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Bicyclists on Sidewalks: Why They're Not Going Away, and What We Can Do About It

Simply banning bikes from riding on sidewalks does more harm than good. A better understanding of why people choose to ride bikes on the sidewalk will be necessary to create safer environments for all users.
March 10, 2016, 2pm PST | Ariel Godwin and Anne M. Price
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Dacian Dorca

If you have ever ridden a bike, chances are you have ridden it on a sidewalk at some point. If you have ever been a pedestrian in a major city, there's a good chance that you have dodged a sidewalk cyclist. And if you’ve ridden a bike in a street, it’s quite possible that a motorist has told you to ride on the sidewalk.

Despite being denounced in many an editorial and aggressively ticketed in many a jurisdiction, sidewalk cyclists are unlikely to become a thing of the past. This article examines the reasons why sidewalk riding persists, despite known safety hazards and regulatory prohibitions. We do not intend to encourage bicycling on sidewalks, which is riskier overall than riding in the street (Aultman-Hall and Adams 1998). However, we also do not advocate for the elimination of sidewalk riding altogether. Our aim is to develop a better understanding of the problem and to recommend actions for local governments that reduce the hazards caused by sidewalk cyclists—but without discouraging bicycling. Above all, jurisdiction-wide prohibitions of sidewalk bicycling are unproductive and should be avoided in favor of regulations specific to certain areas or facilities.

1. Is biking on sidewalks more dangerous, or less?

Numerous studies (for example, Aultman-Hall and Adams 1998; Wachtel and Lewiston 1994) have shown that crash risk,overall, is higher for bicyclists riding on sidewalks than for bicyclists riding on streets. However, we are not aware of any studies that have examined the risks of sidewalk bicycling on different types of roadways (taking into account variables such as traffic volumes, speeds, curb cut frequency, or pedestrian density). Nor are we aware of any studies that have examined the risks of sidewalk bicycling for different cyclist types (e.g., fast, slow, more or less experienced). These factors are important to consider because on any given ride, a cyclist may ride on several different types of streets (or sidewalks) and because cyclists vary greatly in their speed and behavior. For a slow-moving cyclist, riding on a sidewalk adjacent to a high-speed street may, in some cases, be safer than riding in the street.

2. What makes bicyclists ride on sidewalks?

The following factors have been identified as discouraging on-road cycling and potentially encouraging cyclists to use sidewalks:

  • Safety (real or perceived). Multiple studies (for example, Winters et al. 2012) have found that safety concerns, above all the fear of collision with a motor vehicle, are a major deterrent to bicycling. Despite statistics showing that riding on sidewalks is less safe overall, bicyclists continue to perceive sidewalk riding as safer than street riding in many situations (Winters et al. 2012, Aultman-Hall and Adams 1998). The perception of safety comes primarily from the sidewalk's separation from motorized traffic. In reality, however, many sidewalks (those with frequent curb cuts and intersections) have many potential conflict points. Sidewalks with infrequent curb cuts and long distances between intersections manage to provide a high degree of separation from motor traffic. Regardless of crash risk, some cyclists will always be more comfortable on a sidewalk. Some cyclists behave more like pedestrians than the cars they are expected to co-exist with—riding cautiously down sidewalks and stopping to push their bikes through crosswalks.
  • Bicycle speed. Closely related issues include the quality of the bicycle, the physical fitness of the rider, terrain, and the difference in speed between cyclists and motorists. Although stereotypes sometimes depict cyclists as affluent, spandex-clad racers, the bulk of those who bike to work are actually in lower income brackets. An estimated 49 percent of workers who commute by bicycle earn less than $25,000 per year (Keatts and Kinder Institute 2015). Cyclists at this income level are less likely to be riding lighter, speedier bicycles. They ride for transportation, not for fitness, and may not have the leg muscle development (or bicycles) necessary to reach and sustain high speeds. Such riders are less able to blend smoothly with motorized traffic, and motorists unable to pass immediately must slow down by a correspondingly greater margin. Cyclists of this type are less likely to be comfortable riding in shared traffic than faster cyclists who have the leisure time to improve their fitness and the money to purchase bicycles conducive to higher speeds.
  • Convenience. Sidewalks may be used as a shortcut. For example, a cyclist may ride on a sidewalk to gain direct access to a building or other destination. In some locations—for example, on many university campuses—these practices are encouraged (intentionally or unintentionally) by the placement of bicycle racks directly outside buildings. Another way in which sidewalks are used as a shortcut is for travel on a one-way street in the opposite direction from that of traffic.
  • Ignorance. In some locations, regardless of other factors, some cyclists would be comfortable riding in streets but use sidewalks because they are unaware of crash risks and/or regulations prohibiting sidewalk riding. Informal sampling of college students at a small university in Georgia (discussed in more detail later) found that at least 50 percent of students are unaware that it is illegal to bicycle on sidewalks. Some cyclists are even under the impression that they are required to ride on sidewalks.
  • Motorists tell them to use sidewalks. As Whet Moser (2014) put it in a recent Chicago Magazine article, sidewalk cyclists are "just doing what they’ve always been told to do."

3. Where are sidewalk bicyclists problematic—and where are they not?

As Moser (2014) writes, in locations with low pedestrian traffic and no bike infrastructure, "permitting cyclists to use the sidewalk is a cost-free way of preventing citizens from getting maimed." Despite the overall higher crash risk associated with sidewalk cycling, there are still many locations where riding on a sidewalk is likely to be less risky than riding in the adjacent street.

The following variables contribute to the safety of all users when bicyclists travel on sidewalks:

  • Cyclist behavior. Some cyclists ride at high speed, are less cautious, and may weave quickly among pedestrians to reach their destination more quickly. Other cyclists ride slowly and cautiously, yielding to all other users. Such behavior types could be viewed as occurring along a spectrum. To our knowledge, no studies of this spectrum of cyclist behavior have been conducted.
  • Density of other sidewalk users. A cyclist on a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians will create a greater hazard than a cyclist on a sidewalk devoid of pedestrians. In some areas, data regarding pedestrian traffic are collected at selected locations, so there are opportunities for further research on this factor.
  • Types of other sidewalk users. A cyclist sharing a facility with typical pedestrians may create less of a hazard than a cyclist sharing a facility with numerous small children, wheelchair users, dog walkers, visually impaired individuals, and senior citizens. As above, data regarding these different user types are collected in some areas.
  • Sidewalk "design speed." Although sidewalks are rarely, if ever, designed with any specific travel speed in mind, there are a number of factors, including clear width, curvature, and obstacles, that will influence how quickly a sidewalk user can safely travel. Sidewalks in central business districts and other commercial areas with heavy pedestrian traffic tend to have benches, planters, outdoor restaurant seating, newspaper vending boxes, and the like. Such amenities do not normally create a hazard to pedestrians but do require caution on the part of users moving at higher speeds, such as joggers and sidewalk cyclists. By contrast, sidewalks in suburban areas tend to have more clear width and fewer obstacles. The surface quality of the sidewalk is an additional factor affecting the "design speed." Newer sidewalks in suburban areas may be very smooth, while older sidewalks in established neighborhoods may have cracks resulting from tree roots.
  • Frequency of curb cuts and intersections. This has been the most important factor in prior studies that found sidewalk riding to be more hazardous. Curb cuts and intersections are the most common points of conflict between motorists and sidewalk cyclists. The risk may be higher or lower depending on the volume of traffic passing through the curb cuts and intersections. At one end of this spectrum are long, uninterrupted stretches of sidewalk (such as one might see running alongside a large city park or a suburban or exurban road). At the other end are sidewalks on busy commercial roads with two or more curb cuts for each business.

4. Factors that complicate the issue

In addition to the factors discussed above, there are some additional factors that complicate the issue of sidewalk cycling even further:

  • High-profile pedestrian deaths. Each year in the United States, a number of pedestrians are struck and killed by cyclists. We are not aware of any national-level data on this type of fatality. However, according to one report, 11 pedestrians were killed by cyclists in New York City between 1995 and 2006 (NYC Dept. of Health et al. 2006: 20). While the tragic nature of these events should not be understated, this fatality type represented only 0.57% of transportation-related pedestrian deaths in New York City during that timeframe. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, 0.38% of pedestrian fatalities from 1998 to 2007 involved a cyclist (UK Parliament 2009). The vast majority of pedestrian fatalities result from collisions with motor vehicles. Reckless cyclist behavior is not to be excused; however, the significant media attention paid to such cases (for example, Gellnas 2014) may encourage the perception of sidewalk cycling as a menace even in areas where it is less problematic—for example, in areas with fewer pedestrians and less bike infrastructure than New York City.
  • Cyclists already share space with pedestrians in many places. In the hearts of many cities where sidewalk cyclists are so widely denounced, there are multi-use paths that pedestrians and cyclists use together. In some locations, the point where the multi-use path ends and the sidewalk begins may not be obvious. Some cyclists and pedestrians do not understand the difference between a sidewalk and a multi-use path. In addition, some facilities designated as multi-use paths are, in terms of design, nothing more than wide sidewalks—or even, in some cases, normal-width sidewalks. This means that on certain sidewalk-type facilities, cycling is paradoxically legal even if there is a citywide ban on sidewalk cycling. For a layperson with no technical knowledge of transportation planning, the rules may not be grasped intuitively.
  • Some cyclists aren’t comfortable using some bike facilities. Some places provide bike facilities, but cyclists do not use them, such as the example of a high-speed arterial road with sidewalks and narrow bike lanes directly adjacent to the automobile lanes. Such road designs are common in Florida, among other places (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Arterial road in Florida with bike lane adjacent to high-speed traffic and gutter pan partly occupying bike lane. Some cyclists may perceive the sidewalk as safer. (Photo: Ariel Godwin.)

5. Case studies

To illustrate the dynamics described above, we present case studies of two cities, Columbus, Ohio and Valdosta, Georgia, chosen as representatives of a typical large city and a typical small city, respectively. Each city is home to a university, which boosts bicycle culture, and each is in a state that is not known for being particularly friendly or unfriendly to bicycling (the League of American Bicyclists ranks Ohio as #16 in bike friendliness among the states, and Georgia as #25).

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio (2014 population: 835,957) is home to a significant bike culture, fueled in part by the presence of the Ohio State University and its 58,000 students. While the proportion of workers who bike to work, per the 2014 American Community Survey—0.8 percent—may sound paltry, some 3,400 commuters rely on bicycles as a daily means of transportation.

The Columbus Code of Ordinances prohibits riding a bicycle on any sidewalk citywide (Chapter 2173.10; notably, police officers are exempt). Undoubtedly, there are many locations in the city where sidewalk cyclists would create a safety hazard. However, the citywide prohibition of sidewalk cycling, along with the existence of certain sub-optimal bike facilities, contributes to the following circumstances:

  • Cyclists are prohibited not only from Downtown sidewalks with high pedestrian density, but also from sidewalks alongside high-speed, high-traffic suburban arterials on which riding on the sidewalk may be far safer (even for a very fast-moving cyclist) than riding in the street.
  • The greater Columbus area has a large (322-mile) and growing network of multi-use paths (MORPC 2012). In some places, sidewalk-type facilities are designated as part of the multi-use path system. Most of these facilities have sufficient additional width to accommodate mixed pedestrian and bicycle traffic, but some do not (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Five-foot-wide sidewalk designated as section of two-way multi-use path on Souder Ave. bridge (Columbus, OH). (Photo: Ariel Godwin.)

Figure 3. Bus/taxi lane on High Street (Downtown Columbus, OH). Photo: Paul Sableman, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • High Street, in Downtown Columbus, is a four-lane street that functions as the city’s main thoroughfare. In the Downtown area, the outer lanes of High Street are designated for buses and taxis only during peak commuting hours (see Figure 3). During the restricted hours, some cyclists use the sidewalks (which is illegal, and causes conflicts with pedestrians), others use the restricted lanes (which is also illegal, and causes conflicts with buses and taxis), and still others use the inner lanes of the street (causing conflicts with motorists who perceive these lanes as the "fast lanes"). There is no suitable place for cyclists to ride during peak commuting hours. Better solutions for mixed bus and bike traffic have been developed in other cities. One example is Baltimore, where the Charm City Circulator bus runs on shared bike/bus lanes and prominent signage encourages safe riding and mutual respect (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Shared bus/bike lane (Baltimore, MD). (Photo: Ariel Godwin.)

Figure 5. Sign on bus instructing cyclists on use of shared bus/bike lane (Baltimore, MD). (Photo: Ariel Godwin.)

Awareness of the citywide prohibition of sidewalk riding in Columbus is not widespread, and to our knowledge, no signage in the city indicates that bicycling on sidewalks is prohibited.

Given these circumstances, we expect that sidewalk bicycling will persist in Columbus. Further evidence for this prediction is provided by data from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which organizes biannual counts of pedestrians and cyclists. Since 2010, these counts have collected data as to whether cyclists were on streets or on sidewalks (see Figure 6). Over the years, the proportion of cyclists using sidewalks has decreased (from 53 percent in May 2010 to 31 percent in September 2015), but still remains significant. As might be expected, the percentage of cyclists on sidewalks was highest at count locations on high-speed, high-traffic suburban arterials, and lowest in the commercial areas of the central city and on low-speed, low-traffic residential streets.

Figure 6. Bicyclists counted on streets and sidewalks in the Columbus metro area, 2010-2015. (Data source: MORPC bicycle and pedestrian counts.)

Valdosta, Georgia

Valdosta (2014 population: 56,595) is a university town and regional economic hub in southern Georgia, 14 miles north of the Florida state line. Although Valdosta lacks significant bike infrastructure as well as any comprehensive bicycle advocacy organization, the city has a significant amount of bicycle traffic, fueled in part by Valdosta State University, with a student body of about 11,000, and by an estimated 10% of households with no available motor vehicle (American Community Survey 2009-2013 estimate).

Bicycles on sidewalks are prohibited in Valdosta’s Downtown area (Valdosta Code of Ordinances Sec. 94-43), although no signage exists to inform people of the prohibition. Like many central business districts, this area attracts considerable pedestrian traffic, and sidewalk cycling there would be inadvisable. However, the city’s ordinance is rendered irrelevant by Georgia code (§ 40-6-144), which prohibits bicycles on sidewalks statewide. Thus, cycling on sidewalks is illegal not only in Downtown, but also in the following locations in Valdosta, which we have chosen as illustrative examples:

  • The Hill Avenue overpass (see Figure 7), with a 35-mph speed limit and average daily traffic (ADT) of 15,100 (GDOT 2014): On this overpass, cyclists riding uphill in the roadway are likely to go very slowly due to the steep ascent, and the 12-foot travel lanes are not wide enough to allow a motorists to pass a cyclist safely within the same lane. Due to limited visibility, cyclists riding uphill in the roadway on this overpass risk being struck from behind by motor vehicles.
  • Bemiss Road (see Figure 8), a four-lane arterial that connects Valdosta to Moody Air Force Base, with ADT up to 29,200 (GDOT 2014), a 45-mph speed limit, 11-foot lanes, and a continuous 4-foot sidewalk on each side for approximately 8 miles, with multiple stretches of 1/3 mile or longer uninterrupted by curb cuts: While cyclists can occasionally be observed in the roadway, many are more comfortable on the sidewalk. 

Figure 7. Hill Avenue/US-84 overpass (Valdosta, GA). (Photo: Ariel Godwin.)

Figure 8. Bemiss Road (Valdosta, GA). (Photo: Ariel Godwin.)

As in many other communities, Valdosta also has some locations where infrastructure resembling a sidewalk is designated as a multi-use path. Although any construction of additional bike-friendly infrastructure should be encouraged, certain types of facilities may confuse drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. One example is Williams Street (see Figure 9), where a 10-foot-wide multi-use trail was constructed as a spur of the Azalea City Trail system. This facility provides ample protected space for non-motorized users. However, the trail includes frequent curb cuts for residential driveways and no signage designating it as a multi-use path. Consequently, some residents have expressed confusion as to why the sidewalk is so wide.

An informal survey of Valdosta State University students, conducted in the fall semester of 2015, found that more than 50 percent of those surveyed were not aware of any regulations in the area prohibiting bicycling on sidewalks. Ignorance about where cyclists are supposed to ride may also extend to the local news media and/or police officers. A Valdosta Daily Times article from January 22, 2015 reported that a cyclist was “issued a citation for bicycling on roadway.” Similar confusion reigns in many places; Valdosta is just one example.

Figure 9. 10-foot sidewalk on Williams St. (Valdosta, GA). There is a lack of public awareness that the reason for this facility’s generous width is its status as a multi-use path. (Photo: Ariel Godwin.)

6. Conclusions and recommendations

To reduce the number of crashes and citations, and to improve public perception of cyclists, local jurisdictions should take a holistic and location-specific approach to sidewalk cycling. This could include some of the following measures:

  • Revised ordinances. Jurisdiction-wide (and statewide) prohibitions of sidewalk bicycling are not effective because some cyclists will continue to violate them and because they discourage bicycling. Prohibitions of sidewalk bicycling could be limited only to certain areas, or to situations where riding on the sidewalk clearly endangers others. Ordinances could require cyclists to dismount when pedestrians are present. In any case, regulations should be appropriate to the transportation infrastructure and the people using it.
  • Improved signage. Indicate clearly, with signs and pavement markings, the areas where cycling on sidewalks is prohibited. This will reduce confusion and alleviate the hazards posed to pedestrians by cyclists in certain areas.
  • Selective enforcement. In places where an unreasonable jurisdiction-wide prohibition of sidewalk cycling continues to exist, law enforcement officers should focus on cyclists who cause the greatest safety hazard. While selective enforcement can be an acceptable tool, improving the laws would be better.
  • Improved bike infrastructure. In many places where sidewalk cyclists are problematic, infrastructure improvements could improve safety and reduce conflict. Some infrastructure solutions are costly—for example, building multi-use paths—while others are relatively inexpensive, such as changing signage or striping bike lanes on existing pavement.

Future research could examine the factors discussed in this paper in more depth, preferably using surveys to gather quantitative data. Specific questions to address might include the spectrum of cyclist behavior (fast and reckless to slow and cautious); the reasons why people ride on sidewalks; and the crash risks of sidewalk cycling on specific types of roadways and for specific cyclist behavior types.

There are types of designated bike infrastructure that some cyclists simply will not use, which means that many people are simply not cyclists. Just as in other areas of transportation planning, a location-specific approach, leading to a context-appropriate outcome, is best for addressing the issue of sidewalk riding, with the goal of creating a safer, more user friendly system for all transportation modes.

Author Bios

Ariel Godwin, AICP is a Senior Planner at the Southern Georgia Regional Commission. He holds a master's degree in City and Regional Planning from Ohio State University and has previously worked for regional planning organizations in Florida, Massachusetts, and Ohio.

Anne M. Price, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Valdosta State University. She holds a doctorate in sociology from Ohio State University. Prior to her current position, she taught at the University of South Florida.

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