Multi-Use Paths and the Rights of Bicycle Riders

The topic for this column was the subject of a recent e-mail message from a bicyclist who attended a recent legal clinic. She wrote:

I attended the October legal clinic for bicyclists, and since then I have thought of another question. You discussed rules of the road and rules of the sidewalk, but you did not discuss rules of the bike path or of the multi-use path.

I have never seen any laws regarding bike path use, but I have always treated bike paths like streetsñrestricted to non-motorized traffic, but streets, nonetheless. No one expects cars to drive 3 MPH when meeting or overtaking pedestrians on the street, and I, also, don’t slow down for pedestrians either on streets or on bike paths. Cars generally have the right of way in streets–if there is no sidewalk, pedestrians are supposed to walk at the edge of the road, facing traffic. The only place pedestrians have the right of way is in crosswalks. Similarly, I have always thought that bicycles have the right of way on bike paths.

Now there is a popular trend to build 10 foot wide strips of asphalt and call them “multi-use paths.” I suspect this is meant to give them wider appeal and make the public more willing to spend money on paths. My problem is that I don’t know how to behave on multi-use paths or how to distinguish them from bike paths.

Are there any laws covering these special traffic routes?

The question of which laws cover multi-use paths is a tough one because the multi-use path is a legal hybrid. In preparation for this article, I examined reported Oregon cases, and the Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS). There are no special laws that cover multi-use paths, and the term is not defined. However, ORS 801.160 defines “bicycle path” as “a public way, not part of a highway, that is designated by official signs or markings for use by persons riding bicycles except as otherwise specifically provided by law.” Most riders have seen facilities designated with the bicycle path label. Usually these facilities are low speed routes, often in scenic areas, that are designed for low speed traffic (i.e., bicyclists, wheelchair users, and pedestrians). Note that the definition of the term “bicycle path” includes the phrase “not part of a highway” which I believe eliminates bicycle lanes from this designation. Consequently, the rules that apply to a bicycle path are the same rules that apply to sidewalks. NOTE: Remember bicyclists do not need to ride at speeds of 3 mph on sidewalks UNLESS motor vehicles are present.

Basic rules of the sidewalk for bicyclists are contained in ORS 814.410 which provides as follows:

814.410. Unsafe operation of bicycle on sidewalk; penalty.

(1) A person commits the offense of unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk if the person does any of the following:

(a) Operates the bicycle so as to suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and move into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.

(b) Operates a bicycle upon a sidewalk and does not give an audible warning before overtaking and passing a pedestrian and does not yield the right of way to all pedestrians on the sidewalk.

(c) Operates a bicycle on a sidewalk in a careless manner that endangers or would be likely to endanger any person or property.

(d) Operates the bicycle at a speed greater than an ordinary walk when approaching or entering a crosswalk, approaching or crossing a driveway or crossing a curb cut or pedestrian ramp and a motor vehicle is approaching the crosswalk, driveway, curb cut or pedestrian ramp. This paragraph does not require reduced speeds for bicycles either:

(A) At places on sidewalks or other pedestrian ways other than places where the path for pedestrians or bicycle traffic approaches or crosses that for motor vehicle traffic; or

(B) When motor vehicles are not present.

(e) Operates an electric assisted bicycle on a sidewalk.

(2) Except as otherwise specifically provided by law, a bicyclist on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk has the same rights and duties as a pedestrian on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk.

(3) The offense described in this section, unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk, is a Class D traffic infraction.”

This statute requires bicyclists to provide an audible signal when passing pedestrians, and to go no faster than a walking speed when motor vehicles are present and the bicyclist is using a crosswalk, crossing a driveway, or a curb cut.

The rule requiring bicyclists to proceed no faster than a walking speed in certain locations is apparently designed to prevent accidents by forcing bicyclists to slow down to the speed of pedestrians at places where the bicyclist’s path will intersect with motor vehicles. This statute is a trap for unwary bicyclists. However, the rule requiring an audible signal before passing a pedestrian works in practice so long as the pedestrian hears the warning and does not jump in front of the approaching bicyclist.

ORS 811.435 provides an additional level of protection for multi-use paths. It makes it a Class B traffic infraction, with a maximum fine of $300.00 for a motorist to operate a motor vehicle “upon a bicycle lane or a bicycle path.” The exceptions to this rule are the same as those for bicycle lanes (i.e., a motor vehicle may operate upon a bicycle path when making a turn, entering or leaving an alley, private road, or driveway, or when a farm vehicle crosses into a bike lane to permit other vehicles to pass it). Finally, a person may operate a motorized wheelchair on a bicycle lane or path, but not a moped (unless the moped is operated exclusively by human power).

In conclusion, Oregon rules covering multi-use paths are similar in most respects to the rules for sidewalks: Yield to pedestrians, give an audible signal when passing, and slow down to a walk when crossing in front of cars. The multi-use path, like the “bike path” is another attempt to give non-motorized users a protected area to travel upon.