by Stan Purdum
Most of the time, there are good reasons to avoid cycling on sidewalks, but don’t rule it out altogether — there are a few situations when it’s the best choice. Here’s an overview of the laws, rules and regulations about riding bikes on the sidewalk, and some of the best practices if you end up in a situation where you need to ride there to stay safe.
There are some cities and towns where local ordinances make it illegal for adults to ride on the sidewalks, but many places allow it, even some big cities, though they might exclude downtown areas where there are a lot of pedestrians. And even where it’s not permitted, enforcement is often lax.
The lure of riding on the sidewalk, of course, is that it gets you out of the vehicular traffic flow, and that’s a welcome prospect to bicycle beginners and occasional riders. But the safety can be an illusion. Sidewalks often have “furniture” strewn about — parking meters, fireplugs, signage, newspaper boxes, trash cans and other obstacles, to say nothing of fractured pavement and segments that have been upheaved by frost or tree roots — and it’s easy to get entangled with or tripped up by such items, particularly if you’re inattentive for even a few seconds or distracted by other sidewalk users.
What’s more, walkers usually don’t welcome bicycles on sidewalks and may not yield passage to you. Even if they are willing to share the sidewalk, people on foot aren’t expecting bicycles and seldom look both ways before changing directions or moving into and out of stores.
Worse yet, when pedaling on the sidewalk, you are essentially invisible to drivers. Motorists turning into or pulling out of business lots aren’t looking for people on the sidewalk and especially not those moving at bicycle speeds and perhaps coming in the “wrong” direction; their attention is on the motor traffic stream as they watch for a gap so they can join it.
If your purpose for riding is to get a good workout, sidewalks are generally a poor place to accomplish that. Since walkways are designed for pedestrians and are interrupted repeatedly by driveways and cross streets, some of which necessitate that you stop altogether while you wait for a light to change, you can’t usually ride fast enough to get much cardiovascular benefit.
But if your purpose is simply to stay out of busy traffic lanes while getting from point A to point B, riding on a sidewalk can be the best thing to do. For example, I have a route I pedal where 98 percent of the ride is on a mix of quiet byways, bike paths and slightly busier roads with adequate paved shoulders, but to make a complete loop, I must traverse three blocks of a busy business district where the only road has four lanes of fast-moving traffic and no shoulder. There is, however, a sidewalk, and the safest option for me is to ride on it for those three blocks.
Sidewalk riding can also be a wise choice to avoid crossing a busy street twice over a short distance. If you are making a left turn onto a busy roadway, to ride the same direction as the traffic — which is normally the rule when sharing the road with motor vehicles — you would need to cross the street. But suppose you then intend to make a left turn off that street after a block or two. You’d have to cross the street again. Riding on the sidewalk instead would eliminate the two street crossings.
When you do pedal on the sidewalk, ride cautiously, yield to pedestrians and give an audible signal when overtaking them. Assume that drivers do not see you.
What Are My Local Riding on the Sidewalk Laws and Rules?
To find the rules about sidewalk riding in your state, see this state-by-state roundup of bicycle laws from The League of American Bicyclists. For specific cities, check the internet. Often the laws permit children to ride on sidewalks even when adults are not permitted to do so.
More on Bicycling on the Sidewalk
NPR covered the subject of riding on the sidewalk and what you need to know about it to stay safe.
The US Department of Transportation has a good page about bicycle safety.
Edmunds covers best practices for drivers to coexist with cyclists.