November 06, 2012

Biking on the Side Walk

As a regular urban cyclist I am accustomed to riding with traffic on roads. I am aware of the dangers and disadvantages of riding with traffic but the alternative, riding on the sidewalk, has its own host of issues. Normally this is where the writer would go into a proselytizing rant about why cyclist must never ride on sidewalks. Sorry, it’s just not that clear cut of an issue and the only fervor you’ll get out of me is for the simple use of reason! There are times when riding on the sidewalk is in fact a bad idea and there are times when it just makes sense. The sidewalk issue, like so many others, is just the victim of a desire for single answers. The conversation is unfortunetaly framed to fail… it is either OK to ride on the sidewalk or completely not allowed (let me write you a ticket).  I’m arguing for common sense.

So lets start with some basics. First off, the sidewalk. That 48” strip of concrete separating stores and houses from the street. Originally intended to raise our shoes out of the mud and away from horse and later vehicle traffic. The sidewalk is meant for walkers, strollers, wheelchairs, and also I would argue as a transition zone between streets, parks, and property. It’s the gap that we shuttle across with grocery bags, moving boxes and sofas, bags of garbage, and our bicycles after a ride.

The argument for eliminating bicycles from this narrow transition zone has many solid points. I would presume that the foremost reason is the safety and comfort of walkers, strollers, and the like. It never fails to make me uneasy when as a walker, a bicycle is speeding towards me – my first thought is “Surely they’re out of control!!!” (This perception I believe is behind much of the bicycle angst in our society, more on this in another article). All jests aside, the hazard of bicycle collisions on the sidewalk is a showstopper when it comes to laws and in my opinion is a legitimate concern.

An equally convincing argument against sidewalk riding comes from both drivers and bikers alike. It’s a wonder more collisions don’t happen when bikes zoom through crosswalks. Picture this. It’s a mid morning on a quiet residential street. As you drive your car to work you pass parked cars and even the occasional cyclist. As you approach your turn off you put on your right signal and slow down. As you slow, you can see cars behind you slow in unison. And you’re even aware that the last cyclist you saw may catch up and pass you on the right. You scan the intersection and spot a walker leaving the other side. All this is happening in a split second but you’re an experienced driver and you instinctively swing your car around the bend, when thud a large dark shape blurs over your hood. A biker on the sidewalk had not been paying attention to traffic as they flew off the curb into the cross walk. As the driver you would not have expected such a fast moving object coming off the sidewalk. Unlike a bicycle, the sped and momentum of a walker is all very manageable as they step off the curb.

This scenerio has come close to happening to me as a driver. And I’ve witnessed similar close calls while walking and biking. This is what really disturbs me about bikes on the sidewalk. The risk of getting hit by a car is so high that it turns my stomach. There are plenty of scenerios. Cars turning into driveways, cars backing out of driveways, passenger doors opening. I’ve said it many times that it’s important for cyclists to remember how terrible it would feel for a driver to hit someone. A car on car collision is bad but a human body is just no much for that much steel. I have great pity for the drivers who live with those memories.

So there are definately aspects of sidewalk riding that are bad for walkers, some things that are just downright dangerous for cyclists and a headache for drivers. Before we jump to conclusions let’s analyze the problem. Ok, so banning bikes from the sidewalk would solve the problem but it’s a loss for everyone.

First charge: Bikes are danger to pedestrians.
Ok, well that’s easy. Bikers, please dismount when you approach walkers (give them space) and if there are too many walkers to move freely then you should walk your bike. But if the sidewalk is clear then there is no harm to walkers. I so often find myself riding the sidewalk for ½ a block up to my front door. I could stay on the road but then I’d have to make an awkward right turn between parked cars and bump my bike over the curb (with panniers full of groceries). In my neighbourhood it’s a sad reality that our sidewalks are usually empty so I have no guilt about starting and finishing my ride with a short blink of sidewalk.

Second charge: Bikers are a danger to themselves
There’s no denying that this has to change. But let’s be clear about what the problem really is. Speed. Biking speed is too fast for most crosswalks. You can’t expect to fly through them (you may pay the price.) The best way to control your speed is to walk your bike across the street (looking both ways and all that) but I do feel fine carefully and slowly pedaling across. When I do this I know that I am acting out of the norm and so do not expect drivers to see me or stop. First, I check to see if there are even any cars around. And if there are, I’ll make eye contact with a clear intention that I’m just going to inch my way across. Another advanced method is to approach the intersection at low speed <5kph in side saddle mode (half demounted, both legs on one side of the bike). Once you’ve scanned the intersection it allows you to quickly stop and walk without having to come to a complete stop.

Ok so the two most problematic concerns can be addressed by controlling speed and walking when needed. Finally there are a couple more things that I must address. First it’s the issue of funky bike lanes. What do you do when your bike lane suddenly becomes a sidewalk? Perhaps the lane ends at the bridge or an intersection. These are often small gaps perhaps a block or less long. What are you going to do? You’ve been biking for 10 minutes and you have another 10 minutes to go with a blip in the middle. Your 20 minute commute turns into a 25 minutes commute if you walk the block. You can plow on through as if its your right to bike but don’t forget that you’re at risk of getting hit by a car when you fly through a pedestrian cross walk. I won’t suggest that you walk your bike but I do encourage bikers to watch those crosswalks. It’s easy to be lulled to sleep on a bike path, so notice the change and wake up. In my city of Calgary there are a few notoriously awkward bike path interchanges that I encounter. The 14th Street bridge coming into downtown is one such case. I probably split my time evenly between riding on the ambiguous sidwalk bike path and just the straight up 4-lane street. Other examples include little things such as the cross walk lights across Memorial Drive for the river pathway near 25th Street NW. I pull off the bike path and use the flashing walk lights to cross the Memorial Drive. Technically I should walk my bike across the road but honestly, I am stopped and can observe cars coming to a halt. It is kind of amazing to watch 20 cars to come to a stop for one pedestrian. I’d rather not hold up traffic anylonger than needed – so I ride through which is much quicker than walking. As a driver I know what I’d prefer…funny how it’s the same thing when I’m a biker.

The final topic of sidewalks relates to kids. I think they should be riding on the sidewalk. But at what age do they enter traffic? That’s a good question and only a parent who has spent time with their child on a bicycle knows the answer to that. What I don’t want is for young people to be squeezed off their bicycle because they can’t bike anywhere. At some age the dual pressures of traffic danger keeping them off the road and laws keeping them off the sidewalk will crush their biking spirit. As a parent keep in mind that at some point (some age) they will reach the speed that puts walkers at risk and most importantly your kid at risk when speeding through crosswalks The solution is training, patience, coaching, patience, and defined family rules. A bicycle can be a liberating vehicle for youth so its ok to confer a sense of responsibility to accompany that freedom. We do it with our teenagers as they take the steering wheel, we can do it as well when they pedal away.