Tennessee Bicycle Laws and Memphis Bicycle Ordinances

  • By Brett Ratner

    Whether you are just starting out as a cyclist or have been riding for years, it’s important to know your local bike laws. Bike laws are meant to keep you safe around cars and pedestrians.

    Memphis cyclists must follow two sets of bicycle laws:

    We’ve attached both documents to the bottom of this article for easy download. We strongly encourage you to give each a careful read.

    Unfortunately, they contain a lot of confusing legal language, so we pulled out some highlights and simplified them.

    IMPORTANT: The following list is meant to give you a general idea of local and state bike laws. It’s not intended as an official rulebook or legal document. For actual laws you must read the official documents.

    • Bikes need to follow the same rules as cars, such as obeying traffic signs and signals.
    • Cyclists need to ride on the right-hand side of the road, and travel in the same direction as car traffic.
    • Cyclists are required to use hand signals to communicate with drivers, other cyclists, and pedestrians.
    • Bikes are required to have a white light on the front, and a red reflector and/or red light on the back.

    NOTE: Memphis ordinances specify this light requirement only for nighttime riding while the state of Tennessee doesn’t specify when lights are required.

    • Riders under 16 are required to wear a helmet that is compliant with either:
    • Cyclists can ride on the sidewalk unless official signs say otherwise, but must yield to all other sidewalk traffic.
    • A bicycle needs to be equipped with a brake (or brakes) that stop the bike from 10mph within 25 feet.

    NOTE: The Memphis bicycle ordinance designates brakeless fixed gear bikes as compliant, provided the rider has the skill to stop the bike. Tennessee bike laws do not specify fixed gear bikes as legal.

    • Child passengers less than 40lbs need to be secured in a properly-installed child seat.
    • If you’re stopped at a light and your bike won’t trigger the light to change, you can proceed through the intersection when safe to do so.
    • Bikes can ride two-abreast in most situations, but can’t impede “…the normal and reasonable movement of traffic”.

    NOTE: We think it’s more polite to ride single file when traffic is heavy or steets are narrow. Riding two-abreast may be appropriate if traffic is light, you’re on wider roads, and four-lane roads.

    • When riding in a bike lane, the cyclists has the right of way.
    • A car can cross into the bike lane to make a turn, but has to first yield to cyclists.
    • A cyclist can leave the bike lane to make a turn, but has to yield to cars and pedestrians.
    • Cyclists are required to ride as close to the curb or shoulder as safely possible.
    • The cyclist can move left in the lane to avoid an obstacle like a pothole, sewer grate, or a parked car.
    • If the road has a dangerous shoulder, you’re also allowed to move left for safety.
    • Cyclists can move left into the lane to make a left turn.
    • Cyclists are required to give an audible signal when passing pedestrians or other bikers. The audible signal could be a bell or your voice, but cannot be a whistle or siren.
    • A car, bus, truck, or motorcycle passing a cyclist must maintain a distance of at least three feet.
    • Cyclists must yield right-of-way to pedestrians.

    All in all, it’s easy to follow the rules if you ride with common sense.

    • Be courteous and share the road with all forms of traffic.
    • Obey signals and signs.
    • Use quality lights to stay visible, as well as reflective clothing if possible.
    • Communicate your intentions to cars and pedestrians.
    • Ride a properly-maintained bike with well-adjusted brakes.
    • Stay as far to the right as is safe, but don’t be afraid to take the lane for yourself when the situation requires it.

    Finally, just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s always the right option. Here are some examples:

    • Riding on the sidewalk can make sense sometimes, but other times can be unsafe:
    • On the sidewalk, someone can unexpectedly open a shop door in your path.
    • A car can shoot out of a driveway or alley.
    • A pedestrian might not watch where they are going (worse yet, a pedestrian pushing a baby stroller).
    • The same is true for helmets:
      • Even though someone 16 and older can legally ride without one, you might want to wear one anyway.
      • In short, always obey the laws, and also use your best judgment to determine the safest way to ride.

    We hope this article was helpful. As promised, here are the Tennessee Bicycle Laws and Memphis Bicycle Ordinances, as well as links to other helpful resources. 

    About the Author
    Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar Player and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he also occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel.