In Defense of Sidewalk Bike Riding


Photo credit Edenpictures via flickr.
This post is part of series written by TreeHugger contributors about trading in your car for a bike for trips that are two miles or less in distance. The series is sponsored by the Clif 2-Mile Challenge.

As a new or continuing city cyclist, you are bound to hear the admonishment: "Don't ride on the sidewalk. It's dangerous." I swallowed that Kool-Aid for quite a while. After all, I want cycling to be a respected part of the transport infrastructure, I want cyclists to be generally law abiding and not continually agitate either pedestrians or car drivers (or each other!). But that word "dangerous," bandied about as it is so frequently in cycling, should serve as the first clue that the warning to not sidewalk ride is a complicated, multi-faceted subject.

So first, the danger. Sidewalk riding is illegal is many places, and while to me it's sort of akin to the crime of jaywalking, it must be stated. So it's nothing you would want to make a continual habit of. In addition, police sources as in the clip above say sidewalk riding has "several times the crash risk of riding lawfully in the street."

With those ideas in mind, however, as a dedicated car-free urban cyclist since 2006, and a mom that is trying to encourage her two children to safely cycle around our city or Portland, Oregon, I believe there are in everyday cycling occasions on which a cyclist may need to sidewalk ride. Since taking the Clif Challenge, I have tried to ride even more than I normally do, using Google Bike Maps to explore the best (and safest) routes for new rides. But I believe controlling speed and staying alert to traffic are far more important than always and unequivocally eschewing a short sidewalk ride.

Before I detail some situations in which I think a bit of sidewalk riding is necessary, I'd like to say that I accept the idea that the larger and heavier your vehicle - and that includes the bicycle - the more responsibility you have for more vulnerable road users. I'm a pedestrian too, and common sense and civility mean I try to always, always yield to a ped at crosswalks and in every uncertain cycling situation.

1. Sidewalk cycling when the bike lane suddenly ends. As a cyclist, you know you've experienced the sudden, without-warning end of a designated bike lane. Though Portland, Oregon is a premier cycling city, this happens frequently to me, especially when I am riding to a new place, so I imagine other cities' cyclists might experience this, too. When this happens, if heavy or swift traffic makes me uncertain, hopping on the sidewalk until the situation improves seems logical and in the cyclist's best interests. I am willing to also hop off the bike and walk it for some yards if the pedestrians are thick.

2. To try to cross. Portland is decidedly less dense than say, Manhattan. Frequently in my daily rides, I encounter streets which, if I stay stopped at them, I don't seem to trigger the light in a reasonable amount of time. Some people would just go through the interesection. Is that safer? My strategy is to slow, pull up onto the sidewalk, press the "Walk" button, and when it flashes, bike through the crosswalk. Other cities may have different sensor systems, but this seems an acceptable use by cyclists of city sidewalks.

3. Behind the Bus. In London, research has already demonstrated that women are especially vulnerable to getting crushed by lorries and buses when cycling. In my city, I've experienced anxiety when I'm behind a bus, and bus drivers probably feel the same about me. While there may be no "best" here, but in many cases when I'm trailing a bus, trying to get onto an alternative side street for riding means I'll use a stretch of sidewalk. I think this is okay, and certainly preferable to a dreaded right hook collision.

Now, the gods of the road and loyal law-followers may seem the sidewalk biking issue only in terms of black and white, and view sidewalk riding as a no-no. And on the day when bicycles have a bona fide piece of the road in cities everywhere, cyclists will only need to avail themselves of the sidewalk on rare occasions.

In the meantime, the best policy for me is to endeavor to stay safe over and above staying to-the-letter legal. What works for you? Tell us in the comments.

Read more at TreeHugger about cycling and the law:
Should Bike Scofflaws Get Police Scrutiny?
Drive-Through Discrimination: Bicycles Are Vehicles, Too
Bike Backlash From Boulder to Long Beach

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | Bikes | Bike Sharing | Biking | Ride Your Bike