Sidewalk Riding

Sidewalk riding is always a controversial topic. It’s legal in a surprising number of places, though the fact that it’s legal is no indication of whether or not it’s a safe practice. I feel sidewalk riding can be relatively safe in certain circumstances and when approached with a certain mindset, but I often see bicyclists on sidewalks riding in ways that are dangerous to themselves and others.

One of the main issues with sidewalk riding is that motorists don’t expect to encounter vehicles traveling at close to motor vehicle speeds anywhere other than in the road. We’re all accustomed to looking in certain directions at certain times while riding or driving, and anything that doesn’t fall within normal traffic patterns runs the risk of being overlooked. Consequently, bicyclists traveling at anything over walking speed on sidewalks are in danger of having vehicles pull into their path at intersections and driveways.

One of the main issues with sidewalk riding is that motorists don’t expect to encounter vehicles traveling at close to motor vehicle speeds anywhere other than in the road.

Likewise, pedestrians are only accustomed to sharing the sidewalk with other pedestrians. Because they’re not expecting a bicycle to come up from behind, they have no reason to maintain a perfectly straight path, so there’s potential for collisions there as well. While collisions with pedestrians are not as dangerous as collisions with motor vehicles (obviously), these negative sidewalk encounters reflect badly on bicyclists in general.

In my hometown, we have a number of high-speed parkways with 2-3 lanes running in each direction. These roads have a center median and wide sidewalks on both sides that are separated from the traffic lanes by grass buffers. The only side streets are major intersections or entrances to neighborhoods. No residential driveways enter these roads. The sidewalks are wide enough that they could easily be considered separated bike paths. The lack of driveways and minimal cross streets make these pseudo multi-use paths safer and more useful for bicyclists than most sidewalks.

On the other side of the coin, we have sidewalks inside residential neighborhoods that are lined with parked cars and criss-crossed with driveways, cross streets, and alleys. They’re also often filled with small children, dog walkers, and skateboarders. Certainly, everyone can agree bicycling on these types of sidewalks is not a good idea.

As I see it, the only way to safely ride on a sidewalk is to act as a pedestrian anytime we’re near a pedestrian or an intersection. That means riding at walking speeds while in the presence of pedestrians, and it means slowing or stopping at intersections, driveways, and alleys to look in all directions (including behind) before crossing. Other than in certain special circumstances such as those along our parkways, I think most bicyclists would find the above approach barely workable. Unfortuantely, any other approach to sidewalk riding may be an invitation to conflict or even injury.

Do you ride on sidewalks? (Feel free to elaborate)

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38 Responses to “Sidewalk Riding”

  • Rick says:

    Alan, I’m comfortable in taking the sidewalk in a few situations (where the road direction is one-way, for example, and I need to go only a block in the opposite direction–I will not ride against traffic on the road, ever); however, the problem as I see it is that when we take the sidewalk, cyclists are then placed with the responsibility to yield to pedestrians. However, as we complain endlessly (and rightfully so) that cars don’t yield to us correctly, I’ve seen many instances here in Midtown where cyclists go too fast on sidewalks without regard to pedestrians, and it’s frustrating–because all that does is create more enemies we don’t need.

    In short, I think the old adage, “when riding on the road, imagine you’re traffic, when on the sidewalk, imagine you’re walking” still seems to hold true; if only we could enforce the laws better…but that’s another topic, no? :-)

  • Jo says:

    I agree that if a Cyclists need o FULLY yield to pedestrians with a wide and safe berth, at VERY low speeds…and even then, they are still tempting fate…

    I looked at this from legal, as well as logistical POV on my own blog…and discovered that there are some interesting stats that show sidewalk riding is also dangerous for the “Rider” as well !

    PS: In the spirit of hockey playoffs, you might like the vids in there as well !


  • ummbnb says:

    In the City and County of Denver bikes aren’t allowed on the sidewalks unless they are designated as part of a bike route. I tend to avoid them except when I have to tackle a high traffic area, especially with my kids. On bike routes and side streets however, I always ride on the street and teach my kids to do the same.

  • Brent says:

    I found it interesting that bicycle lanes in Taipei and Seoul (I visited both cities last fall) were often built into the sidewalk, and not the roadway. Too, the “average” cyclist I saw was riding at a meandering pace by comparison to those I see in the U.S. Perhaps when we look overseas for inspiration, we might be reminded that cycling is slower there, more akin to a strong pedestrian than a weak car.

  • Iain says:

    We, in the UK, have “dual use” paths that are for both pedestrians and bicycles, and similarly to your main post we have to give way “marked on the path” at every junction, minor ones too, and have to be courteous to pedestrians with liberal use of the bell to warn walkers that you approach from behind. Most of the time they are more hassle than they are worth and cycling on the road is more progressive.

  • Graham says:

    It’s sad but true that in my town you are much more likely to hit an oncoming bicyclist on the street (one riding against traffic) than you are to hit a pedestrian moving in any direction on the sidewalk.

    Still, I will only hop onto the sidewalk to avoid road construction as the “detour lanes” they make around the repair zone are always hazards to cyclists. Come to think of it, that almost never happens around here, either (road repair, that is).

  • Helton says:

    Unfortunately I live in a city with heavy traffic, relatively narrow avenues, and little respect from the motorists. There’s part of my commute that’s uphill, so I cannot cachup with traffic speed. So I have to ride on the sidwalk because of a pure safety question, but I feel how uncomfortable the pedestrians feel, afraid many times, even if I ride with most caution.

    The local traffic laws (Brazil) suggest bikes should use the street only, or sidewalks if youre walking your bike, but the way I see things the traffic is wild enough that following the right rules can be really dangerous.

  • Eric says:

    What freaks me out most about sidewalk riding is it is always little kids who are riding on the sidewalks, often against the direction of traffic, often at much faster than pedestrian speeds, and usually without paying much attention to their surroundings. I’m always imagining cars zipping out of driveways and alleys and flattening the children.

    Not that small children should necessarily ride their bikes on the road either. Their shortness can conceal them behind parked cars.

  • David Spranger says:

    Riding on sidewalks is legal here in Charlotte, NC and most bicyclists I see do ride the sidewalks. However, anytime I ride on them (rarely), I feel like an intruder. I just do not feel comfortable traveling at bicycle speeds around pedestrians.

  • Chester says:

    Ditto Rick. I’ll ride on a sidewalk to go one block on a one-way street.

    But, on the sidewalk, I ride at jogging sort of speed, give peds a wide berth, and always look out for folks coming out of doors, cars coming out driveways, etc.

    I hope peds don’t care about this sort of behavior — they ought not. If I dismounted and walked my bike, I’d take up more space on the sidewalk.

    And, yeah: people who ride really fast on the sidewalk are dicks who are making us all enemies we don’t need.

  • Ken says:

    In Portland, Oregon, riding a bike on the sidewalk in the busy downtown core area is a clear-cut fineable offense. Meanwhile, commuting by bike to downtown, I do ride short sections of sidewalk to get out of harm’s way along a difficult stretch where the bus lane and bike lane are one and again adjacent to a long, steep hill lined with parked cars where riding in the road would causes a significant traffic impediment as I grind up in first gear.

  • RDW says:

    “One of the main issues with sidewalk riding is that motorists don’t expect to encounter vehicles traveling at close to motor vehicle speeds anywhere other than in the road.”

    I’ve tried explaining that one to non-cyclists on more than one occasion and they just don’t get it. I think you have to experience locking up your brakes and almost skidding into the side of a minivan which suddenly stopped across the sidewalk in front of you to understand. There are a few places in my area where I feel it is safer for me to ride on the sidewalk but not many.

  • Kirby says:

    Bicycles are vehicles according to the Texas transportation code. I wouldn’t drive a car or motorcycle on the sidewalk so I don’t ride my bicycle on the sidewalk.

  • Surly John says:

    In my locality riding on the sidewalk is legal. There are situations where using the sidewalk makes sense. There is a fairly steep hill with 4 lanes of traffic and curbs right on the edge of the lane. Not a good place to ride. Adjacent is a 12 foot wide sidewalk with no driveways. To me it is just common sense to use the sidewalk to get up the hill. I got in a conversation with another dedicated biker one day and she informed me that she NEVER rides on the sidewalk even on that hill. She had made a kind of religion out of not riding on the sidewalk regardless of conditions. That kind of thinking is dangerous in my opinion.

    Here is my beef with the city. They paint bike/ped symbols liberally on the sidewalks to make sure everyone knows bikes on sidewalks are OK. In all but a few situations the road is a much safer and better place to ride a bike than the painted sidewalk. Motorists interpret the bike/ped symbols to mean the bikes belong on the sidewalk. It really sends the wrong message. They mean well but I wish they would leave the paint and stencils back at the shop.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    There are a number of places locally where bike traffic is directed onto sidewalks. I don’t ride on sidewalks where they cross intersections but I ride a sidewalk for 100 ft every day where it is part of the access to the West Sammamish River Trail which is part of my commute. And on the way home I ride the same spot and then merge into the crosswalk and then from there into a bike-lane on my way home.

    Places where sidewalk riding is legal often have cycling facilities that incorporate sidewalks for at least some areas. Blanket avoidance of sidewalks can put you in unfortunate circumstances. I prefer to understand why sidewalk riding is frowned upon and chose to ride on sidewalks where the concerns are mitigated.

  • Sharper says:

    I generally avoid sidewalks, but living on a one-way street, I’ve found that creative use of the sidewalk and certain driveways around the block can help me avoid a number of traffic signals. Otherwise, I avoid sidewalks (except to salmon a bit, a la Rick). Besides, if you’re on the sidewalk, you can’t get that not-rare-enough-yet and I’m-lucky-to-be-alive thrill from frightening inattentive drivers and leaving size 11 dents in their quarterpanels.

    That said, when my mother moved downtown and asked me for a bike, I wasn’t sure I could in good conscience recommend that she ride in the street; she’s 4’11” and best proportioned for a child’s bike, which means she’s not visible enough or a strong enough rider (yet) to cohabitate with cars. When she and I go to the farmer’s market, she’ll join me in the lane, but otherwise, I recommended she stick to the sidewalks and ride as if she were a pedestrian; go slow, use crosswalks, etc.

  • Jonkehote says:

    When riding alone I never use the sidewalk. When I’ve got my children in a trailer I use the sidewalk on busy roads but I ride slowly and slow down at virtually every driveway. This makes the trip take longer but I’m trying to teach my children not to rush so much anyway. When I’m alone I pretty much let go of the fear of being rear ended by a car but with the kids the consequences feel too big so on the sidewalk we go… at least until we reach a quieter residential area.

  • Jae says:

    There are cases when sidewalk makes sense. Where I live there are few streets with high traffic and the only safe way to ride along the street is on the sidewalk. If fact, our village has signs to tell bicyclists to use sidewalk when the street isn’t wide enough to allow dedicated bicycle lane. I generally try to take alternate route if possible.

    I have to admit that it’s hard for me to tell young kids to ride on the road if they are riding alone around the neighborhood.

  • JonP says:

    This is a huge problem in Philly — way too many sidewalk-riders. The downtown area is very much a walk-first kind of place, so sidewalk riding just pisses off pedestrians.

    I basically never ride on the sidewalk. It’s just not appropriate. Maybe just for a hundred feet at the end of my ride, but that’s it.

  • Jonathan says:

    In my area, as is true with many, cycling on a sidewalk in the downtown area is illegal. Unfortunately, I recently spotted one of our police-on-bike riding her bike on the sidewalk, in the downtown district. I’m not sure I did the right thing, but I did not flag her down to comment on her behavior.

    I might add that it is VERY easy to bike on the streets downtown here. Relatively low traffic at low speeds and plenty of room on the road.

  • Megan says:

    I prefer to use the bike lanes here rather than the sidewalk. The sidewalks here have so many sections and little bumps that its really not as comfortable as the cement. I will ride on the sidewalk along busy roads and if I am going against traffic. Though when I do, I expect to have to stop at all intersections. I have had problems with pedestrians when I’ve used the sidewalk. A teenager suddenly jumped as I was about to pass him. We nearly collided as a truck was heading towards us.
    On the flip side a driver actually leaned out of his window to yell that I should ride on the sidewalk. (Best part, he was driving a company truck, so his employer will receive a letter quite soon!)

  • Rick says:

    Jonathan, the police on bicycles are always exempt from laws regarding legality of riding locations, or else they couldn’t do their jobs.

    That being said, they need to ride prudently, and if they hurt someone, they can be held liable.

  • carfreepvd says:

    I was a little surprised at the high number of people who answered “never” on the survey. Really? You never ride on the sidewalk? I think that riding on the sidewalk is a bad idea 99% of the time, but as outlined in many of the examples above, sometimes it’s the easiest and (more importantly) safest thing to do. Generally speaking, I’m talking about short distances, at low speed, when the road design makes it impossible to ride in the street.

    One point I haven’t seen made is that there are so few pedestrians on the sidewalks. Yes, we should yield to them and go at a slow pace, but the places where I ride on a sidewalk – no one is walking!

    I met an older cyclist recently who insisted on riding on the sidewalks all the time because she felt safer – and her main argument for being allowed to do it was that there are no pedestrians using the sidewalks. Of course, this depends on what city and what part of the city you are riding in. Still, I think it’s a bad idea to ride on the sidewalks in general, but there will always be instances when it’s the better thing to do.

  • CedarWood says:

    We discussed this just the other day. My other half, who is just getting into cycling, told me that sidewalk riding is slow and annoying. I agreed, and there are many valid reasons not to ride the sidewalk, but on the only road in and out of town, where there are five narrow lanes of high speed traffic and a sidewalk right next to the lane with usually no peds, it makes sense to me.

    But I did a test a couple days ago. There were two peds walking abreast, thus taking up the whole sidewalk. Rather than scaring them with my bell (they don’t know what it means and assume it’s like a car honking for them to move), I dipped down into the street and passed them like a car would.

    This was rush hour at 5pm, but most of the cars behind me switched lanes so as not to pass me in my lane. I realized that they were afraid of hitting me because of the narrow lanes; indeed, those few who insisted on driving in my lane passed within twelve or fewer inches. Neither myself nor the drivers were comfortable with me in the right lane. Simply not enough room.

    On the side roads, I practice vehicular cycling, even waiting in the left-turn lane at stoplights. But if there is no room, it might be safer on the sidewalk at 10 mph with a high-viz vest and a good deal of vigilance.

  • AnalogueCheese says:

    I live and ride in a regional Australian city in the state of Queensland. As others have said, I use the sidewalk (footpath to us) occasionally to get where I’m going down one way streets, and sometimes to avoid some notoriously chopped up road surfaces round here, especially when my 3.y.o is on the back.

    Footpath cycling is legal here. Mostly though I stick to streets, even with bub aboard. It’s just that much safer and more efficient, no having to worry about driveways, pedestrians, or intersections, nor bump up and down the kerbs whipping heads back and forth.

    As a frequent walker too, I’ve witnessed many times how cyclists who don’t make themselves known can present like whispering death.

  • Harm says:

    Like any city where cycling is staring to grow we in Rotorua New Zealand have the same problem. The city council is aware of the growing demand for safe cycle in traffic but I’m questioning the way they are trying to solve the issue. They are trying to solve this by creating cycle paths around dangerous area’s first but seem to lack a degree consistency. So what we’ve got now is several ways in trying to solve the safety issue. Cycle markings in one place, shared pedestrian and cycle paths, completely separate cycle paths and of course the complete lack of any form of cycle path. What I’m frustrated with, is this creates a unpredictable situation through the eyes of the motorist and also the pedestrian not to mention the cyclists them selves. One minute the cyclist shares the road with the motorists and the next minute they’re expected to share the footpath with pedestrians. Road rules are developed to create a consistent and safe commuting environment. That way everyone knows what to do and how fast to travel in certain areas. By creating several cycling options as to where the cyclist is positioned in the traffic scene creates an uncertain and dangerous traffic scene.
    To create a safe cycling environment there must be a high degree of consistency so that all parties know exactly what the situation is and less accidents will happen.
    I try to ride on the road as much as possible and share the road and it’s rules with the motorists. That way the motorist is confronted by the presence of cyclists on the road and will (eventually) amend their driving behavior accordingly. It’s not a question ‘if’ this will happen it ‘will’ happen. If there is no consistency provided by your district council one must create a consistency amongst cyclists.

  • Thorsten H. says:

    We here in Germany have many different rules / laws regarding where a cyclist may drive and where not. After some changes during the last 10 years, the main rule is: A cyclist as any other “vehicle” must drive on the road – but the car drivers don’t want to know that and many cyclist hope that this is not true … strange world!

    There are several official street signs (search for No. 237 (bike lane – MUST be used), 240, 241 (mixed lanes – MUST be used, but only with a speed as a pedestrian)) that forces you to ride on the area of the sidewalk, sometimes separated with different painting. Sometimes there are even a special sign forces you to use the sidewalk in the wrong direction – eeek!

    The situation becomes far worse, because in many places the signs are removed and you’re not longer forced to use the sidewalks, but the painting is still there, so a lot of (older) cyclists still use it and most of the car drivers believes, that there is still the forced need to use this sidewalk and try to make that more than clear to a cyclist driving on the road.

    Of course this slows down your ride dramatically and while many of the bike lanes on sidewalks are in a very bad condition it slows you down even more.

    Beside “bike ninjas” riding anywhere they want, preferable on the road and cross everything, and in (most cases) older people always riding on sidewalks, even if there is a bike lane on the road, the biggest issue in my hometown are so called “ghost riders”, cyclists using a sidewalk / bike lane in wrong direction without being allowed (see above). At some times, 50 – 70% of all cyclist you can see are ghost riders.

    So while I prefer riding on the road, but in many places, sometimes over 75% of my way I’m forced to use sidewalk :-O

  • townmouse says:

    I made a point of never riding on the pavement (sidewalk) in London, because there are too many pedestrians and usually the roads are better – the only exception being clearly marked dual use paths. Now that I live in a rural area, where the traffic is faster and there are rarely any pedestrians about, I will occasionally take to the pavement if it means avoiding a hairy right turn across traffic. But always at walking speed, for my own safety and that of others

  • john Riley says:

    I the US context the big difference is between a regular street grid (not great for sidewalk riding – driveways and such) and the supergrid style of development that took over in modern times. In a residential supergrid setting intersections will be further apart, there won’t be any driveways (houses all face into the cul-de-sacs) and there will be few pedestrians.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I almost never ride on the sidewalk, so I voted “never”. The only times I do it, are when the sidewalk functions as connector between pieces of a bicycle trail – which I think is an awful idea, but is nonetheless done.

    I agree with you that there are sidewalks and then there are sidewalks. A long, wide continuous stretch is entirely different from the kind that is constantly interrupted by driveways and side streets.

  • Welcome to Portland, here’s your bike « Car-Free in PVD says:

    […] was in Portland. About the only thing I saw was people riding on the sidewalk in the urban center (a bad idea for many reasons). But they were always going slow, and if I kept my eye on them, I’d see that they were just […]

  • John Lascurettes says:

    Here in Oregon, it is the law that you must ride at a walking speed when riding on a sidewalk near a driveway, pedestrian or crosswalk.

    I only mount the sidewalk regularly in two places. One is to take a few block route to get to a side street on the north side of a 4-lane, high-speed road that is otherwise inaccessible from the southern lanes. The other is a one block of a one way road, going against the one way traffic (so I take the sidewalk) so I can get to the start of my ride from the driveway at work.

    In any case when I get on the sidewalk, I put it in first gear, pedal slow and if I come up behind a pedestrian, I slow to their speed and don’t pass them until such time that I peel off the sidewalk and take to the street again. Even going that slow in these situations still saves me oodles of time, so I’m in no hurry when I’m on the sidewalk.

  • beth h says:

    I’ll stop riding on sidewalks altogether when car drivers stop giving me crap for attempting to take the lane on low-speed, low-traffic roads with little or no shoulder.
    Meanwhile, my bicycle continues to inhabit a no-man’s land where it’s not quite a toy and not quite a vehicle in the eyes of the police. The only time I seem to get noticed by the cops at all is if I do something wildly and ridiculously wrong.
    And the wackiest thing is, I think that many law enforcement officials prefer it that way. Which is why, I think, sidewalk laws are not universal, or universally enforced.

  • Phil Barns says:

    There is a stretch of pavement between my home and town which I use, only when there are no pedestrians. This happens frequently, because the road is the main exit from and entry to a bypass with a large roundabout, handling very heavy traffic including 44 ton articulated trucks and idiots screaming along at 60 to get on the bypass- not a piece of pavement you would like to walk along. Apart from that, I take my space on the road like any other vehicle.

  • Moopheus says:

    I try to avoid it. There’s a couple of places I do it on my commute (to avoid a congested underpass–one I don’t even like using in my car!), or I’ve done it to avoid a bad traffic jam. Otherwise it’s not worth the hassle of avoiding peds and driveways. Some of our one-way streets actually have wrong-way bike lanes, effectively making them two-way for bikes. Locally, it’s generally legal except in “business districts,” where the sidewalks are marked. It’s not strictly enforced.

  • Jamesj says:

    I just got hit riding against traffic crossing a walkway on a sidewalk. I was ticketed 130 bucks, my wheels are bent and I don’t know if my bike is usable anymore. I had bruises and my body was sore for a couple of weeks. Im lucky I wasn’t hurt more.

    I will admit it was my fault, I should have used more caution. It was a hard lesson to learn.

    So am I going to ride against traffic on a sidewalk again? NOPE. I’ll take the long way and bike path.

    – james

  • Steve says:

    As a rule, whenever I cycle on sidewalks I do so when approaching my final destination or if there is some sort of road blockage. My big pet peeve is the speed at which people ride on sidewalks. I try not to cycle much faster than jogging speed and I always keep an eye out for driveways, especially ones with blind spots.


  • WAP-Tek says:

    unless the bicyclist is in violation of another law, Oregon Revised Statute 811.050
    $300 fine Class B traffic infraction for the motorist (”Failure to yield to rider on bicycle lane”)
    or on a sidewalk,

    In Portland, Ordinance 16.70.320E if a running motor vehicle is near the sidewalk’s transition
    to a street, a bicycleist must Ride at a walking speed (3MPH ) , or walk the bike .

    RIDING a bikes is kinda banned in the bus mall on 5th and 6th streets
    between nw irving and sw harrison and sidewalk bicycling is off limits
    in the “core” (gridlocked) between 13th Ave and naito parkway from NW Hoyt to SW Jefferson

    most of the time the police “warn” bicyclists rather than “cite” them unless they get pissy

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