Neither This, Nor That

Hybrid Sidewalk/Bike Path
Sidewalk or Bike Path?

I’m in general agreement with those who believe sidewalk riding is not a good idea. My belief is that the dangers associated with intersecting cross streets and driveways from a sidewalk will almost always offset anything gained by removing oneself from the traffic lane. On-street bike lanes, whether they be striped or separated by some low physical barrier, are a better bet because they place the rider in a position where they can be clearly seen by motorists turning across their path from either direction.

I’m in general agreement with those who believe sidewalk riding is not a good idea. My belief is that the dangers associated with intersecting cross streets and driveways from a sidewalk will almost always offset anything gained by removing oneself from the traffic lane.

There are occasional exceptions though. Last evening, I took one of my dirt path alternate routes and ended up being dumped on the wrong side of a 4-lane parkway with a wide center median. My options were to either ride a quarter mile in the opposite direction, which would have been fine and normally advised, or take a “sidewalk” in the direction I was headed. I opted for the sidewalk.

As you can see in the photo, this sidewalk is probably not what most people think of as a sidewalk. In fact, it looks an awful lot like a bike path. A number of these types of sidewalks line the parkways that criss-cross our city. These parkways typically have 4 lanes, a wide center median, and generous landscaped buffers between the road and the sidewalks. The surrounding neighborhoods are designed to feed onto smaller arterials, so there are minimal driveways and cross streets feeding onto these larger roads. These sidewalks are sorely underused by pedestrians, and it’s legal to ride bicycles on them. In a very real sense, they’re a type of hybrid sidewalk/bike path. They’re the closest thing to separated bike lanes that we have in our area.

Of course, bicyclists riding on these hybrid paths are well-advised to use extreme caution where they cross roads and driveways. It’s not good enough to only look ahead; it’s absolutely imperative to look for a right hook coming from the rear as well. As a regular thing, I’d just as soon ride out on the main road in the striped bike lane where motorists can see me coming and going, but in a pinch, these sidewalk/paths are a workable alternative as long as they’re approached with the proper care and an awareness of the potential dangers at road crossings.

13 Responses to “Neither This, Nor That”

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    We have parkways like that as well, and I too have used sidewalks as bike lanes in those circumstances. There is usually not a pedestrian in sight on those sidewalks, and you can go a couple of miles without a driveway or side street.

  • carfreepvd says:

    I like how you make the distinction between this type of sidewalk and the type that that intersects with many driveways and side streets. You are right to call a type of “hybrid sidewalk/bike path.” This is another example of how the local conditions make it complicated to go by a hard & fast “rule” that says “never ride on the sidewalk.” Where I live (Providence, RI), there are no sidewalks of this type, so I stay on the street. However, where I grew up (Overland Park, KS), you see many sidewalks like this with only one street entrance every 1/4 to 1/2 mile. The speed limit for these streets is 45 MPH, but most people are driving in the 50-55 MPH range, so I can see how someone would want to ride on the sidewalk at times. Oh, and you will almost never see pedestrians on those Overland Park sidewalks

    The one problem with this type of sidewalk that I’ve found is that I have to ride about 5 MPH slower than I would on a bike path or street. Even when there aren’t pedestrians around, the concrete expansion joints every 6 feet get a little annoying.

  • Aaron says:

    There are definitely times (albeit rare) when the road geography puts you in a place where the sidewalk is clearly safer or substantially more convenient than riding in the street, and in these times I never have a problem with riding on the sidewalk for a short distance (legal in my jurisdiction). But since I’m on a pedestrian sidewalk, I make sure to act like a pedestrian whenever I encounter an intersection (stop, look both ways) no matter who has the right of way. It’s not the fastest way to get from point A to B, but it’s a very simple way to mitigate the main danger of sidewalk riding.

  • Brent says:

    I’ve had the hardest time figuring out the qualitative difference between a bike path and a sidewalk, especially after having seen bike paths in other parts of the world. In some places, the bike path and the sidewalk are exactly the same surface, and labeled as such. I’ve heard some arguments that sidewalks have more driveways and intersections than bike paths have, but that doesn’t make much sense either, because it seems to limit the definition of a bike path to beach-style paths, where the infrastructure is built well away from other streets. What, really, is the difference? Signalization? A sign indicating “bike path”?

    The studies that show sidewalk riding more dangerous don’t make much sense to me. If sidewalk riding isn’t safe, then why is sidewalk walking safe? If it’s a speed issue, then why don’t we say that — that riding on a sidewalk at eighteen miles per hour is dangerous? If it’s intersections, only, that are dangerous, then why don’t we say that, and train people who prefer sidewalk riding to be more careful at intersections?

  • Garth says:

    I’ll sometimes take a sidewalk when I’m on a 40+mph road, particularly if I am in an uphill section and feel uncomfortable on the road at the lower speed I can maintain. Some motorists are too keen to pass you too close in the right lane while they still have a car to their left in the left lane.

    The problem is that our sidewalks/parkways are not as nice as this photo. There are some that are well segregated from the road and run for long uninterrupted stretches with only occasional cross streets, but they are generally narrow and in poor repair. So you end up going slower, particularly on the downhills, trying to deal with humped and broken slabs, overgrown bushes, patches of grass, etc. But it is difficult to merge with traffic and return to the road when you want to, particularly if there is sod and a curb in the way.

    What they should do is turn those paths into real bike paths, with some real maintenance. They could always include both pedestrian and bike lanes in about the same width as the path in your photo, and then maybe they’d see fewer cars on the road, and more than the occasional bike or pedestrian on the path. I suppose while I’m dreaming, I may as well add trees, plants and bioswales to allow the storm water to infiltrate. These swaths of sidewalks and sod are often fairly wide.

    I would add that I see few pedestrians on most of this type of sidewalk, but I see far fewer bikes, so while bikes may be allowed to use them, the common and expected (even if rare) use is pedestrian.


  • Alan says:


    As far as I know, there are no universally accepted definitions for “bike path”, “bike lane”, “separated bike lane” and “sidewalk”. In my mind (and perhaps only in my mind), a separated bike lane or bike path that runs parallel to a road has some sort of physical barrier between the path and the road. Without the barrier it becomes a bike lane. Then, (and again, only in my mind), once you introduce parked cars between the bike path and road, the path essentially becomes a sidewalk. I think this is an important distinction from a safety standpoint because parked cars act as a barrier, hiding the bicyclist from turning motorists (and vice versa). All that said, there do exist strict definitions for what constitutes various types of paths and lanes within road engineering parlance, but those aren’t necessarily consistent between jurisdictions and across borders.

    Regarding your point about the difference between walking and riding on sidewalks, I do believe it’s an issue of speed and also an issue of what’s expected. Motorists are not expecting vehicles (bikes in this case) to be exiting a sidewalk into an intersection at speed – they’re just not habituated to look for it. It’s certainly possible to ride a bicycle as if you’re a pedestrian, stopping first, then slowly proceeding across all driveways and side streets, but unfortunately, this is rarely how I see riders behaving. A majority of the sidewalk riders I see exit sidewalks at whatever speed they were riding between blocks, and often without a glance back to check for a right or left hook.


  • Reuben says:

    As a traffic engineer, I often deal with the distinctions between sidewalks and trails during the planning and design of these facilities. Sadly, there is no real distinction between trails and sidewalks these days. Had that sidewalk you’ve pictured above been paved with asphalt rather than concrete, everyone would agree that it is a bona-fide bike trail.

  • peteathome says:

    Brent writes: The studies that show sidewalk riding more dangerous don’t make much sense to me. If sidewalk riding isn’t safe, then why is sidewalk walking safe?

    Sidewalk walking ISN’T very safe. A lot of statistics show walking much more dangerous, per mile, than biyclcing in the road. It is mostly the intersections that are dangerous.

    A sidewalk, especially with a large offset from the road, is similar to a bicycling “sidepath”. Both are more dangerous, in general, than riding in the road, because it is difficult for drivers, especially if they are turning, to see a bicycle or pedestrian stepping off into the street.

    Riding a bike into the crossealk is even worst as it happens faster, giving drivers less time to react, and it is harder for the bicyclist to stop if he sees a car coming.

    If the sidewalk has few intersections, and the bicyclist or pedestrian is careful crossing the interesections – looking for traffic that might be turning across the crosswalk while he is in it, then there is no reason it can’t be relatively safe. But most people don’t do this. Most just look for traffic already in the road the intersection crosses and don’t check the parallel street for potential hazards.

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    My commute through Concord and Walnut Creek, CA, involves a stretch along a six-lane, 35-40 MPH boulevard (I usually take a multi-use trail instead, but sometimes end up on this boulevard). The sidewalk is in some stretches right next to the road, in others set back by landscaping. During commute hours, the road is jammed with cars at or above the speed limit. As others have stated, there are rarely any pedestrians on this sidewalk–the distances are too great and it is not a comfortable place to walk.

    The few times I have ridden in the road (running late for the subway), I inevitable end up with many cars honking at me and passing way too close. Yes, it’s my right to ride on the street, but it sure is unpleasant.

    If I end up on this stretch, I generally ride the sidewalk. When coming on the rare pedestrian, I slow significantly and often ring my bell if approaching from behind, with a friendly “Hi” or “Thanks” as I pass.

  • Steve Grimmer says:

    The city of Winnipeg has been putting some real money lately into what it calls an ‘active transportation network.’ This network includes both marked bike lanes on the streets in the city centre (albeit shared by busses during the rush hour, ugh…) and separate paved pathways along the busy four-lane roads in suburbia. The pathways two pavement types, a regular concrete sidewalk, plus an asphalt bike lane about 2 meters wide. There is no median between concrete and the asphalt, but there is at least 2 meters (usually a drainage ditch) between the bike path and the road.
    Where the bike path crosses the occasional side streets, they used a very smart design: there is an exit lane from the road to the side street with a gentle curve, and the bike path curves out to meet the crossing exit lane. This way, the bikes and pedestrians meet cross traffic at a right angle. It increases visibility of the bikes and pedestrians, and makes the shoulder check for crossing cars much easier. Also, at each side street crossing, there’s an island half way across for a safe stoping place if needed. At the busier and higher speed crossings, there are small stop signs for the bikes and signs advising bicyclists to dismount and walk. (I think the walk rule is to help enforce the stop rule.)
    This summer, the city completed a connector that runs from my neighborhood all the way to my work, and it’s been great for my commute. Before, I had the choice between a high speed (80 km/h), 4-lane divided road or a gravel road plus a medium speed (60 km/h) 4-lane un-divided road. Now I take the bike path.
    The city even plows the bike routes, sometimes before the main roads!

  • omg says:

    i wonder. of the bicyclists who have died or been in other accidents, which percentage was riding on the sidewalk vs in the streets with the cars.

    i would like someone to show that statistic to me. i may be wrong but i can’t imagine that more bicyclist die from riding the sidewalks than from riding in the streets with the cars, buses and trucks.

  • JT Foster says:

    I am confused by this part: “My options were to either ride a quarter mile in the opposite direction, which would have been fine and normally advised…”
    Surely you don’t mean you normally advise bike salmoning?
    (Ok, I just went back and re-read it—you must have meant you’d ride in the direction opposite your goal, not opposite traffic?)

    As far as the main thrust of the article goes…
    Here in Honolulu, there are a huge number of bike-riders that wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as “cyclists” the way you or I would. You know the type: riding either a garage-sale special, a Wal-Mart mountain bike or any number of cruiser-style bikes. It’s transportation for them, but they don’t geek out on it the way we do. As you probably know, these are among the most likely of cyclists to ride on the sidewalk.

    These “cruisers” far outnumber the so-called “serious cyclists,” so, combined with the fact that sidewalk biking is legal here in all but the busiest pedestrian areas, means that drivers here expect to see bicycles on the sidewalk. I wouldn’t call it a safe practice by any means, but it is noticeably safer than my previous home of Lawrence, KS (where sidewalk riding was sure to get you creamed by a driveway-driver/right-hook-turner).

    As a result, I often make a discretion call that results in some sidewalk-riding. I typically ride the sidewalk the last short block or so to my destination to ease the road-to-rack transition. If I’m only going a couple blocks (especially the wrong way down any of Honolulu’s numerous one-way streets), I’ll take the sidewalk. If riding in the street means gridlocked traffic (which in turn means less riding and more inhaling toxic car fumes) then I might jump on the sidewalk for a block or two while finding an alternate route. We also have the urban version of sidewalk/bike paths that might let you cut across a park.

    It certainly opens up a lot of options for urban riding.

    (I should note that the Honolulu sidewalk laws have very specific rules about bikes. They are not allowed in the heavy business areas like downtown and Waikiki. You must always yield to pedestrians. You cannot ride more than 10 mph. Granted, I’ve never seen a police officer enforce any of these rules, but most people follow them pretty well.)

  • Fergie348 says:

    Maybe it’s not a sidewalk or bike path. It’s a Segway path! Or maybe it’s a skate park..

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