Skip to content

Do cycle lanes have any legal significance?

10 March 2011

Recently I’ve been doing more cycling outside of London. One of the first things I’ve noticed is the speed of the traffic – where there aren’t serious congestion problems, cars and trucks move much faster. For a city boy used to weaving in and out of queues, this is a noisy and frightening prospect. Merging across a 50mph dual carriageway to turn right, I’ve found myself looking behind, signalling, and then just hoping for the best.

As far as I’m concerned, dedicated bike lanes are even more important on high speed roads than they are where the cars are pushy but crawling. So I had high hopes for cycling in Bristol, based largely on the optimistic cycling maps produced by Bristol City Council, with their healthy density of green lines for segregated cycle routes. In fact I’ve even discovered cycle lanes not marked on the maps, such as an apparently new lane along this busy A-road (which doesn’t yet appear on street view). Unfortunately, though, the lane disappears right at the scene of my death-defying two-lane merge. Only to be outdone by a similar dedicated lane further up the same road, which ends on the wrong side of the four-lane mini-motorway with nowhere to go but a mystifying detour to the east (or, of course, back).

Relying on these semi-segregated facilities, I’ve wondered (as some readers have asked in the past) about the legal significance of cycle lanes. It’s a murky area, depending on local arrangements. But below are the general rules I’ve been able to find out.

Cycle tracks

The first and best kind of cycling facility is the dedicated path away from the road. Where there’s a right of way for cyclists (generally shown by a blue sign with a white bike symbol on it), this is likely to count in law as a cycle track (whether or not pedestrians are also allowed on it). It will normally be an offence for a motorist to drive or park on a cycle track (unless there was some special reason, such as an emergency). (RTA s. 21; HA 1980 s. 329)

Where the cycle path is by the side of a road, if it’s physically segregated (so that cars are physically prevented from driving on it in normal traffic) then it might still count as a cycle track and be caught by the same offences. Otherwise it will probably be a mandatory cycle lane.

Mandatory cycle lanes

Mandatory cycle lanes are cycle lanes by the side of a road, which are generally marked with an unbroken white line separating cyclists from traffic (or possibly by physical separation from the traffic). (TSRGD r. 4; Sch 6, diagram 1049)

Mandatory cycle lanes have some legal force. But this doesn’t mean that it will always be an offence for a motorist to drive across the line.

To create a mandatory cycle lane, it seems that a relevant authority has to pass specific local legislation known as a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO). A motorist who contravenes the TRO will commit an offence (carrying a maximum fine of £1000). But TROs can be quite detailed, and (for example) allow vehicles to cross a mandatory cycle lane to access car parking facilities (which then wouldn’t be an offence). (RTRA ss. 1-8; RTOA Sch 2)

So mandatory cycle lanes should generally keep motorists out, and if a motorist drives into the lane in normal traffic conditions, they’ve probably committed an offence. But this may depend on the details of local legislation.

Other cycle lanes

A cycle lane which is separated from traffic by a broken white line is an advisory cycle lane. It’s not an offence for a motorist to enter an advisory cycle lane, nor is it an offence to park in an advisory cycle lane (unless the motorist infringes parking restrictions at the same time).

In fact it’s often said that advisory lanes have no legal significance at all. This isn’t quite true. The Highway Code advises motorists not to drive or park in an advisory cycle lane “unless it is unavoidable (see rule 140). It’s not an offence to disobey that advice, but the courts will take any disobedience into account in deciding on other matters (for example in considering whether a motorist has committed the offence of careless driving, or is liable for causing an accident). (RTA s. 38(7))

Finally, there are also cycle lanes which are simply painted onto roads, with no white lines separating them from traffic. As far as I can see, these genuinely do have no legal significance at all – they seem to be intended as a warning to drivers that there may be cyclists in the lane, but nothing more. Rather unfortunately, significant stretches of London’s Cycle Superhighways seem to be made up of this kind of lane.

More info

While researching this post, I came across some informative design standards for cycle lanes created by Cycling England (which is due to be abolished by the end of this month). They include more information on cycle lanes, as well as some rather depressing indications as to why there aren’t more cycle lanes around. One target for pro-segregation campaigners might be to get some of the anti-bike-lane sentiment in these standards changed; but with responsibility for the standards presumably reverting to the Department for Transport, this will be a challenge.

Of course some people will continue to argue that the solution for cyclists lies not in greater segregation from the roads, but better cycle training. I can proudly say that I’m the owner of a 20-year-old Cycling Proficiency qualification, although I’m not convinced that it properly prepared me for high-speed car avoidance. As I remember, my friend Olly was the only one of our group of primary school examinees who had a car drive by during his test – and he failed. It may be that Bikeability, Cycling Proficiency’s replacement, has new 21st century advice for me on 50mph merging (or for Olly on how not to wobble when a car goes past) – if you’ve done it, let me know!


Photo by movingtargetzine from here:

  1. 10 March 2011 18:02

    I can proudly say that I’m the owner of a 20-year-old Cycling Proficiency qualification, although I’m not convinced that it properly prepared me for high-speed car avoidance.

    It didn’t & how could it? In places like the Netherlands, high numbers of people appear to enjoy cycling in relative safety, children included, and over here getting anywhere by bike is a minority activity for adults, needing in some cases balls of steel!

  2. 11 March 2011 14:44

    Nice post Blondwig.

    I find it quite annoying that some cycle lanes are described as mandatory. This gives the wrong impression ot cyclists as there is no legal requirement to actually use a cycle lane if it exists.

    Also, many a cyclist avoids using cycle lanes for a number of reasons, your own experiance of teh lane disappearing and tehn reappearing being one. I disscussed how cycle lanes can be a place of danger here

    • 12 March 2011 17:16

      thanks dave

      you’re right that it isn’t compulsory for cyclists to use a mandatory cycle lane where the lane runs in the same direction as the traffic next to it – cyclists are free to cycle in the traffic instead.

      but where the mandatory cycle lane operates as a contraflow – e.g. going the ‘wrong’ way down an otherwise one-way street, as here (the lanes have since been changed to painted-on lanes only as I recall) – then I’m not so sure. You’d have to check the details of the local TRO; there’s presumably a chance that a cyclist outside the contraflow lane would be deemed to have ignored a one-way sign and committed an offence!

  3. Rory permalink
    11 April 2011 02:03

    In Derry there’s a cycle lane parallel to a pedestrian path with a grass verge separating the two. Often there are pedestrians on both paths meaning they’re unavoidable. I ring my bell but still get shocked or indignant looks. The paths are each clearly marked (blue sign, White bike, blue sign, White pedestrian symbol). What is the legal status of each party? Could the pedestrians be advised not to walk on the cycle path and vice versa?

    • 11 April 2011 09:03

      hi rory

      this site discusses the rules in england and wales only – northern ireland can be different. so i can’t give you a definitive answer, sorry.

      if the lanes occurred in england and wales, my initial reaction (not fully researched) is that it is possible that a cyclist might be committing an offence if they rode in the pedestrian section (at least if it is beside a road – see this post) but i’m not aware of any offence for a pedestrian walking in the cycle lane, and even the Highway Code doesn’t seem to advise pedestrians to keep off footpath cycle lanes. But it’s possible that the TRO could say something about both points.

      Hope this helps

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: