Bicycling on sidewalks: Not safe, not recommended

Recently, one of our members asked us about a situation where a local police officer had directed him to leave the street and bicycle on the adjacent sidewalk.

No Bicycles On Sidewalks
No Bicycles On Sidewalks

Unfortunately, this situation happens occasionally in Missouri. With hundreds of cities and counties and thousands of law enforcement officers, not all of them are as well versed in bicycle law and best practice as they should be. So we do get reports of police officers asking or ordering bicyclists on a busier street and move to the sidewalk instead.

Thankfully, this is a rare occurence in Missouri--and becoming rarer, as bicycling becomes more popular and accepted.

But just to set the record straight, we want to say as clearly as we can:

  • All major local, regional, state, and national bicycling organizations, and all bicycle education curriculums in wide use, recommend that adult bicyclists ride in the street and avoid riding on the sidewalk as a matter of standard practice.
     
  • Riding on the sidewalk is generally far more dangerous for adult and older teen cyclists than riding on the adjacent street.
     
  • Police officers and other public officials should not direct, order, or encourage bicyclists to ride on the sidewalk rather than the street.
     
  • Bicycling on the sidewalk is generally allowed by law in Missouri, except in business districts.  However, because bicycling on the sidewalk has been shown in numerous studies to more dangerous to the bicyclist than bicycling on the road, the decision to bicycle on the sidewalk--and thus take on that additional danger--can only be made by an individual bicyclist, not by any official or agency. Bicyclists who do choose to ride on the sidewalk must proceed slowly and cautiously, must be aware of all potential danger and conflict points, and must operate safely near pedestrians.

For bicyclists: What to do if a law officer orders you to ride on the sidewalk

In any situation with a law enforcement officer, your best course of action is to follow the instructions and orders of the officer. This is not a good opportunity to argue or press the point. Simply comply with the request and move along. If that means walking your bicycle on a sidewalk for a while, that may be your best option.

If you feel that the officer has acted improperly or given improper instructions, contact your local police department about the situation later. Most police departments have a public relations officer, public oversight board, or public complaint form for registering your issues.  You can use the information on this page to help make your case.  Most police departments are open to feedback about how they can do their job better, if it is provided in a polite and persuasive manner.

For law enforcement officers: Why bicyclists may be reluctant to comply with your request to bicycle on the sidewalk

Many bicyclists study the law, take bike ed courses, and generally educate themselves about the best and safest way to operate their bicycle. Issues like sidewalk riding are a matter of common and intense discussion in the bicycle community, so many people who bicycle are very, very aware of this as an issue and also very aware that bicycling on the sidewalk is actually more dangerous than bicycling on the street. Many people who are avid or serious bicyclists make a point and a practice of never bicycling on the sidewalk.

So when you ask bicyclists to ride on the sidewalk, you are most often going very much against their training, practice, and inclination.

If there is some special reason why bicyclists cannot continue on the street, it will be helpful to briefly indicate that ("This road is closed to ALL traffic").

Asking bicyclists to walk their bicycles on the sidewalk or simply find an alternate route may be more effective than asking them to bicycle on the sidewalk.

And again, Missouri law gives bicyclists the same right to use the public roadway as any other vehicle. Unless the road is closed to all traffic, or some very unusual situation makes a particular stretch of road temporarily dangerous for bicycling, it is generally inappropriate to ban or bar bicyclists from operating on the roadway. 

Note that "traffic" is not an unusual situation of this type. Bicycles are legal vehicles and are part of the legal traffic allowed on public roadways.  Bicyclists routinely and regularly operate in traffic.

 

Bicycle organizations uniformly recommend against routine sidewalk bicycling for adults

League of American Bicyclists

The League of American Bicyclists:

The League recommends that bicyclists ride on the road. Riding on the sidewalk is a significant cause of bicyclist-motorist crashes and creates unnecessary conflicts with pedestrians. There are many reasons that bicyclists belong in the road rather than upon the sidewalk, including obstructions, unpredictable pedestrian movements, limited visibility, and the limited design speed of sidewalks.

The League also has an excellent video: Riding on the Sidewalk.

People for Bikes

People for Bikes, the bicycle industry coalition:

MYTH: Riders are safest on the sidewalk.


At first glance, it seems like bicyclists are safest on sidewalks, separated from automobile traffic. Riding on the sidewalk does reduce the incidence of crashes involving cars passing bicyclists, but sidewalk riders significantly increase the risk of being hit by turning drivers.

A 2009 review of 23 studies on bicycling injuries found the best places for bicyclists to travel were protected bike lanes, closely followed by on-road bike lanes and separated bike paths. It turns out that the most dangerous way to ride is the way many of us were taught as kids: on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic.

Bicycling Street Smarts

Bicycling Street Smarts by John Allen, one of the most commonly used and comprehensive bicycle operations guides used in the United States:

Sidewalk and Bikepath Riding

Many people consider sidewalks a safe place to ride because cars don't travel on them. Unfortunately, sidewalks aren't safe. Stay off them, except where you have no choice.

Trees, hedges, parked cars, buildings and doorways create blindspots along a sidewalk, which is too narrow to allow you to swerve out of the way if someone appears. A pedestrian on the sidewalk can sidestep suddenly, or a small child can run out from behind an adult. Never pass a pedestrian until you have his or her attention.

And cars do use sidewalks - at every driveway and cross street. Since there are no clear rules for travel on a sidewalk, your only choice is to ride very slowly and look in all directions before crossing a driveway or street.

CyclingSavvy

CyclingSavvy bicycle education course:

Ride on the road.

Sidewalk cycling conflicts (CyclingSavvy)
Sidewalk cycling conflicts (CyclingSavvy)

Think about where each of these motorists is looking before crossing the sidewalk.

Adult bicyclists do not belong on the sidewalk.  Sidewalk cycling increases conflict for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians. Sidewalk cycling is not only inconvenient and slow, it actually increases your risk of being hit by a car because it aggravates turning and crossing conflicts. The sidewalk also presents many more hazards such as poles, posts and branches.

Missouri Drive Guide - official state publication

Missouri Driver Guide, the official publication of the Missouri Department of Revenue, summarizing Missouri traffic law and best practices:

For teen and adult bicyclists, studies show that riding on the street with traffic, not against it (following the same traffic rules that other vehicles do), is far safer than riding on the sidewalk. However, Missouri law prohibits cyclists from riding on the sidewalk in a business district.

This quotation is found in Chapter 7 of the Missouri Drive Guide, page 61. It is also quoted on MoBikeFed's Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Law page.

International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA)

The International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) is made up of police officers and EMTs who use bicycles as part of their job.  IPMBA officers are bicyclists who understand the principles and practices of bicycling just as all other bicycle organizations do. IPMBA's bicycling curriculum aligns very well with the other bicycle education organizations and curriculums quoted above.

Like all other bicycling groups, IPMBA is very aware of the dangers of sidewalk riding for bicyclists and strongly recommends against routine sidewalk riding. This is true even though bicycle officers and EMTs often must bicycle on sidewalks as part of their job duties. From IPMBA's article on the subject:

IPMBA courses have long taught that sidewalks – or pavements for the Brits – are dangerous places to ride a bike; usually more dangerous than the street or road adjacent to them. Every driveway, alley and business entrance is an incident waiting to happen. In many areas, riding on a sidewalk is illegal, even for police and EMS. Business districts can pose the greatest threat of all, and are often the most forbidden of all riding locations. . . .

Sidewalks are made for pedestrians. Motorists crossing or approaching sidewalks are searching for people traveling at walking speed.  They are not looking for, and do not expect, cyclists moving twice as fast.  Next, unless you are patrolling very slowly, stay away from walls, storefronts and businesses.  Give yourself extra room to see and to be seen.  Every alley, and every driveway, is an intersection and is many times more likely to be the scene of a crash when you are riding on a sidewalk.  Slow down and use caution.  There is no call, no pursuit and no arrest worth getting yourself into a crash.

Research clearly shows that sidewalk riding is more dangerous than street riding for cyclists

The reason that bicycling organizations and bike ed curriculums do not recommend sidewalk cycling is that research very clearly shows that it is more dangerous than bicycling on the adjacent street.

Bicycling Street Smarts author John Allen has summarized the research in this area:

The evidence that bicycling on sidewalks and similar facilities is more hazardous than bicycling on streets is overwhelming. Need to see that evidence? Here are some graphs, and links to studies posted on the Internet on this site and others:

Recommendations

Sidewalk bicycling is not recommended as a best practice by any bicycling organization or bike ed curriculum in the United States. Research clearly shows that sidewalk bicycling is more dangerous. Police officers in Missouri should not recommend or order that bicyclists ride on the sidewalk.

 

Police departments and officers who have questions about this issue should consider training officers using a curriculum such as:

 

"Improving safety for all road users" is one of the four major goals of MoBikeFed's Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri. Educating cyclists, motorists, and law enforcement personnel is one of the ways that we reach that goal. Visit our Bicycle Skills and Safety page for many more resources for safe and effective bicycling.

Your ongoing membership and generous financial support helps turn our Vision into reality!

 

Image credits:

Share this: