Is It Ever Appropriate To Ride On Sidewalks?

At issue is whether or not it is ever appropriate to ride bicycles on the sidewalk. This topic has brought on a lot of discussion amongst bicyclists. Many feel that it a bicyclist’s right to ride in the road, which it is, but that it is therefore also a responsibility to take that right for the sake of all bicyclists. Others feel that personal safety is paramount and that, right or no right, they should ride where they are safest. The argument against this mentality is that if you don’t exercise the right to the road it will be taken away.

When there aren’t bike lanes or good shoulders on a particular road, riding on sidewalks may not be the answer. Some believe that riding on sidewalks adds more confusion for motorists and cyclists at perpendicular streets and that it gives drivers the impression that bicyclists have NO place on any street, in spite of the share the road sign that was posted just a few miles back. They believe that if we are abiding by the laws of the road then the sidewalk is no place to ride.

Technically, they may be correct. In many cities the law is that bicycles cannot be ridden on the sidewalk if the rider is over the age of 12 (what about adults riding with their young children?). It is possible that adults on the sidewalk can be confusing to drivers and give the wrong impression that we don’t belong on the road. However, there are spots that the sidewalk is much safer for a short distance due to road conditions such as lack of a shoulder, a blind hill, or an unsafe traffic pattern. Often times these locations are areas that see almost no pedestrian traffic.

To be sure, you should be wary of riding on the sidewalk for at least two reasons: 1) Cars turning into and off of the road you’re riding parallel to don’t always check for fast moving pedestrians/cyclists on the sidewalk. 2) Pedestrians can be too distracted to look before entering sidewalks.

Designated on street bike lanes are better. In general, bicyclists can see and be seen better when riding in traffic, either in a bike lane or in the slow lane. It is safer for everyone involved when the bicyclist is traveling 15-17mph or more. So, speed is also factor. Stay off the sidewalks if you can keep up with motor traffic.

Who wouldn’t rather receive a ticket for riding on the sidewalk than to get hit by a car? Sure, riding on the sidewalk may give car drivers the wrong idea, but if they are going to hit us, get mad at us or come close enough to us to stain our shorts, which would be better? Does it really have to be one or the other?

Certified cycling safety instructors give many training talks. Their advice for roads without a bike lane or reasonable shoulder is to ride far enough into the lane to force drivers to pull out to go past instead of trying to squeeze past without moving into another lane.

Riding on the sidewalk should be avoided and is actually illegal in many places. Still, I have two sections of my commute that I have switched to riding on the sidewalk both ways (which does mean I am riding the wrong way on the sidewalk sometimes). The sad thing is that these sections of road actually have bike lanes on both sides of the road that I could use, and have used in the past.

Sewer Grates In The Bike Lane

In one section, the bike lanes are almost completely crossed by sewer grates at regular intervals, causing a rider like myself to swerve into or nearly into traffic, eliciting horn honking and a general gnashing of teeth for all parties involved. Furthermore, there is only an eighth inch high white paint line protecting me from lousy drivers in rush hour traffic. However, if I move to the sidewalk, I have the three or four foot bike lane as a buffer, an eight inch high curb for protection, and I have a wide sidewalk to ride on. In the past several months, I have only seen two pedestrians on the sidewalk when I am riding, and one other bicyclist on this section of sidewalk. One other factor to consider: this is a four lane highway. Riding the wrong way on my sidewalk route enables me to eliminate two crossings of a four lane highway during rush hour. All of this within one mile from work.

The other short section is one thousand feet long or so. It goes under the Expressway (relatively dark under the bridges transitioning to sunlight).

Sidewalk route or bikelane?

Immediately upon coming out from under the bridge, the expressway entrance ramp peels off to the right. The bike lane? This is one of those areas where the bike lane transitions and crosses the entrance ramp to the expressway right at a point where driver’s eyes are transitioning from darkness to light and they are probably not expecting a bicyclist to be there. The bicyclist doesn’t even have the protection of a white line protecting them.

In contrast, the sidewalk under the bridge is actually raised above traffic four or five feet, has an additional three foot railing and is relatively clear of debris (the bike lane is none of these things).

Where would you rather ride?

On this section, I regularly meet one other bicyclist commuter that is riding the wrong way going the opposite direction on the same sidewalk as me. There is plenty of room for both of us and I have never seen another biker or pedestrian on this section. It doesn’t even matter if the drivers see me; I am safe from them at this point.

Which route makes more sense to you?

Sure, I have to stop to cross the entrance ramp. But I get a good view of the oncoming traffic and can wait until it is safe to cross. I can’t stop like this in the bike lane. I am committed to a potentially unsafe maneuver in potentially lethal traffic at a low visibility site.

No. I am sorry, but my safety trumps any need to put on a good appearance for motor vehicle drivers in the name of giving them the right impression about bicyclists.

Illegal or not, we are going to ride and our personal safety ALWAYS needs to come first!