The Mechanic Speaks

Home » Transportation Series » Coded in Law

Coded in Law


After concluding in Part I that non-motorized road users have a theoretically equal legal and moral right to public roads alongside cars, it’s now time to look at how this actually plays out in reality.

Pedestrians are legally entitled to walk on the road when (and only when) there is no sidewalk available, which seems perfectly reasonable.  If there is no shoulder present then pedestrians must “yield” to cars (see 506d), presumably by getting off the road entirely.  For a rural road with no shoulder and any medium or greater flow of traffic, this constitutes a severe limitation on a pedestrian’s “right” to public roads.  Sidewalks can be vanishingly uncommon in America outside of city centers, which greatly reduces the usefulness of a huge portion of roads for travel by foot.  Here is a look at a semi-rural section of Virginia Highway 11 in the Shenandoah Valley.  I picked a point about 3 miles from the center of Staunton, VA (pop. 24,000) and about 2 miles from Verona, VA (pop. 4,000).  It is reasonable to think that a person might walk to either town along this road.  The lack of even a narrow shoulder is a particularly glaring omission considering that enough lane space was made available for a climbing lane.

Click for interactive view

Virginia Hwy 11 – Click for interactive map

The next picture is another example of road infrastructure lacking pedestrian facilities.  I took this picture on a residential street in Reston, VA, a suburb of the DC metro area.  There is a bus stop with a newspaper box visible directly ahead and the side path in the grass is well worn, showing regular use.  There are no sidewalks on either side of the road, despite having a sufficiently wide right-of-way to provide space for free street parking.  The presence of free street parking is a tremendous and typically unacknowledged subsidy to drivers.  In his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Donald Shoup estimates the annual value of free parking at $127 billion.  Yet despite the huge cost of this free service for drivers, pedestrians are too often given little consideration.

a residential street in reston, va

a residential street in reston, va

Where sidewalks do exist, they sometimes may not be particularly useful due to bad design or poor maintenance.

bad sidewalk design and poor maintenance

a sidewalk on Wilson Blvd in Arlington, VA

Compared to pedestrians, cyclists have a much more active advocacy bloc and cycling is seeing a surge in popularity in metro areas across the US.  Legislative progress, however, remains slow.  The 2013 Virginia General Assembly saw three bills presented that would have encouraged cycling.  These included an anti-dooring bill, one aimed at drivers following too closely, and one mandating that drivers exercise due care.  All were defeated.  This was hardly unexpected: I attended a townhall early this year where legislators predicted that votes would split roughly along the urban/rural divide, which proved mostly accurate.  This highlights an important characteristic of regional attitudes towards transportation modes that will be the topic of a future post.

If the law seems less than supportive of vulnerable road users, drivers can be far less so.  A recent “sting” was conducted by Montgomery County police targeting drivers violating the right-of-way of pedestrians in crosswalks.  “Sting” is in quotes here because the operation was advertised in advance and officers wore brightly colored clothes, both efforts aimed at giving drivers every chance to avoid a ticket.  Crosswalks are the only road areas where pedestrians are given real protection by law, making the great number of violations that much more remarkable.  A similar “sting” was conducted in DC on Pennsylvania Ave targeting illegal U-turns across the centrally located bike lanes.  The extremely high rate of illegal U-turns continues unabated.

A final example of legal codes favoring motorized transportation regards bicycle theft.  In the US there is no standard form of vehicle insurance available for bicycles, despite the fact that a well-equipped bicycle can cost as much as a used car.  There is no legal requirement for bicycle manufacturers to standardize serial numbers, as car manufacturers do with VINs.  Some serial numbers are partially obscured by other parts, as in the picture below.  In the event that this bike is recovered by police they would have to remove the plastic cable guide in order to read the serial number.  A less concerned officer might simply move the bike to the auction pile.  All this makes reporting and replacing a stolen bicycle a difficult and expensive task.

serial number partially obscured

The laws discussed here help to reveal that the ideal of freedom of movement is often curtailed significantly for certain groups of road users.  Oftentimes these laws hew closely to broader public attitudes towards transportation.  The next post in this series will look at some of the more personal aspects of these broader trends.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

1 Comment

  1. […] This article was originally published at The Mechanic Speaks. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: