Is a Bicycle a Vehicle? (And Other Legal Questions)

I am sitting in the first Lawyering session of the year, and the class is debating the definition of the word “vehicle.” Our professor has presented a hypothetical legal problem:  Sally wants to ride her bicycle through Hemingway Park. She wants to know if she can do so without violating a statute that bans “all vehicles” from park land.

I do not see the problem.  A bicycle is a vehicle, so of course, the answer is she can’t.

But then the professor distributes a court decision defining vehicles as “motorized devices used primarily for transportation,” and we launch into a discussion of whether a bike fits this definition.  One classmate argues that bicycles are vehicles because the pedals are a kind of motor.  Someone else rejects that point, explaining that a motor must produce electricity.  Others focus their arguments on whether people mainly use bikes for transportation.  This goes on for five minutes and ends in no clear resolution.

We then read a decision determining that a vehicle “has two wheels and produces a noise,” and the professor introduces another hypothetical case: Can Pat use her speed boat in one of the park’s lakes?

We are unsure whether a boat is a vehicle, and even less certain of the proper definition of “vehicle.”  Must it have a motor?  Be used for transportation?  Have two wheels?  Produce a noise?  And what, for that matter, constitutes a “noise”? My head is spinning.

Now I am in my second year, and I realize that we were learning precision – to find and create fixed meanings for vague words.  These days, I embrace and demand this kind of specificity: I cringe when I hear ambiguity on television, because I know that too often, the fate of the nation hinges on the definition of a single word.  What is “torture”?  What is “marriage”?  What is “bipartisanship”?

That first day, the TA quoted George Orwell: “The worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.”  Nowhere, I realized, is this truer than in the law.

12 thoughts on “Is a Bicycle a Vehicle? (And Other Legal Questions)

  1. Becca,
    I’m an editor/producer for the Law School and help manage this blog. I’m sure that one of the 2L bloggers will be taking up this topic soon. In the meantime, take a look at Ashley’s post on the PILC (Public Interest Law Center) Job Fair!

  2. I had the same discussion at my law school but never learned the right answer until years later when i came across this issue in a real case. The correct answer, which nobody in my class came up with — but maybe arguably should have or at least the professor should have pointed it out, even though it’s really just an exercise — is that under the New York Vehicle and traffic law a bicycle is defined, statutorily, as a vehicle, with only a certain few narrow exceptions depending on the fact pattern …

  3. Nick: Ha! So I guess that means that New York just wanted to avoid the issue altogether. I wonder when this first became an issue…?

  4. The correct answer, which nobody in my class came up with — but maybe arguably should have or at least the professor should have pointed it out, even though it’s really just an exercise

  5. I live in a hilly section of central Florida which sees enormous bike traffic on rural roads. The controversy here is whether bikes have the right, despite the bike lane at the side of the road, to gather in groups of dozens or even hundreds and take up the entire road in areas where it is very difficult to pass them. Do the cyclists have a right to the road? The law here says yes. But with local motorists sitting for twenty minutes going 15 mph waiting for a passing lane, it creates a great deal of ill will.

  6. Sounds like this has the makings of a salient political issue – is the bike group sufficiently represented in local politics to ensure that the legislature doesn’t just ban bikes from the road? They should be, if they want to maintain their rights to the road.

  7. I was referred to this blog post after a short discussion on Los Angeles’ use of the term “bicycle” opposite “vehicle” in a new transportation standards guide. The California Vehicle Code defines a “vehicle” as a motorized device, etc. and a bicycle as a device on two (or so) wheels powered by a person through chains, gears, etc.

    This definition has been on the books for quite a while but it doesn’t match up with globally accepted definitions of vehicles (devices for transportation, typically, of people). Here’s how I see it:

    Land Vehicle

    – Motorized
    — Trucks, Cars, Tractors, etc. (This can be broken down further)
    — Motorcycles
    — Motorized Bicycles, mopeds (>1,000 watt, 20-30 mph, <2 horsepower)

    – Non-Motorized
    — Bicycles, Tricycles, Unicycles,etc.
    — Electric Assist Bicycle (Sub-1,000 watt, sub-20 mph)

    – Pedestrian Conveyance
    — Skateboards
    — Rollerblades
    — Scooters

  8. It’s very interesting that lawyers pick up on the details that most people do not;, when it comes to issues such as “what is marriage” or “what is torture”… Most people prefer vagueness because it’s easier to understand.

    I actually don’t know if a bike is a vehicle or not. It probably is one since it is a method of transportation but it’s not motorized. I would classify it as a “method of transportation”.

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