Virginia boasts over 500 miles of trails for biking, hiking, running and generally use that are part of the national Rails to Trails Conservancy program. These are often beautiful trails running through some of the most scenic parts of our state and are popular not only for recreation but for commuting as well. Trails that are dedicated to cyclists and pedestrians are great for improving bicycle safety, but it is of course impossible to eliminate all interaction with normal traffic. And sometimes when the trail crosses a normal street or roadway, it isn’t clear what the legal obligations of the cyclist are.
What happens when there is no light or other traffic control signal? Can the biker use the crosswalk? Must the biker leave the safety of the path and go to one of the corners? And then what happens when a biker must share a crosswalk with a pedestrian? Knowing what to do in each of these situations is a key part of bicycle safety.
First, it is important to understand that under Virginia law, bicyclists are treated as motor vehicles and NOT as pedestrians. This means that as a general rule, a cyclist must obey all signs, signals and laws that apply to regular motor vehicles. So when a bike trail intersects with a roadway, the cyclist should behave as a motorist would in that situation—following all traffic signs and indicators if there are any. This also means that bicyclists should yield to pedestrians whenever their paths might cross—including on sidewalks and in crosswalks.
When a lack of signs and signals makes it unclear how a bicyclist should behave in crossing a roadway using a pedestrian crosswalk may seem like a good option. Whether a bicyclist can use a crosswalk will depend on local ordinances in the particular city or county where the trail is located. Virginia law states that any county, city or town can prohibit individuals from riding a bicycle on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk. If this activity is in fact prohibited, then signs should be posted. What this means is that a bicyclist who wants to use a crosswalk, would have to get off the bike and walk it across the street before starting to ride again. In some cities and counties, riding a bike through a cross walk is perfectly fine; although the cyclist should yield to any pedestrians. If there is no sign posted, and you’re unsure of what to do, walking your bike across the street is always a safe option; this way you stop being treated like a motorist and become a pedestrian until you once again start cycling.