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Bicyclists on Sidewalks: why they’re not going away, what we can do about it, and how e-bikes change

At the recent spring conference of the APA Georgia Chapter, I joined Andrew Smith of Gresham Smith in giving a presentation on the above topic. Georgia is relatively rare among US states in that there is a statewide law against riding a bicycle on a sidewalk. (That’s right – unless you’re age 12 or younger, you can’t legally ride a bicycle on any sidewalk in Georgia.) The topic of bike-on-sidewalk bans can lead us to a fascinating excursion through the different regulations and infrastructure that exist in various places.

Such a ban would make a lot of sense if all sidewalks looked like this:

However, this is Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, site of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Not all sidewalks look like this.

In many US cities, suburbs, exurbs, and small towns, the reality is closer to this:

While it might seem like pure insanity to try riding a bicycle in the vehicular lanes on this road (the speed limit is 45 mph, people usually drive at 55 mph, and the average daily traffic is over 30,000) – that is what you’re legally supposed to do in Georgia, rather than ride on the much safer and completely empty sidewalk.

Let’s be realistic: If you ride a bike in the vehicular lanes here, you’ll cause a traffic delay at best, as drivers wait to change lanes and pass you. At worst, you’ll get hit by a car.

To be fair, we should note that the Georgia legislature didn’t exactly plan things this way. The statewide ban on sidewalks comes from a combination of two laws:

  1. “‘Vehicle’ means every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway” (O.C.G.A. § 40-1-1.75) – in other words, bicycles are defined as vehicles.

  2. “Except as provided by resolution or ordinance of a local government for sidewalks within the jurisdiction of such local government authorizing the operation of bicycles on sidewalks by persons 12 years of age or younger, no person shall drive any vehicle upon a sidewalk.” (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-144)

Note, also, that the second of these laws prevents communities from passing any local ordinance allowing bicycles on sidewalks in specific areas, except for kids 12 and under.

A statewide ban of this kind is relatively rare; as the map below shows, only 5 states (Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, and North Dakota) have a similar blanket prohibition of bikes on sidewalks, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

However, in addition to these statewide bans, untold numbers of cities have passed a citywide ban of bicycles on sidewalks. This includes several major cities: not only New York and San Francisco, where population density is high and pedestrian traffic is heavy, but also places that are closer in character to what we might consider the typical American city. Louisville, Little Rock, Spokane, and Tucson have citywide bike-on-sidewalk bans, as do countless suburbs and smaller communities.

To see how a citywide bike-on-sidewalk ban plays out, let’s take a look at one of the largest cities in the US by land area: my former home, Columbus, Ohio. The incorporated city is shown in white in the map below.

Unlike its Rust Belt peers, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Columbus is not completely hemmed in by suburbs and is known for having pursued annexation rather aggressively. This means that the city limits contain many low-density suburban and even rural areas. In practical terms, the citywide bike-on-sidewalk ban means that bicycles are prohibited, reasonably, from pedestrian-heavy sidewalks like High Street, one of the city’s busiest shopping and entertainment corridors.

However, it also means that sidewalk bicycling is prohibited on many miles of suburban arterials where sidewalks are present, pedestrians are almost completely absent, and no bicycle lanes or paths are provided. A prime example is Sawmill Road:

Source: Google Street View

Tragically but perhaps not too surprisingly, a 20-year-old cyclist was struck and killed on Sawmill Road a few years ago, while I was still working in Columbus. I was on the regional Fatality Review Board that reviewed his case. I said it then and I’ll say it again now: bike-on-sidewalk bans have real implications for safety and for the preservation of human life. If the sidewalks are there and not crowded with pedestrians, why not encourage cyclists to use them? Whet Moser put it best in his 2014 article for Chicago magazine (another city with a blanket bike-on-sidewalk ban): “if you have zero bike infrastructure and low pedestrian traffic, permitting cyclists to use the sidewalk is a cost-free way of preventing citizens from getting maimed.”

Amidst this advocacy for sidewalk cycling, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes pedestrians do get hit by cyclists, and sometimes—though very rarely—this does result in serious injury or even death. Google “pedestrian killed by cyclist” and you’ll learn about some of these cases, and also get an impression of the media frenzy that has surrounded some of them. While undeniably tragic, the excessive attention paid to these cases distracts from the greater problem, which is the enormous and rapidly increasing death toll exerted on pedestrians by motor vehicles. On average, more than 20 pedestrians in the US died each day in collisions with motor vehicles in 2021, a 68% increase from 10 years earlier. The steady year-to-year growth in pedestrian fatalities at the hands of motor vehicle drivers, per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is illustrated in the graph below. While there’s a legend entry for pedestrians killed by cyclists, the numbers are too low to be visible on the graph at this scale. (It should also be noted that statistics on bicycle-pedestrian collisions and fatalities are not reliably collected at the national level the way they are for collisions with motor vehicles.)

The laws of physics help to explain why pedestrians are at such greater risk from motor vehicles than from bicycles. Put in the simplest terms, force equals mass times speed. The average passenger vehicle weighs over 4,000 pounds. A burly man on a heavy bicycle might top 400 pounds, while the typical cyclist likely weighs about half that. Furthermore, a cyclist would be rash to exceed 15 miles per hour on a sidewalk, and will likely be going under 10 mph.

It’s also true that some cities have built streets with excellent separate facilities for motor vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians. As an example, below is Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, CA, where the two-way cycle track even includes turn lanes.

However, in most cases, the space and funds are not available to design streets like this. The reality, in most places, is more like the picture below (if there’s even a sidewalk at all).

At this point, it’s worth addressing an important question: what distinguishes a sidewalk from a shared-use path? This varies by jurisdiction, though 10 feet is the standard minimum width for bicyclists and pedestrians to share space. This does not mean that bicyclists are allowed to ride on every sidewalk that is 10 feet or wider, especially in states or cities that have a blanket ban on bikes on sidewalks! Typically, specific design standards apply that are different from those for sidewalks, and shared-use path status is conferred through legislation by the local governing body.

One thing is for sure: we could use more shared-use paths, and the opportunity to build them is often missed. Consider, for example, two rural arterial roads in Florida illustrated below. The first example has sidewalks on both sides and 5-foot-wide bicycle lanes directly adjacent to three lanes of 45-mile-per-hour traffic. This is not a safe or comfortable facility for cyclists to ride on. In the second example, all the space for bicyclists and pedestrians has been combined into a single shared-use path, which is safer, further away from cars and trucks, more pleasant, and saves ten feet of asphalt width. Comparing these two designs, it is hard to understand why the first one was ever approved if the second one was an option.

Source: Google Street View

It's also worth taking a look at the facilities that are built in other countries. One design that is widespread in Europe and gaining traction on other continents is the sidewalk-level cycle track that is distinguished from the pedestrian area by some variation in the surface material, along with striping. The cycle track may be subtle, without signs or markings, functioning as more of a suggestion, as in this example from Berlin:

Or it may be more clearly delineated and striped for two-way traffic, as in this electric scooter lane in Riyadh:

Whichever design is better (and this will vary by location), the concept of designating a portion of a wide sidewalk for bicycle or scooter use is something that has not been sufficiently explored in the US.

What about cities that have more reasonable regulations for bikes on sidewalks? Here’s a sampling of official language from a few cities that allow bicycles on sidewalks, but require a reasonable amount of caution and prudence on the part of the cyclist.

The City of Los Angeles allows bicycles to ride on the sidewalk unless they are not acting with a “willful and wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”

“Whenever any person is riding a bicycle upon a sidewalk, such person shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian and shall give an audible signal before overtaking and passing pedestrians.”

“Ride your bike on sidewalks when necessary in the interest of safety, except where prohibited by signs and markings. We encourage you to use the street. Yield to pedestrians. Ring a bell or give another audible signal when you pass a person walking.”

Cyclists are required to operate carefully and in a prudent manner "at a rate of speed no greater than is reasonable and proper under the conditions existing at the point of operation."

When riding on a sidewalk one must slow to walking speed when approaching an intersection, driveway, etc. where motor vehicles are present.

A person may ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in a reasonable and prudent manner. However sidewalks are slower than streets, and are not always as safe as they seem. Crossing motorists may not expect such fast-moving sidewalk traffic. Ride carefully, checking before crossing streets and driveways. Slow down for pedestrians, and give an audible signal well before passing them.

What about e-bikes? Their popularity has surged in recent years. They’re faster and heavier. With regard to riding them on sidewalks, the regulatory landscape looks quite different. The map below shows state-level regulations of e-bikes on sidewalks. While several states have tried to ensure pedestrian safety with a statewide ban, it’s worth noting that several other states have no ban, and wholesale carnage of pedestrians at the hands of e-bicyclists has yet to occur. With e-bikes, just as with non-motorized bicycles, the best approach may be to require caution and prudence on the part of the cyclist. Several states have separate restrictions for class 3 e-bikes, with assistance up to 28 miles per hour. Given this speed potential – which also allows for better blending with vehicular traffic – it makes sense to have some separate regulations for this category.

Before we hang up our bike helmets, let’s not forget the equity side of things. Plenty of people who use a bicycle to get to their destinations aren’t choosing that mode for recreational reasons; for many, it’s their only option. Perhaps it’s too far to walk, there’s no public transit option, rideshare isn’t cost-effective, and like many households in the US, they don’t own a car. (In Georgia 5.3 percent of households have no motor vehicle available, which sounds like a small percentage until you realize it equates to 221,331, households. That’s enough to form a car-free city!)

By allowing and encouraging cycling on sidewalks where it’s safe to do so, cities can use existing infrastructure – at no cost – to expand mobility opportunities, encourage sustainable travel, and prevent injuries, deaths, and traffic jams. Statewide and citywide bans are not appropriate because of the wide variety of contexts that usually exist within a single jurisdiction. Instead, governments should focus on regulations that require safe bicyclist behavior on sidewalks, such as lower speeds, yielding to pedestrians, restricting bicycles from pedestrian-dense areas, and so forth. This is a much more reasonable and equitable approach.

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