Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Coexistence 3: Bikes On The Sidewalk?

What is that bike doing in the street when there is a perfectly good sidewalk over there?

I often read comments by upset motorists that exclaim bikes should get off the road, and go on the sidewalk. I also see cyclists who always ride the sidewalk for fear of the cars. Even worse, I often see cyclists who freely hop between the road and sidewalk whenever they feel like it, often without signaling intentions to motorists or other cyclists, who do not expect such unpredictable behavior.

(No sidewalk riding stencil. Photo by Jackie Huynh.)

Riding on the sidewalk is often falsely assumed to be a safer and more ideal place for bikes. The truth is that most cycling injuries occur to those who ride on the sidewalk. This happens for a couple of reasons. For one thing, sidewalks are in no way designed for higher speed traffic, especially in Los Angeles where sidewalks tend to be narrow and full of parking meter poles. There are of course the often unpredictable pedestrian traffic that actually belongs on the sidewalk, and is generally displeased to have bikes whizzing past them. I regularly travel at speeds in the range of 17-25 mph on the road, but I would never be able to travel that fast on the sidewalk for fear of slamming into someone or clipping any number of objects that litter the sidewalk.

Although riding on the sidewalk removes the cyclist from sharing the road with cars, bikes and cars still interact. Sidewalks are frequently broken by low visibility drive way entrances and exits for cars, suddenly subjecting a cyclist to sharing space with a car. This is an important safety concern. Motorists typically move their vehicle across the sidewalk and a few feet into the road because that is the only way they can see oncoming traffic, especially when adjacent parallel parking further obscures the view. This is basically like a brick wall that suddenly appears in a cyclist's path. 

Pedestrians move slowly enought to easily stop when car pulls out and they are also likely to see or hear it coming first. If all else fails, they are in a better position to leap to safety then a cyclist. However, depending on the speed of the bike, a cyclist may be unable to stop in time when a car rolls out. A driver is unlikely to see the cyclist, especially if the cyclist is traveling on the sidewalk and is moving against the direction of traffic flow. Wrong way sidewalk riding is the most common situation resulting in cycling injuries and is 4.5 times more dangerous than riding on the sidewalk with the direction of vehicle traffic according to the Wachtel and Lewiston Study.

Driveway Hazard Of Sidewalk Riding
(Illustrating relative visibility of a cyclist to a motorist exiting a driveway)

Sidewalk riding creates the common scenario where a bike does not have time to react and slams into the side of a car and rolls over the hood. Even worse is being impacted from the side, head-on by the car. That can result in being knocked into the roadway, which can result in further injury from oncoming traffic. If a cyclist travels at speeds comparable to a pedestrian, there is less risk of this happening. However, most bike commuters are on a bike precisely because it can travel much faster then walking. Riding a bike on the sidewalk is like being on an obstacle course with moving targets, and is not safe for any parties involved. Almost any experienced bike commuter will be riding in the street, and never touch the sidewalk until reaching their destination.

Another danger of sidewalk riding is it forces a cyclist into the crosswalk suddenly when approaching intersections. If a cyclists rides through the crosswalk rather then getting off to walk the bike, they put them self at great risk of being slammed by a car making a right turn. A motorist typically looks left to make sure there is no oncoming cars, and hopefully a quick glance to make sure there are no pedestrians crossing. A cyclist traveling much faster then a person on foot can enter the crosswalk faster then a motorist may have time to notice or react. So, I do not advise cycling through crosswalks, just as I do not advise riding on the sidewalk. If you are going to cycle through a crosswalk, make sure there are no cars present who may turn right in front of you, or cars making a left from the opposite side of the road who may turn into the intersection. If pedestrians are already in the sidewalk, motorists are likely already alerted to use caution. However, pedestrians have the right of way, so be respectful of them if you are doing a rolling cross. This means politely asking to pass or ringing a bell, and giving comfortable passing room when proceeding.

In the road, traffic typically moves in a highly predictable manner with greater visibility. So, as counter intuitive as it may seem to some, a cyclist is more likely to be hit by a car or hurt in some other kind of collision on the sidewalk or crosswalk than riding on the road.

All this safety explanation aside, it's also against the law in some cities to ride on the sidewalk, though in most cities that law is seldom enforced. Los Angeles is actually one of the few major metropolitan cities that allows bikes on the sidewalk (except where expressly forbidden, and some local L.A. cities have stricter sidewalk riding rules). It's allowed not for the benefit of cyclists. It's allowed so traffic engineers can get away with poor accommodation for bikes as real traffic. Bikes are treated as vehicles by the law, and the sidewalk is typically for exclusive pedestrian use. I've heard stories of cyclists shouted at by less considerate motorists to get on the sidewalk, only to be told by law enforcement after doing so to get off the sidewalk. Bikes are vehicles, and the more cyclists take to the streets and assert their right to do so, the more we will be respected on the road by motorists.

Although it is my opinion that a bike's place is on the road, I acknowledge that some will always choose the sidewalk so long as they are allowed to do so. If you are a cyclist who will not roll on the streets, I suggest you read this article on safe and courteous use of a sidewalk for cycling. The author, like many experienced cyclists does not actually support doing so, but provides the article so those who do can do it safely and with minimal conflict with pedestrian traffic or law enforcement.

The laws about cycling on the sidewalk vary, so check your local ordinances. A good point I had not even considered until reading Dave's post on the topic, is that since cycling on the sidewalk is illegal in many places, or regulated to certain circumstances, you can potentially give up the ability to collect damages if a car hits you. Since if the law states bicycles do not belong on the sidewalk you will be found at fault in an accident. So not only is it more dangerous and likely to result in accidents, but you will have less legal protection should an accident occur. Dave had tried to warn his friend that riding on the sidewalk was a bad idea. He didn't listen, and sure enough he got injured going over his bars braking to avoid a car pulling out. Since he wasn't supposed to be on the sidewalk in the first place, there wasn't anything he could do about it legally and had to pay for his own damages.

(Pedestrians at Hollywood & Highland. Photo credit, Juan Felipe Rubio.)

If you are on the sidewalk, remember that pedestrians always have the right of way. If you need to pass, do so politely, you are treading on their territory. Just as motorists and cyclists must respect one another and coexist on the road, the same respect should be given pedestrians when riding on the sidewalk or approaching cross walks. Sometimes when approaching my destination I roll onto the sidewalk to find somewhere to lock up, but if I encounter pedestrian traffic, I get off and walk rather than trying to rudely cut and weave through groups of people.

One exception to riding in the street is children. Young children are often not aware, skilled and mature enough to handle riding in real street traffic. The vehicle rights granted to cyclists are often different for kids on bikes. In California, the distinction between the two is made by a 20" wheel size or 14" frame size requirement. [C.V.C. 39000] This is an outdated and ambiguous way to judge who is fit to ride a bike in street, especially in light of adult folding and bmx style bicycles which have small wheels and frames. There are also kids bikes with frame geometry that allows for larger wheels.

However sidewalk riding dangers still exist for children, and due to their small size, they are even less visible then adult cyclists to motorists pulling out of driveways. Kids are often riding in residential areas where drivers often pull out of driveways in reverse, which significally impairs visbility. For these reasons it is advised to supervise young cyclists at all times until they are both skilled and mature enough to handle riding in the street on their own. This is a judgment call for the parent to make, and obviously one that should not be taken lightly. Different kids mature at different times, or have different ability levels, and different cities have safer streets than others.

I want to also stress that if you are cyclist who is going to use the road, you have the same rights and responsibilities of a vehicle. [C.V.C. 21200] I want to emphasize responsibilities here because irresponsible road cycling at best fosters ill will from motorists, and at worst, can result in a dead cyclist. This means respecting traffic signals, using hand turn signals to alert motorists of your intentions, having lights when riding at night, and only taking the center of the lane when necessary, among other things.

If you are a motorist who is still unconvinced bikes belong on the road, I would like to remind you that legally bikes are vehicles, and it's the obligation of all modes using the road for transit to coexist. Cyclists are allowed to ride on the same roads as automibles except where expressly forbidden, such as most urban freeways.[C.V.C. 21960] If motorists and cyclists (many of whom are also motorists), behave responsibly and look out for each other, sharing space on the road does not have to be fraught with conflict.

In the words of L.A. cycling activist Stephen Box, "See you on the streets!"


Click the icon below for other posts in the Coexistence series.



Maulie said...

i was hit on two separate occasions riding through a crosswalk. I was hit as i came off the sidewalk by cars turning right. I quit riding because of it for two years.

i wish i knew the stuff in this article then

disgruntled said...

I find this interesting - in the UK, riding on the sidewalk (pavement here, just to be confusing) is illegal unless it's a specifically marked bikelane. I always found it baffling when Americans said they didn't cycle because there were no sidewalks round them.

Of course, now that they're putting in more and more bikelanes in the UK, they seem to prefer to put them onto the sidewalk/pavement, putting cyclists at all the risks you mention, and putting them into conflict with pedestrians to boot. This despite the fact that planning guidance is for bikelanes with the flow of traffic, in the road.

Ah well, we plug on...

Gary said...

I find that generally city planners are more interested in increasing the speed of cars then making considerations for the safety of citizens.

For example, in California periodically they do a radar survey of a road and if 85% of drivers are above the speed limit, they raise the speed limit. Rather then ticket people for speeding they just move the bar higher so speeding becomes legitimate.

A road in the valley with a bike lane is having it's speed limit raised by the LADOT to 50 mph (80 km/h) because of a radar survey, in spite of opposition from local residents and the City Council.

Gary said...


So sorry to hear your experience. I think it would go a long way if bike shops started distributing this kind of information with bike purchases. Most people get a bike, and just start riding it. Then learn all the mistakes the hard way. Education for drivers is rather poor as well, it's not that hard to get a license in most states and issues of sharing the road with bicycles is never tested.

disgruntled said...

Actually, the planning guidelines for bikes in the UK are really good and sensible, with an emphasis on slowing the cars rather than segregating off the bikes - which surprised me because the results are sometimes so strange (see Warrington Cycle Campaign's Facility of the month pages for the worst examples)

Will Campbell... said...

It's probably a semantic argument but bicycles are actually classified in the state of California as "devices," not vehicles.

I think this wording exists in part to allow cyclists to operate their bikes without training/licensing/registration.

Gary said...

I looked it over and you are right. Technically the C.V.C. defines a bicycle as a device. However a rider of said device has all the rights and responsibility of a vehicle driver. I think in common explanation of bikes it would add a little unnecessary confusion to refer to a bike as a device that is granted vehicle powers, when a bike is a vehicle by English definition and has all the legal rights and responsibilities as such.

You are probably right about why they decided to word it that way, but not knowing for sure is going to bother me now. Ahhhh.

stefanie said...

Please don't blame only the planners. Many of us in the field are working quite hard in support of bicycling, walking, and transit. If you really must blame someone, blame the engineers! While some of them are also working on promoting bicycling, decades of engineering work has been dedicated to moving the car as quickly as possible.

Gary said...

stefanie - I probably used planners as too blanket of a term in this case. I realize it is a mutlifaceted wissue with many players involved. I didn't want to dig too deep into politcs with this post which is more focused on being informative of safety for cyclists and motorists.

I'll likely go into more of the politics of infrastructure in a future post after I get some time to do more research on the issue. If you have anything to say on the matter or some informative reading on the topic (I'm especially interested in how it works locally for L.A.), I'd love to hear it.


Enci said...

What a great write-up Gary! I wish I could have linked this to my article. I submitted mine on the 25th. I'll try to somehow ad it to the next one :-)

Anonymous said...

This "safer on the road" logic may hold in areas where people actually are capable of obeying traffic laws. Here in floriduh people cannot grasp the concept of right of way for other cars, let alone bicycles. People will swerve at you and blow their horn as they pass to try and get you to wreck. Riding in the street, in the bike lane, with these people is a game of death.

I choose to ride on the sidewalk, I ride in the grass when I pass pedestrians, I stop and walk my bicycle across busy intersections.

Gary said...

This perspective is influenced in part from my experience primarily riding in Los Angeles and other urban centers, but I do realize some places road riding is scarier than in others. I haven't ridden in Florida, but I have heard it has some of the most dangerous and car centric road design in the country made worse by a heavy dose of drivers who don't give a shit about anyone else. Not that LA drivers are the kindest bunch of folks, but I hear Florida is worse.

The length of blocks, and how frequently there are drive ways influence how dangerous side walk riding can be. If you're going to be on the sidewalk, as I'm sure you are at least somewhat aware already, watch your speed as you approach driveways with low visibility and blind intersections even if you have the right of way.

In a statistical average sense, in America the risk of being hit by a car is actually higher for sidewalk riding. But I would be curious if there are any specific studies on situations of especially poor road design and driver culture, such as parts of Florida.

Anonymous said...

If a city is serious about forcing bikers to ride in the street with automotive traffic - then at least level the playing field speed-wise.

Speed limits must drop to 10 MPH so bikers can easily compete, and so motorists won't want slower moving bikers out of the way.

Then let's force motorized wheelchairs and even the un-motorized ones into the street and lower the speed limits again.

Of course I'm not serious. But I AM for bikes on sidewalks. Just because bikers and pedestrians talk about accidents doesn't mean they can't co-exist.

Motorists talk about accidents all the time, but all that means is accidents happen. Period.

There's really no excuse for sidewalk riders to injure themselves or anyone else if they ride responsibly. But of course we all know there are irresponsible people everywhere, on the road and on the sidewalk. We ticket law breakers on the road. We can also ticket law breakers on the sidewalk without removing them from the sidewalk.

I'll bet far more people are seriously injured or killed on roads than on the sidewalk. You think?

Anonymous said...

I agree that bikes riding on the road are generally safer than on the walkside. But .. the key word here is "generally". The law banning bikes from sidewalk is a black and white law that ignores the different situations.

Sometimesi t makes sense to ride on a desrted walk side, and being cautious about it too. Should it be criminal? no! It is hard to make a law explaining in what cases bikes should be allowed. It is hard, but they should try! The 2nd social correction to overly black/white laws are the possibility of police to enforce selectively using their judgement. But how safe is trust always on the good judgement of policemen?

As a principle, I hate black and white application of the law. See fore example this:

"Boy arrested for riding on the walk side"