Bike Commuting 101: Rules of The Road | NYMBlog

Bike Commuting 101: Rules of The Road 12

Bike Commuting: Rules of the Road

Bike Commuting: Rules of the Road

[Bike Commuting 101 is a new series I'm starting to bring detailed and informative posts to bike commuters. I'm writing in hopes to learn something new, and also teach something new. Enjoy!]

In this post, you’ll find any questions you may have regarding the laws you need to follow as a bicyclist on the road! The rules of the road in this post are pulled mostly from laws in New Jersey and New York City, but are applicable in most other states as well.

At the bottom of this post you’ll find a full list of links to bike rules and regulations for each individual state.

If you have anything to add go right ahead and put it in the comments! Any rules specific to your State, or did you find something I’ve missed? Lets talk about it!

Definition of a Bicycle: “Bicycle” means any two wheeled vehicle having a rear drive which is solely human powered and having a seat height of 25 inches or greater when the seat is in the lowest adjustable position.

Bicycling Laws & Safety

It’s important to note right off of the bat, that in general, bikes are subject to all of the rights and duties of automobiles. That means–you’re allowed in the lane, but you also have to stop at traffic lights, yield and signal.

Bicyclist in NYC

Bicyclist in NYC


1. Rights and Duties of Bicyclists - Every person riding a bicycle on a roadway is granted all the rights and subject to all of the duties of the motor vehicle driver.

2. Ride with traffic - This certainly couldn’t be stressed enough, and may not be obvious to everyone. Ride on the right, along with traffic, not against it. Drivers are not looking for bicyclists coming towards them. Note: In NYC, if you’re riding on a 40-foot one way street, than you may ride on either side.

3. Obey All Traffic Signals - Stop sign? Yeild? Red, green, yellow light? Pay attention. You see that school bus stopping? That means you too.

4. Hand Signals - As bicyclists we must learn our hand signals and use them! The law requires signaling when making turns and stopping. You may use either hand/arm when making a right hand turn.

Bike Hand Signals

Bike Hand Signals

5. No More Than Two Abreast - Riding more than two bikes abreast is not allowed unless it’s within one lane and also not impeding the normal flow of traffic.

6. When Can You Move Left? - This is from the NJ Regulations and is applicable in most other states:

Every person riding a bicycle on a roadway shall ride as near to the right roadside as practicable exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction.

A bicyclist may move left under any of the following conditions:

1) To make a left turn from a left turn lane or pocket;
2) To avoid debris, drains, or other hazardous conditions on the right;
3) To pass a slower moving vehicle;
4) To occupy any available lane when traveling at the same speed as other traffic;
5) To travel no more than two abreast when traffic is not impeded, but otherwise ride in single file.

7. Riding on Sidewalks - Bicycles are prohibited from riding on sidewalks in New York City unless signs designate otherwise, OR the bikes wheels are under 26″ AND the rider is 12 years of age or younger. This law varies from State to State and also within localities. Generally, staying off of sidewalks and using roadways is recommended.

8. What Road Can You Use? - You can bet your probably not allowed on most highways unless otherwise stated on a sign. You’re probably safer staying off of these roadways anyway and sticking to local roads. In New York City bicycles are prohibited on expressways, drives, highways, interstate routes, bridges and thruways, unless authorized by signs. You’ll find that some bridges do have separated bike lanes, and that bikes are slowly being incorporated into highways.

Use of Bike Lanes and Shoulders

Bike and Ped Lane--Union Square

Bike and Ped Lane–Union Square

1. Use of Bike Lanes - In New York when provided with a bike lane you must ride within the bike lane unless your safety is compromised or you’re making a turn. If something is in your bike lane, get out. But, you’ll find that this is not entirely universal, in Vermont, for example, bicyclists may ride in the road even when there is a bike lane provided!

2. Riding in the Shoulder - This one can be very important for those in New Jersey and people riding in suburban areas. I ride in the shoulder all the way to work, and technically in NJ that is illegal. But, another example from Vermont(they’re way ahead of us)–they consider all paved shoulders, bike lanes.

3. Vehicles in Bike Lanes - No parking, standing or stopping vehicles within or otherwise obstructing bike lanes.


Do you need a helmet?

Do you need a helmet?

1. Helmet Wear - In most states the laws say that anyone under 18 has to wear a helmet. In NJ helmets are required for those under 17, and in New York City the age is 14. Check helmet laws by state here.

2. Lights - You gotta get yourself some lights. In most states you’ll find laws like this one from NJ:

“When in use at nighttime every bicycle shall be equipped with:
1) A front headlamp emitting a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front;
2) A rear lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the rear;
3) In addition to the red lamp a red reflector may be mounted on the rear.”

Laws again vary state by state, but you’ll need at least a front headlight and a rear red light or rear red reflector.
Some states require that you have reflective pedals or wear reflective ankle bands and have reflective wheels as well.

3. Bike Bells - An audible bell or other audible signal required. Whistles are not allowed.

4. Brakes - A bicycle must be equipped with a brake that can make wheels skid while stopping on dry, level, clean pavement.

Bicycle Operation

Can you wear headphones?

Can you wear headphones?

1. Feet and Hands on Pedals and Handlebars - The rules state that a bicyclist should not ride without their feet on the pedals, and you also must have at least one hand on the handlebars at all times. You know how we like to do tricks in the streets, but according to the law, no tricks or “fancy” riding while biking with traffic.

2. Carrying another Person - You may only carry the number of people on your bike that it is intended for. To clarify, that means you can ride with the number of people that you have seats for, and you can’t post someone up on your handlebars.

3. Hitching on Vehicles is Prohibited - I know, darn it right? No clinging to taxis. You may not attach yourself to any cars or vehicles on the road.

4. Riding with Headphones - This is another law that you’ll see varies, but in New York City and many other places you are allowed to ride your bike with one headphone in your ear, not two.

5. Biking with Children - Children under one year of age may not ride bicycles. This includes in a baby seat attached to your bike. After that, you may ride with your child, and they must wear approved protective head gear.

Bicycling Laws, Rules, and Regulations by State

In this list you’ll find a full list of links to laws for each individual state. I tried to find pages for each state that had the most comprehensive laws, but also the easiest to read and navigate. Some were much harder to find than others. This took a lot of time to put together so if you find it useful consider sharing it!

Bike Commuting: Rules of the Road

Bike Commuting: Rules of the Road

District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Anything else?

Let us know if there is anything that I missed, or something specific to your state! Can’t wait to hear about it!


Did you enjoy this article?
Get Free Updates
  • gpatterson

    New Brunswick has a local ordinance requiring motorists to give cyclists 3 ft when overtaking them. It also requires that they give the right-of-way to cyclists when turning.

    • Ezra Rufino

      Thanks for posting that Glenn, those are really important laws. I didn’t know that New Brunswick had an ordinance giving cyclists the right of way when turning–both on left and right turns. That’s pretty awesome.

  • Pingback: Two years for a fatal SD hit-and-run, and kneejerk NIMBYism rises in opposition to Westwood bike lanes « BikingInLA

  • Gordon Flanders

    i just started riding on the road instead of sticking to the sidewalks. Good to know the laws! Nice post.

    • Ezra Rufino

      Thanks Gordon! Yeah, it can be tricky, some places do allow you to ride on side walks as long as you do it safely, no overtaking pedestrians and so on, which is hard to do on a bike haha. Once you learn to ride on the road it’s your best bet!

  • jenmjimenez

    I stumbled upon your blog on my friend’s Facebook and I’ve gotta say, I’m in love with it! I’m a student at Rutgers for Urban Planning and have always been a bike enthusiast and looking to get my first road bike soon! I commute from Franklin Park and have always been disappointed that there are no safe routes to and fro. Keep up the great work! :D

    • Ezra Rufino

      Hey Jen, (Can I call you Jen?) thanks so much for reading and commenting, it really does mean a lot to me! And you’re so local which makes it even better. I went to Rutgers, and I ride back and forth from South Brunswick to College Ave campus all the time, and all over New Brunswick for that matter.

      What route do you usually take? It can be frustrating to do that ride, there really are no good ways to go, and I’m hoping this begins to change soon. Good luck with your Urban Planning degree, it’s an awesome thing to be a part of and I think it’s only becoming more and more important.

      If you haven’t seen this yet, you might want to think of going to the Bike Walk Summit, it’s being held right at the Civic Square Building next week. It’s a bit pricey but should be cool, here’s some info:

      Catch you soon!

      • jenmjimenez

        You’re welcome! Unfortunately, I commute via car (gross, I know). However I’d imagine having to bike on Route 27 would be quite dangerous, especially since most of my classes are during the evening. Do you have any recommended routes? And thank you for the well wishes! I’ve heard about the Bike Walk Summit from school and maybe I’ll see you there! Hooray for student discounts!

        • Ezra Rufino

          Yeah Route 27 is not the safest, which is the way that I usually go. I usually come up from South Brunswick, and generally until I get to How Lane it’s actually not bad at all, there is a large shoulder to ride in pretty much the entire way. I just wear by bike lights and look back at traffic as often as is possible.

          A friend of mine suggested that at How Lane I take that to the right and then make a left onto Jersey Ave, and take that into New Brunswick. That is slightly longer I think, and it might be just a bit safer, but it has it’s downfalls too. You could just hop on the side walk for the stretch of RT 27 from How into New Brunswick, although it’s not the smoothest ride haha.

          There really are not too many options, as you know! Good luck, and I don’t judge you for commuting by car, no worries, good to know you like to bike too!

  • Pingback: This Week in Bike Reads

  • Pingback: Bike Commuting 101: How To Properly Lock Your Bike

  • Adrienne McCue

    Make sure you tell cars this, because I did my bike hand signals to turn left, and the car just sped up and passed me, not caring if I get hit!

More in Uncategorized (9 of 16 articles)