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In Praise of Sidewalk Cycling

August 12, 2011 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

Horrendously Dangerous Cycletrack and Sidewalk!

Every few weeks a cycling ‘advocate’ will tear into people for daring to ride their bikes on the sidewalk — usually after someone riding a bike on the sidewalk was killed. We get some of the same from many cycling ‘advocates’ when cyclists riding in the road are killed, but the pomposity really flows when the killed cyclist was cycling on the sidewalk. This ‘criticizing the dead’ behavior is boorish, but it doesn’t seem to stop people. C’est la vie.

The concern these ‘sidewalk cycling bloggers’ are trolling is one of ‘safety’ — in theory, presumably they care, or claim to care, about the safety of the person doing the sidewalk cycling — not the drivers and walkers.

These bloggers point to various dubious studies by vehicular cycling advocates, and they fail to provide context for the studies. For instance, I could probably find data that shows walking on one-way streets is much safer than walking on two-way streets. But what use is the study if we don’t talk about the fact that people don’t walk on one-way streets because they’re so anti-human? Not much.

Ditto with these ‘sidewalks are dangerous’ studies — they simply don’t hold water if we claim to care about implementing policies which allow people to ride their bikes. We need studies that look at the totality of safety effects of riding on sidewalks vs. riding on the street — to the extent that such studies can even be statistically significant.

For instance, this safety page (which is, overall, very good — even if it’s old school, and has some nonsense in there about headphones and other alleged dangers) says don’t ride on the sidewalk, except in certain cases where it is OK to ride on the sidewalk - so, which one is it? Always, never, or sometimes? And who gets to decide the criteria?

This video makes a strong case for sidewalk cycling (the narrator clowns League cyclists while he’s at it — funny):

Someone at Treehugger called ‘bs’ on the anti-biking brigade a couple of years ago:

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.

One oft-cited study seems to make some sense — it says, at a minimum, the haters need to stop hating:

Whatever the reasons, sidewalk cyclists should not simply be taught that sidewalk cycling is dangerous and should, therefore, be discontinued. Attempts to teach cyclists effective cycling skills should be considered.

This study from Toronto says sidewalk collisions are lower than riding in the street:

The rate of collision on off-road paths and sidewalks was lower than for roads.

And, if riding on sidewalks and sidepaths is so dangerous, why are they primary features of the roadway infrastructure of The Netherlands, the safest place on earth to ride a bike?

Because sidewalk and sidepath cycling is safe.

If you were ever told otherwise, you were fed a line — by the same people who probably admonished you to wear a helmet.

And when measured in the most critical terms — your ability to bike another day — you are almost certainly safer on the sidewalk than in the road — because most collisions occur in the road — i.e. doorings, hit from behind, etc.

So when certain ‘advocates’ tell cyclists not to ride on the sidewalk — they are effectively telling these cyclists to stop riding — which makes riding overall that much more dangerous for everyone else — because of the safety in numbers effect, in reverse.

So, if you are confused as to what you should tell a new sidewalk rider who has been accosted by the anti-cycling zealots, go with this:

Dude(tte) — I am so happy to hear you’re riding your bike — that’s so cool. Keep it up. Don’t let the haters get you down — haters gonna hate. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and if you feel more comfortable on the sidewalk, then you keep riding on the sidewalk. It’s probably safer there anyways.

I would advise that you not injure, maim, or kill any pedestrians — that just goes without saying — the same argument for cars — they shouldn’t injure, maim, or kill any cyclists or pedestrians — so watch out for pedestrians, and just generally be considerate of them, especially if they’re old — flying by a walker on the sidewalk can make them jump (make the jump/twitch! move here), and that’s kinda scary and just not cool. But other than that, have at it.

You’ll learn that the slower you ride on the sidewalk, the generally-more comfortable ride you’ll have, just because you can relax more, not worry about hitting walkers so much, etc. Try to watch out for blind entrances/exits from shops/apartments — if you start taking the same route every day you’ll learn which doors are busy. It might be technically illegal to ride your bike on some sidewalks, so some cops might harass you if you’re blazing down the sidewalk and menacing people, but if you’re kinda chillin and just moseying then they probably won’t bug you.

All the same rules apply as if you were riding in the road — so read this page if you haven’t yet — watch out for the right hook, definitely watch out for the left hook, watch out for all the cars that are going to blow through every Stop sign on every street along your route — you know, all the usual stuff.

Ride on!

Oh, don’t forget to top up your tires once a week (get a good pump — it’s worth it) — you won’t notice the difference until you top up and then you’ll be like, “Dang! I wish I topped up earlier!” And, it’ll help keep you from getting pinch flats, which are super-common for noob riders like you. :)

A couple of other points — telling people to ride in the street is akin to telling them to subject themselves to harassment, random violence and threats of violence (i.e. terrorism) — from outlaw drivers — I don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do.

Also, telling cyclists to do anything other than not kill pedestrians absolves drivers of…injuring, maiming, and killing people. Just because it is legal to kill bikers and walkers doesn’t mean that it should be legal. The laws should be changed, and we should push for them to be changed. We should pass a radical new law that says ‘Nobody is allowed to kill walkers and bikers.’ — something like that.

Happy sidewalk cycling!

Update: I didn’t point out some more of the obvious, but if cycling on the sidewalk is more dangerous than cycling in the road, why in the world would the federal government recommend that young children ride on the sidewalk?

Update: Want to continue to excuse the deadly, outlaw behavior of motorists? Easy — just keep telling people to stop riding on the sidewalks — implying that it is their fault that they just got run over. They were riding on the sidewalk — they had it coming — zing! The were riding in the road — they had it coming — zing! They were riding anywhere at all doing everything or nothing at all — they had it coming — zing! This blame the victim stuff is fun — it’s easy too — the victims are not around to defend themselves.

Update: Thought I’d take a snapshot of some outlaw driver behavior over the last few days, as it shows up in my feed reader and in Google News, and see if we could divine a pattern of injury and death rained down upon cyclists — and, by extension, determine whether riding on the sidewalk is more dangerous than riding in the road. Some/most of the events are more recent — some older. Of course, generally speaking, deaths are going to be reported more often than ‘just’ injuries, so I would expect the results to scew ‘in favor’ of ‘road’ injuries/deaths (as opposed to ‘sidewalk and sidewalk-enabled’ injuries/death), and that does appear to be the case. This is just anecdote, of course, but it’s all real — hundreds/thousands of lives destroyed and severely/adversely affected by outlaw drivers, propped up by an insufficient and corrupt legal system, unsafe infrastructure, and a certain group of cycling ‘advocates’:

12 yo struck/killed (road):

6 yo struck/killed in road/alley (road):

hit-run/injury and hit-run/kill (road):

hit-run/kill (road):,0,4154107.story

hit/kill (road):

hit-run/one killed, one injured (road):

hit/injury (sidewalk):

hit-run injury (road):

hit/injury (road and sidewalk?):

hit/kill - 2 instances (road):

hit/kill (road) and hit/injury (unclear) [this one is incredible/insane]:,0,6005640.story

hit-run/kill (unclear):

hit/injury (unclear):

hit/kill (sidewalk):

hit/injury (sidewalk):

hit/kill (road):

hit/kill (sidewalk):

hit/kill (sidewalk):

hit/injury (unclear):

hit/injury (sidewalk):

hti/kill (road):

hit/injury (sidewalk):

hit/injury (sidewalk):

hit/kill (road):

hit-run/kill (road):


Update: If you hate folks riding on the sidewalk, then spend your time advocating for real bicycle infrastructure — namely, cycletracks - sidewalks for cyclists.

Update: Pedestrians being forced to share the sidewalk with cyclists is like cyclists being forced to share the roads with cars/trucks/buses — only, 10,000 times safer.

Update: One anecdotal piece of evidence to support my contention that allowing folks to ride in the street allows them to get off the sidewalks:

And what’s good for bikes is often times good for pedestrians.  [Long Beach Mobility Coordinator, Charlie] Gandy struck up a conversation with a mother and father pushing a stroller while I took pictures of the separated bike paths on 3rd Street.  Even though they haven’t ridden a bike in years, they loved the lane.  Why?  Because it got all the bikes off the sidewalk.  ”I used to see bikes on the sidewalk everyday on 3rd.  I haven’t seen one in months,” the father smiled while pushing the stroller.

This stuff is not rocket science.

We can all be like those lowly crooks down in Austell, Georgia, and go after the victims — in that case, pedestrians — in our case, cyclists — or we can try to be decent human beings and go after outlaw drivers, and other crooks who continue to get off scot-free — the designers and engineers behind these malignant road designs — city and state DOT engineers and officials — they belong in jail more than anyone else when these situations arise — because of the wickedness they’ve designed into our road system — dangerous by design, indeed.

13 Comments to “In Praise of Sidewalk Cycling”

  1. People can debate whether or not cycling on sidewalks is better or worse, but the fact of the matter is that in almost every state, it’s illegal for adults to ride on the sidewalk.

  2. Dave Holland says:

    Ignoring common sense and crash statistics related to cyclists on sidewalks, I would have to agree with your conclusion that motorcycles ride on the sidewalk for their own safety. What about those slow little city cars, wouldn’t they be safer on the sidewalk too? Hell, I could drive a Humvee on that single track with you and not even have to worry about who’s at fault in an accident. See you on the highway, be safe.

  3. You’re being deliberately misleading about the content of the studies. You said the Toronto one had more collisions on the street, vs. sidewalk. But that’s been found only rarely in these studies, and even then ONLY for collisions between cars and bikes. Overall the danger on sidewalks was far greater in every study I’ve ever seen, including those you linked.

    I still remember the day I stopped at a store, then needed to stop at one two driveways away. I looked at the heavy traffic on the road and thought “I’ll just ride my bike on the sidewalk, carefully, for the 100 feet or so.” On the one driveway I had to cross, a car whipped in fast and nearly killed me.

    Sidewalks are fine if you ride only as fast as you walk. And look all directions, even backwards, at each driveway. And avoid colliding with telephone poles, newspaper boxes and other obstacles, even with the ends of your handlebars. And stay away from car doors that might pop open. And stay away from people suddenly exiting building doors. And slow down even more at blind driveways or blind corners. And stop if a pedestrian comes too close. And stay away from drop-off edges.

    But if you’re doing all that, you don’t need a bicycle. You’ll do better by just walking.

  4. John Schubert says:

    Look at the excellent list of sidewalk riding hazards which DS posted. Do you really think Joe-just-riding-on-the-sidewalk is mindful of all of those? How can it be ethical to tell Joe “Sure, go ahead, and take risks you don’t understand?”
    The research on what causes crashes fingers sidewalks two ways: statistically (counting the crashes and their locations) and functionally (analyzing the who-what-where of each individual crash, putting them into crash type categories, and adding up the categories).

  5. John S, Allen says:

    Here’s a sruvey of research on sidewalk safety, both European and North American. Can you come up with studies to contradict these? And if not, are you prepared to retract your statement about the safety of bicycling on sidewalks?

  6. John S, Allen says:

    I’ve looked again and I’ve got to go at this again. Here’s the full quote about crash risks from the Toronto study that both you and I cite. You cited only the first line. Please note the other two lines:

    “The rate of collision on off-road paths and sidewalks was lower than for roads. The relative rates for falls and injuries suggest these events are least common on-road followed by off-road paths, and finally most common on sidewalks. The rate of major injuries, an injury that required medical attention, was greatest on sidewalks and the difference between paths and sidewalks was negligible.”

    You are cherry-picking your quotes, my friend.

    Yes, sidewalk riding can be safe but in almost all locations, that means riding hardly faster than pedestrian speed, and being highly-aware of the special hazards of sidewalk riding.

    The photo at the top of your post shows one of three cyclists riding squarely in the door zone of parked vehicles, and all of them heading for an intersection where those parked vehicles conceal them from turning motor traffic. I’ll comment only on that and not on cycling conditions on the street to the left of those motor vehicles, there being nothing to go on in the photo.

  7. Paul Johnson says:

    A cycletrack, such as the one pictured in Portland, is NOT a sidewalk, but another roadway. It rejoins the main roadway as a bicycle lane at each intersection giving cyclists the opportunity to merge left for left turns, and after the intersection enough room to merge right onto the track. It’s designed to put cyclists in a visible spot at trouble points. It’s not hugging the fenceline at driveways. To compare cycletracks to sidewalks is like comparing apples to hammers.

  8. The problem is that in SF, cycling on sidewalks is illegal except on the Embarcadero. The other problem is that I’ve been hit by cyclists on the sidewalk before and this makes me angry to the point that I yell at them and stand my ground when they try to hit me. When they ring a bell behind me I will turn around and yell at them to get off the sidewalk.

    Don’t like it? Change the law and then stop hitting pedestrians.

  9. John Heylin (@norcalbeerguy) says:

    As someone who has been hit by a sidewalk cyclist and suffered a minor concussion as a result (the guy took off after hitting me to boot), unless there is a specified bike lane on the sidewalk people should not ride their bikes on the sidewalk. It’s too dangerous, especially near store fronts where people are constantly walking out and not expecting someone biking down the sidewalk.

  10. The city of Phoenix publishes what amounts to raw numbers of where cyclist-MB collisions occur.
    70% of them occur “involving” (my term) sidewalk cycling — that is to say in a driveway on the sidewalk, or in a crosswalk:

    To actual arrive at risk-ratios and so forth, you would need exposure data, and also you would probably want to know severity outcomes — neither of which are provided in the City data.

  11. Peter Smith says:

    Chicago found 80% of pedestrians are struck in crosswalks.,0,2404951.column

    The article says the finding was surprising, but for those of us who follow these things, it’s not surprising — studies with similar numbers have been coming out for ages.

    Besides, where else would pedestrians be getting run down?

    Even anecdotally, anyone who has ever walked anywhere knows that walking into the street in a crosswalk is a stop-and-go situation — you always have to be wary of outlaw drivers — you always have to be ready to stop walking and even jump back.

    The question then, is do we:
    a) Ask pedestrians to stop using crosswalks?,
    b) Ask pedestrians to stop walking?, or
    c) Demand that drivers start obeying the law and stop injuring and killing people?

    I go with c), regardless of what the statistics might suggest about pedestrians ‘getting themselves injured and killed’.

  12. In Connecticut state law says that you should give pedestrians the right of way when bicycling on a sidewalk so it is not illegal. There are some towns that restrict ridingon sidewalks in certain areas. I would think that riding slow and giving pedestrians right of way=-maybe even getting off the bike to pass them is reasonable.-No way riding on a busy or winding hilly road is safe.-I am going to be more caustious about cars backing out o pulling in but you could get hit by them if you were walking.

  13. John Martin says:

    Sidewalk cycling is unsafe! The studies have been done by reputable people at MIT and UNC to name just a couple of the bigger studies. As for it being legal or not, most states allow it. However, you must remember that sidewalks here in the United States are designed according to specs from the ITE (Institute for Transportation Engineering). These specs set pedestrian speed for4ft/sec. That equals about 2.73 mph. So why would you ride your bicycle on the sidewalk at such a slow speed? Why not just get off and walk?
    Take a look at the ITE website for further information on this subject.


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