road that can be used for passing. Of course it doesn’t guarantee that any 14 ft road is suitable for sharing. What if the right side of the road ends in a 500ft vertical drop?

  3. Not one mention of a medical emergency I.e. pregnancy etc where a motor vehicle may encounter cyclists impeding traffic.

    • Cyclists do not have to put themselves in danger to accommodate motorists responding to a medical emergency. If someone needs to get to the hospital quickly they can call an ambulance or the police station to ask a patrol car to guide them.

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