New bike bill hopes to make streets safer for cyclists

By: - January 22, 2021 12:01 am

A bicyclist carries groceries home in Richmond Va., March 18, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

Last year cyclists in the commonwealth scored a big win in the General Assembly as part of a coalition backing a hands-free law to prevent distracted driving. This year the state’s bike lobby is backing a bill they say will make Virginia one of the safest states in the nation for bicycles. 

The Bicycle Safety Act (HB2262 / SB1263) would require drivers to fully change lanes to pass people biking, allow cyclists to ride two abreast in a lane, and permit people on bicycles to treat stop signs as yield signs.  The Senate version advanced out of the Transportation committee Thursday on an 11-4 vote. 

For years, in cities like Richmond and elsewhere, there’s been a steady push for more cycling infrastructure, including bike lanes and bike share programs. But across the country the pandemic has sparked as much as 
a 50 percent increase in the number of people who regularly ride a bike in some cities. The search for safe ways to exercise combined with a reluctance to ride mass transit, has contributed to the nationwide bike boom. Meanwhile, the commonwealth’s tally of annual cyclist deaths has hovered in the low double digits for nearly a decade, but with more riders now on the road, advocates and some local officials say it’s time to advance a new round of bike safety measures.

“This legislation is definitely needed to clarify the relationship between cars and bikes on our roads,” said Richmond City Councilmember Andreas Addison. “As the proliferation of cycling infrastructure moves forward, more people are riding bikes, so we need to make sure drivers know how to operate with cyclists’ safety in mind.”

One year ago Addison introduced a package of 28 city ordinances and resolutions — dubbed Streets for All — designed to tackle Richmond’s multimodal shortcomings. Due to the Dillon Rule which limits the ability of localities to exercise powers the state has not expressly granted them, many pieces of his package could only move forward as resolutions. “Most of them have passed because they were just a message of council’s support for these matters,” Addison said. “There are limitations between what the city can do on its own and what the state has to allow us to do.”

All three provisions in this year’s Bicycle Safety Act are outstanding items from Addison’s Streets for All package, which is how the bill made it onto Richmond’s 2021 legislative wishlist for the General Assembly.

Bike lanes on 1st Street in Richmond. (Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Do as Delaware does?

The combination of bill components is based off of legislation in Delaware. Since the passage of the Bicycle Friendly Delaware Act, Virginia’s northeastern neighbor has come to be seen as something of a safe cycling mecca.

“Riding in Delaware is a totally different experience than riding in Loudoun or Fauquier counties in that whether it be a farm vehicle, pickup truck, or a semi, they change lanes to pass so you feel much more comfortable,” said Jim Durham, chairman of the Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “It’s a much safer, relaxing, and enjoyable experience when drivers change lanes to pass you.”

Since 2013, Virginia law has required drivers to pass cyclists with three feet of clearance. In Delaware, the same rule was never enforced until it mandated a lane change. “The change in Delaware was like night and day because it’s easy for police officers to tell if a driver changed lanes or not,” said Brantley Tyndall — president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation. “No one drives with a yardstick handy, so this makes it easier for drivers to know they are giving cyclists a safe amount of distance.”

Tyndall similarly hopes allowing people to ride side by side will make cycling safer while also reducing friction with drivers. When cyclists can double up, it makes groups of riders half as short and thus easier for drivers to pass. Such a rule change would also enable parents to ride on the outside of a lane and better protect their kids. Durham has a simpler reason to allow cyclists to ride two abreast: “It’s more enjoyable to ride side by side so you can talk and enjoy the scenery.”

Given some drivers’ distaste for cyclists, the most controversial component of the bill will likely be allowing people on bikes to treat stop signs as yields as long as they do so “with due care.”  Tyndall considers it a critical safety measure. “The ‘safety stop’ is the law of the land in six states now,” he said. “Delaware did a 30 month-long study before and after their law changed and found cyclist injuries at intersections dropped 23 percent. Idaho saw a 14.5 percent reduction in bike crashes. It mitigates the chances of being rear-ended [by a car].”

Unlike the pioneering “Idaho stop,” Virginia’s “safety stop” still requires cyclists obey red lights just like any other vehicle on the road. Durham hopes passing the bill will allow localities to redirect limited police resources to more important issues and perhaps even provide bike groups with an occasion to better educate the average rider. 

“In Alexandria, our police have responded to resident complaints and invested massive resources to ticketing cyclists who don’t come to a complete stop at stop signs,” Durham said. “I’d like to see improved performance by cyclists to yield at intersections, especially for pedestrians, and I think this proposed law combined with local education can get us there.”

‘A law of small numbers’ 

State Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond — the Senate patron of the legislation — doesn’t expect any bumps along the road to passage. “I haven’t heard anything negative about it, and I don’t expect any opposition,” he said. “I don’t see why there would be any angst with bicyclists treating a stop sign as a yield sign. Who could object to changing lanes to pass? I don’t see a problem with letting people ride two abreast.”

Morrissey agreed to carry the Senate version of the bill after a chance encounter with Tyndall at the Fall Line Trail in Henrico. As a fan of the Virginia Capital Trail and an alumnus of that facility’s Cap2Cap ride, Morrissey’s support for the proposed legislation goes beyond diligent constituent services.

“There are a lot of bad things about COVID-19, but one of the silver linings has been the number of people that have gone back to cycling, started cycling and appreciated being outdoors on a bike trail,” Morrissey said. “I’m hoping more and more Virginians will get on their bikes. Who knows? We could see bike sales go up another 125 percent.

Tyndall, on the other hand, has his sights set solely on safety: “Last year we had 13 cyclist fatalities in Virginia, so we are not far from getting that down into single digits. This is a law of small numbers.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]