How Do We Deal With People Riding Bikes on the Sidewalk?

CC BY 2.0. Seth Werkheiser/Flickr

As a pedestrian, I really hate it when I see a cyclist on the sidewalk downtown, there just isn’t enough room and it’s dangerous. Of course one of the reasons that there isn’t enough room is that most of the space is given instead to moving and stored cars, so that there isn’t much space left. So the pedestrians are fighting for space with tent signs and newspaper boxes and sidewalk cafes and tree planters to where it is almost impossible to walk. There’s simply no room to add cyclists into the mix.

Dufferin street

Dufferin at dusk; crowded street and empty sidewalk/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

As a cyclist, I really hate it when I have to ride into the suburbs on arterial roads. The speed limit is posted at 50Km/hr and they are all driving 80. They are speeding by so close, almost clipping me. It’s twilight and I worry if they can see me or if they are even looking at the road instead of their phone. To the right of me is a nice juicy and totally empty sidewalk, because nobody walks up here, everything is too far apart. So occasionally, when I am really nervous, I have ridden on that empty sidewalk.

As a member of a Facebook group called Walking Toronto that promotes safe walking, I noticed a post that started sensibly and innocuously, with “Let's talk about cycling on the sidewalk. It's illegal for those 14 and over to cycle on the sidewalk. It's not sidebike; it's a sidewalk.”

It quickly degenerated into an all out attack on all cyclists who are “so smug and yet so many of them break all the rules of the road and put themselves, pedestrians and even car drivers at risk.” I foolishly dove in and pointed out why I sometimes have ridden on the sidewalk, because it is so scary to be on a bike in some places where the cars go so fast. One response, which I repeat in full so that I can parse, was this:

"Lloyd, that old 'cars do this and that' argument has no cred re the subject of sidewalk cyclists. There is zero justification for riding your bike on the sidewalk. Of course there are dangerous roads, where cyclists will be at greater risk, but that's the nature of the activity which you accept when you choose the bike as your mode of transportation. You and your bike, are a vehicle, governed by the Traffic Act as any other. The idea that you can head onto a sidewalk any time you feel at risk, is a selfish act that in essence says "my safety is more important than yours" and that entitled attitude, is precisely the issue here and the problem that needs to change. Cycling will always be a high risk activity. The onus is on the cyclist to protect themselves with adequate equipment, skill and knowledge of the Traffic Act. If that responsibility and it's risks are beyond what a person can accept, then they need to join me as a transit rider and sidewalk pedestrian."

Now I could talk about who has a sense of entitlement here, or why cycling is a risky activity, or how the Traffic Act discriminates against both cyclists and pedestrians (lets talk jaywalking rules) a or what adequate equipment is, or I could discuss what the real problem is.

The problem here is that the cyclists and the pedestrians are for the most part, fighting over scraps. We are living in a city where the suburban politicians want to have their four lanes, all of which are twice as wide as the pedestrians’ two lanes, and when the cyclists get no lanes. We should be working together to get more of the pie for both camps, not attacking each other. They have the same problem in New York, and I see Ben Fried even uses the same language when describing the solution:

"Sidewalk cycling has declined dramatically where redesigns have made people feel safer biking on the street. The more streets that get this treatment, the less pedestrians and cyclists will fight over sidewalk scraps, and the more protection everyone will have from reckless motorist behavior."

As another commenter put it:

"As a year-round, law-abiding cyclist and regular pedestrian these people drive me nuts too. I think a general blitz on cycling laws and etiquette would be a good idea (red lights, for example) - however, I'd caution you that there are probably only a few percent of cyclists who engage in this behaviour. The real problem is the amount of right-of-way space allocated for cars v. everyone else. Non-single-occupant-vehicle users should stay united on this, even if there are some jerks among our ranks."

walking in bike lane

© Bike Snob NYC

There are jerk cyclists who should not be on the sidewalk. There are jerk pedestrians who walk in the bike lanes. (In New York this is an insane problem.) They do it because there is no room on the crowded sidewalk. In both cases, the cause of the problem is twofold: 1) jerks exist everywhere and 2) the default mode is to give most of the space for moving and stored cars. Pedestrians and cyclists should be working together to fight that, instead of yelling at each other.