Cycling and one-way streets
I’ve been putting off writing about it, because it’s a simple question with a horribly complicated answer.
There’s no general rule which makes it an offence to cycle the wrong way up a one-way street.
But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to. There are two separate specific offences which you might commit.
In order to explain the rules of one-way streets, first I need to explain the rules on traffic signs. They can be confusing. Bear with me.
The rules on traffic signs
Some traffic signs and road markings have special legal status. If you fail to comply with the indication given by one of the specially designated signs, you will automatically commit an offence, for which you can be given a fixed penalty or (if you’re prosecuted) a fine of up to £1000. (RTA s. 36(1), (2); TSRGD r. 10(1); RTOA Sch 2, 3)
The stop sign is a good example (right) – it means (loosely) that you have to stop before the accompanying line (and can’t proceed if it would cause danger or would cause another vehicle to alter its speed or course). If you don’t comply, you’ll commit an offence. (RTA s. 36(1), (2)(b), TSRGD rr. 10(1)(a), 16(1), Sch 2 diagram 601.1)
Other traffic signs aren’t specially designated in this way, so it won’t automatically be an offence to disobey them. But that doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to disobey them. Signs which aren’t specially designated are there to indicate that another rule is in operation – so if you disobey the sign, there’s a good chance you’ll be disobeying the underlying rule (which might be a separate offence).
Take for example the “motor vehicles prohibited” sign (right; diagram 619). It’s not a specially designated sign, so contravening the sign isn’t (on its own) an offence. But, generally speaking, a traffic authority can only put up the sign where there is another rule prohibiting the driving of motor vehicles – for example a rule in a byelaw or a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO). (TSRGD Sch 19 Pt II d. 7(1), (2)(a))
Why am I bothering to make this distinction? Sometimes it can matter. As I said before, bear with me.
Signs for one-way streets
In the context of one-way streets, there are three specially designated signs to look out for:
- The no-entry sign (top right, diagram 616)
- A direction arrow on a circular blue background (middle right, diagram 606)
- A “compulsory turn” sign (bottom right, diagram 609)
As I’ve said, because these signs are specially designated, if you fail to comply with one of them you’ll commit an offence and can be given a fixed penalty notice. (references above)
There are a few other things to say about this. First, if the direction arrow or the compulsory turn sign are accompanied by an “except cycles” plate, it seems that you’re allowed to disobey the sign if you’re riding a bike – so you won’t commit an offence (right, diagrams 954.3 and 954.4). Traditionally the use of the “except cycles” plates below a “no entry” sign has been prohibited, although it seems that some traffic authorities have used the combination anyway, and it may be that change is on the way. (TSRGD Sch 19 Pt II d. 21(2))
Secondly, it is sometimes possible to end up cycling on a one-way street, going what seems to be the ‘wrong’ way, without having disobeyed a sign. One example is New Inn Yard in Shoreditch.
I last cycled along here in February, and things may have changed since. But assuming it hasn’t changed, at the western end there are these arrows indicating a one-way street; but at the eastern end you are allowed to enter (in the opposite direction) on a bike. And there are no signs at any point telling you that you can’t continue or have to turn off. So you can end up coming out of the junction at the western end against the arrows (where motorists don’t expect you, and sometimes shout at you for cycling illegally) without ever having committed the offence of failing to comply with a sign.
In that situation, is there anything else which you might have done wrong?
Contravening a traffic regulation order
Wherever there’s a one-way street, there’s likely to be a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) which made it one-way. The TRO might ban all vehicle movements (which would include cycling) in the ‘wrong’ direction on the one-way street. (RTRA ss. 2(1), (2), 6(3), Sch 1)
If you contravene the rules in a TRO you’ll commit an offence, for which you can be given a fixed penalty or (if you’re prosecuted) a fine of up to £1000. So if a TRO bans all vehicle movements in the ‘wrong’ direction on a one-way street, and you ride your bike in the ‘wrong’ direction, you’ll probably commit this offence. (RTRA ss. 5(1), 8(1); RTOA Sch 2, 3)
But contravening a TRO will only count as an offence if the traffic authority has put in place traffic signs which give “adequate information as to the effect of the order”. In other words, the rule which you broke has to be adequately indicated by signs on the road. (RTRA s. 124(1); Sch 9 Pt III; Local Authorities’ Traffic Orders (Procedure) Regulations 1996 (SI 1996/2489) r. 18(1); James v Cavey  2 QB 676; R (Herron) v Parking Adjudicator  EWCA Civ 905, 36-37)
A rule will probably be adequately indicated when the signs are sufficient to let you know what the prohibition is. Generally speaking, signs at either end of a one-way street will probably be enough – it probably isn’t necessary for the traffic authority to put up ‘reminder’ signs, for example.
Also, not only does the local traffic authority have to put up signs to indicate the prohibition – they have to put up approved signs (or, exceptionally, different signs allowed by the Secretary of State). This means that any one-way TRO is likely to be indicated by at least one of the specially designated signs mentioned above. So if you cycle the wrong way along a normal one-way street, the likelihood is that you could be given a fixed penalty or a fine either for disobeying a sign or for contravening the TRO. (RTRA s. 64(2))
But what about the situation where the signs aren’t quite what you would expect – like with New Inn Yard in Shoreditch?
As I’ve said, as far as I’m aware there’s no sign anywhere on New Inn Yard telling a cyclist coming from the east that they can’t proceed along the street. But there are markings which indicate that the street is one-way (in the opposite direction) – there are the arrows at the other end, and a direction arrow in the middle for people coming onto New Inn Yard from the north (visible in this photo. The west-to-east no entry sign behind the tractor was a temporary measure for works – it isn’t normally there).
So is there adequate signing in New Inn Yard, so that someone cycling east to west could be prosecuted for breach of the TRO, even though they don’t disobey any signs?
Questions like this are open to interpretation. But there would at least be a strong argument that the signs aren’t adequate to indicate that cycling east-to-west is prohibited. None of the signs faces someone cycling east to west, so if you’re cycling in that direction you can carry on thinking that you’re exempt from the one-way system – there’s nothing which tells you for certain otherwise. It’s only really if you get to the western end and look backwards at the arrows (or are shouted at by a motorist) that you start to wonder.
So it seems to me that there’s a strong argument that cycling the ‘wrong’ way down New Inn Yard wouldn’t amount to an offence of contravening the TRO, because the signs (arguably) don’t give “adequate information as to the effect of the order”.
Why does it have to be so complicated?
To summarise, then, if you cycle the wrong way down a one-way street, there are two offences which you might commit: failure to comply with a sign, and contravening a TRO.
It’s easy to know when you have to comply with a sign – you can see them. It’s less easy with TROs – generally you have to guess what the TRO says from looking at the signs. This can be tricky, as we’ve seen with New Inn Yard.
Of course it may be that the TRO for New Inn Yard actually permits cyclists to travel the ‘wrong’ way. Things would be much simpler if we could just check the TRO. But we can’t, because (as far as I can see) there’s no general rule requiring TROs to be published online.
From what I can see, most TROs aren’t made available online (and the same seems to be true of many byelaws). This seems to me to be a serious problem in the rules governing cycling.
It means that you can’t easily check your local rules on cycling to see exactly what is permitted. So if you’re pulled up for disobeying a sign which isn’t one of the specially designated signs (which, as I’ve said above, is only an offence if you also contravene the underlying rule), it’s difficult to check what the underlying rule says to see whether what you did was actually prohibited.
If you can’t read the rules in a TRO online, it also means that any public debate about what the restrictions should be is made much more difficult. This is, admittedly, geeky stuff. But online access to TROs and byelaws could be very helpful if you live in a town or city where the traffic authority is one-way-happy, and you want to campaign for contraflow cycle routes.
Photo by briansuda from here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/suda/3573174790/