The Quietly Transformative OmniBike Bill, AB 1909
Assemblymember Laura Friedman calls the Bicycle Omnibus Bill (AB 1909) she introduced the “OmniBike Bill.” It’s a bill that includes four different changes to the vehicle code (hence “omnibus”), and you could be forgiven if you find vehicle code updates wonky and boring. But each element of the OmniBike Bill will make life better for people who ride bikes and, taken together, the provisions represent a revolutionary change in the way California treats bicyclists.
Until now, the California vehicle code has generally treated bikes like skinny cars — unless that wasn’t convenient for the people in the fat cars. People on bikes need to cross with cars at intersections. But drivers can squeeze past bike riders without changing lanes. Like cars, bicycles are required to register (but with cities, not the state), and e-bikes, like cars, are banned from bikeways in some places.
But bikes aren’t cars, and when you force bike riders to behave like cars (a practice known as vehicular cycling), only the most aggressive riders (primarily men) will brave the streets on two wheels.
If we want bicycling to be accessible to people of all ages, abilities, and risk tolerances, we must change our laws to improve safety.
The OmniBike Bill will change the rights and rights of way for people on bikes. The bill’s provisions will increase bike access and legalize safe bike riding. Here’s how it will change biking for the better.
Creating a margin of safety: Change lanes to pass
In 2013, California passed a 3-foot passing rule. CalBike advocated for the measure, which made it illegal to breeze past a bike rider with only a few inches to spare. But the 3-foot rule has proven difficult to enforce due to the challenge of measuring the distance between two moving objects. And someone on the driver’s side of a car may have difficulty estimating a 3-foot distance on the opposite side of their vehicle. So the OmniBike Bill tells people driving cars to pass a bike the same way they would a car, by going into the next lane, wherever possible.
Of course, not every driver will obey this law, especially at first. But it will be much easier to ticket offenders, and once this rule is added to driver’s education, new drivers will learn it as part of their training. Eventually, changing lanes to pass a bike could become the default, something drivers do because they see others doing it or because that’s how they get taught to drive. And that’s a world where many more people will feel comfortable on a bike.
Improving access for e-bikes
In 2021, more people bought electric bikes than electric cars in the U.S., and sales don’t appear to be slowing down. But some communities lump e-bikes in with motorbikes and ban them from certain bikeways.
To be clear: California defines what can be called an e-bike, and it’s not the same as a Vespa or moped. All e-bikes have a pedal-assist option. There are three classes of e-bikes:
- Class 1: Pedal assist only (electric boost only works when the rider pedals), with a top speed of 20 mph
- Class 2: Both pedal assist and throttle (to power the bike without pedaling), with a top speed of 20 mph
- Class 3: Pedal assist only with a top speed of 28 mph
The OmniBike Bill clarifies where e-bikes can and can’t be prohibited. It will open more bikeways to e-bike riders while allowing them to be banned on hiking and horseback riding trails if desired.
Walk signals are for bikes, too
Many intersections have advance walk signals for pedestrians. That’s a safety measure that allows people on foot to start crossing the street before cars move, so they are more visible to turning vehicles. And there’s a bill working its way through the legislature this year that will require advance walk signals at more intersections, so this safety feature is likely to become more common.
The OmniBike Bill makes it legal for people on bikes to start crossing the street with the pedestrian signal rather than waiting for the light to turn green for cars. It’s a logical move that makes bikes more visible and gives them a head start to claim their space on the street.
No more bicycle licensing ordinances
Many California cities have ordinances requiring people to register or get a license for their bikes. You might be riding illegally right now.
Bike licensing laws are rarely enforced, and most people have no idea they exist. However, as long as these laws stay on the books, police can use them selectively to harass or chase away bike riders that a community considers undesirable. They can be an excuse to target people of color, who often receive much harsher attention from law enforcement than white bike riders.
If the OmniBike Bill passes, municipalities won’t be able to prohibit the operation of an unlicensed bike, though they can still offer voluntary licensing programs. That’s a critical step forward for racial justice.
The OmniBike Bill will make biking safer and more accessible throughout California. It received strong support in the Assembly and is now awaiting a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee. Let your senator know that you support this vital piece of legislation. And stay tuned for a chance to email the governor to ensure that he signs it into law.