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The Basics of California Bicycle Laws

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Posted on January 13, 2023

Bicycling has many benefits for personal health as well as for a healthier environment. California’s mild climate and hundreds of miles of scenic bike paths from LA’s Marvin Braude Bike Trail, San Francisco’s Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge ride, and the Napa Valley Vine Trail to the Mission Bay Bike Path in San Diego. The temperate climate and infrequent rain also make cycling for short work and school commutes a viable option year-round in California, and especially in the bike-friendly city of San Diego.

Unfortunately, as the number of cyclists enjoying the California roadways increase, so does the number of accidents — including bike accidents with serious injuries and fatalities. By familiarizing yourself with the basics of California Bicycle Laws before you hit the trails or roadways, you can minimize your risks of both fines and accidents in San Diego and on California’s scenic roadways.

Mandatory Bike Equipment Laws in California

California has basic rules for equipping a bike before riding. A bicycle and cyclist must follow these important equipment requirements for bikes and for themselves in order to cycle safely and legally:

  • Bikes must be sized properly for the cyclist to control, meaning they must be able to safely start, stop, and support the bike with one foot on the ground
  • Bikes must have regular/appropriate seats and handlebars
  • Bikes must have fully functional braking systems
  • Bikes must have a red rear reflector and a white light in front for night riding and white or yellow reflectors on each pedal or shoes
  • Cyclists under age 18 must wear bike helmets while riding and all cyclists may NOT wear headphones over both ears or earplugs

In California, violations of these laws are not criminal offenses but are instead classified as “infractions” punishable by fines. All of California’s bike equipment requirements prioritize a rider’s safety.

Where are You Allowed to Ride a Bike in California?

California follows a “wherever you can ride” rule for bicycles. This means you can legally ride a bike wherever you can ride as fast as traffic. This naturally eliminates major freeways but allows bike riding on the streets in most communities, neighborhoods, and urban areas as well as on designated bike paths. If you’re riding slower than vehicle traffic you must ride with traffic, as close to the right side of the road as possible except when avoiding hazards, passing, or making a left turn, and only if there is no bike lane present.

Importantly, bikes may take up a lane on roads too narrow for vehicle passing. This often misunderstood rule sometimes leaves drivers at fault in accidents. Car drivers are not allowed to interfere in a bike rider’s safe operation of their bicycle and must leave at least a 3-foot distance between car and bike when passing. Many California cities, including San Diego, have sharrows (shared-lane markings) on the roadways as guidance for bikes and vehicles.

Cities and local ordinances control whether or not bikes are allowed on sidewalks.

San Diego’s Bicycle Community Resources

San Diego is one of California’s most bike-friendly cities with many resources for cyclists such as the iCommute bike map showing the city’s 1,800 miles of bikeways, and trails so you can plan your routes and the San Diego County Bike Coalition for important road rules and bike safety information.