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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.
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.
The following factors have been identified as discouraging on-road cycling and potentially encouraging cyclists to use sidewalks:
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:
In addition to the factors discussed above, there are some additional factors that complicate the issue of sidewalk cycling even further:
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 (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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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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