Is it safer to bike on the sidewalk?

Cities with bike-friendly paths and markings make it so riders don't have to choose between the dangers of the road and the sidewalk.
Cities with bike-friendly paths and markings make it so riders don't have to choose between the dangers of the road and the sidewalk.
Yuji Kotani/Digital Vision/Getty Images

There are U.S. cities where cycling is a truly viable means of transport. Boulder, Colo., has bike lanes on 95 percent of its streets; Tucson's Pima County boasts more than 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) of dedicated bike paths; and in bike-friendly Davis, Calif., 14 percent of commuters choose to ride rather than drive [sources: Bicycling, LoAC].

And then there are cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, where 55 percent choose to bike [source: Copenhagenize]. Copenhagen incorporated cycling not as a transportation afterthought, but as a primary consideration in infrastructure design, resulting in roadways that are exceptionally safe for cyclists. In the United States, cycling is comparatively dangerous, resulting in fewer trips by bike and some cyclists choosing the sidewalk over the street.

The assumption is that riding on the sidewalk is safer. And indeed, you don't find a lot of hurdling, 2-ton vehicles manned by McMuffin-eating commuters there. But the issue is more complicated than that.

While speeding cars, breakfast and a citizenry not known for its love of sharing are primary factors affecting bike safety, they're not the only ones. Answering the question of whether it's safer to ride on the sidewalk starts with answering a different one: Is it even legal to do that?

Is Biking on the Sidewalk Legal?

In many areas of the country, the sidewalk vs. road debate is moot. Laws tend to lean toward keeping cyclists off of walkways completely, especially in congested city centers. Simply put, sidewalks are for feet, not wheels.

State laws on the issue do vary, though, and states almost always leave the ultimate decision to localities. Local governments, in turn, have typically ruled against letting cyclists over the age of 13 use sidewalks, making it illegal and a ticketable offense. In these cases, cyclists can't use crosswalks, either -- any pedestrian travel space is off-limits to bikes.

Legal definitions reveal a lot in this regard. A bicycle is defined as a vehicle -- a human-powered (or hybrid-powered), typically two-wheeled vehicle, but a vehicle nonetheless. As such, a cyclist is a driver. Bicycles and their drivers, like cars and their drivers, belong in areas designated for the higher speeds at which those vehicles travel, and bike drivers have to follow all of the laws that car drivers do. In these terms, a bicycle driving on the sidewalk would be no different from a car driving on the sidewalk.

In areas where cyclists can use pedestrian pathways, on the other hand, their legal status typically varies with their location. When a bicycle is travelling on the road, the bike is a vehicle, the cyclist is a driver, and that driver has to follow the same traffic laws that cars do -- stopping at stop signs, signaling and obeying traffic lights, for instance. When, on the other hand, a cyclist is riding on the sidewalk, he or she is a pedestrian and must follow all the rules and regulations that pedestrians have to follow. At a signaled crosswalk, that cyclist has to wait for the hand to light up before proceeding just like the guy travelling on foot.

And even where it's legal, there are conditions intended to make sidewalk-sharing as safe as possible for pedestrians, including limiting bike speed to walking speed, setting rules for alerting walkers to the intention to pass, and mandatory bike-walking when a sidewalk is busy enough to make colliding with a pedestrian reasonably likely.

Sidewalk-cycling rules and regulations, then, are typically focused on protecting those on foot, not those on wheels. After all, the rider-bike combination is heavier than a pedestrian and is capable of moving at much faster speeds. From this, one might infer that cyclists face no danger on the sidewalk -- or at least far less danger than on the street.

This inference, it turns out, is quite problematic ...

Is Biking on the Sidewalk Safer?

In cities where bicycle transport is a structural afterthought (if considered at all), riding on the road with cars can be pretty risky. For 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration puts the number of recorded collisions between bikes and cars at 52,000, although reporting discrepancies indicate 500,000 might be more accurate [sources: NHTSA, UNC]. It's understandable, if not always legal, for a cyclist to hop off the road and onto the sidewalk to avoid that risk.

The problem is, cycling on the sidewalk is risky, too, and not just to the pedestrians who get in the way. Sidewalks aren't designed for bike travel; and because pedestrians don't expect to be mingling with cyclists, they aren't looking for them. Even when riders call out "passing on the left!" with what seems like plenty of time, they may find themselves swerving off the sidewalk to avoid a pedestrian collision -- and colliding with a tree or a car instead.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, though, the greatest cycling danger on the sidewalk is cars. Drivers, like pedestrians, aren't expecting bikes to be there. They're expecting sidewalk traffic to be moving at, say, 3 miles per hour (5 kilometers per hour). That's hardly darting speed, so when they pull out of driveways or alleys, they typically pull all the way up to the road, past the sidewalk, before stopping. A pedestrian will probably have plenty of time to stop for that car; a faster-moving cyclist probably won't.

Getting hit while crossing a driveway is probably the most common cause of sidewalk collisions, but it's not the only one. Running into a right-turning car (getting "right-hooked," in the lingo), a significant danger to cyclists on the road, is a risk on the sidewalk, too. Cars turning right at the end of a block are looking for pedestrians in the immediate vicinity of that corner, not a bike that can clear the entire block in a few seconds. A bike can appear in a car's path in the time it takes the driver to look left one last time.

Sidewalk-cycling rules that protect pedestrians, then -- like riding at walking speed and walking a bike during high-traffic times -- can also help protect cyclists. Moving onto the sidewalk doesn't remove cars from the equation; it simply moves the danger to driveways and crosswalks.

Governments regularly enact new laws to help reduce the risks associated with cycling on the road with cars, but they can only do so much. The widely held belief is that the only real solution is to take a cue from cities like Copenhagen: Re-think and revise travel infrastructures with bicycles in mind.

That's a tall order in a time when many state and local governments have to choose between education and health care to avoid bankruptcy, but some U.S. cities are getting on board. Seattle, for one, has a 10-year plan to put almost a quarter-billion dollars into expanding its bike-friendly travel network, with the end goal of making more people want to bike instead of drive [source: Bicycling].

At least in the foreseeable future, Copenhagen's 55-percent cycling rate may be a bit out of reach for much of the United States. Davis' 14 percent, however, might turn out to be a more realistic goal, a number that pales in comparison but would be a remarkable improvement: According to the League of American Bicyclists, the current national average is about 0.4 percent.

For more information on commuting by bike, bike-friendly cities and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Author's Note

Unquestionably accurate statistics are hard to come by. It's an issue most writers face, and one that has grown increasingly problematic with the rise of Internet publishing. Now, in addition to the fact that numbers can be made to say pretty much anything you want them to, there are ones being pulled out of thin air.

And so we look for the most credible sources. In this case, I limited my statistical sources to government and university documents and national cycling organizations. It should be noted, however, that some less obviously credible publications, most notably blogs, in some cases offered injury and collision statistics that differed from the ones I included here, and they were often higher. I personally believe the blogosphere to be a highly valuable resource and many bloggers to be credible, responsible writers and journalists. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference, though, between the fact-driven and the dogma-driven, and so I chose the numbers backed up by the big guys. There are, however, others out there to be found, if you want to look.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "America's Top 50 Bike-Friendly Cities." Bicycling Magazine. (Sept. 19, 2012) http://www.bicycling.com/news/advocacy/america%E2%80%99s-top-50-bike-friendly-cities
  • "Bicycle Friendly Community: Davis, CA." League of American Bicyclists. (Sept. 19, 2012) http://www.bikeleague.org/programs/bicyclefriendlyamerica/communities/bfc_davis.php
  • "Bicycle Crash Facts." University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. (Sept. 21, 2012) http://www.bicyclinginfo.org/facts/crash-facts.cfm
  • "Bicyclists and Other Cyclists: 2010 Data." Traffic Safety Facts. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. June 2012. (Sept. 20, 2012) http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811624.pdf
  • "Colorado Bike Law." Pedal. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://www.pedalclub.org/index.php/safety-a-comunity-involvement/co-bike-law
  • "Oregon Bicycle Laws." Bike Portland. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://bikeportland.org/resources/bicyclelaws
  • "Sidewalks are For Walking." San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://www.sfbike.org/?sidewalks
  • "Top 5 Rules for Biking on the Sidewalk." Commute by Bike. July 9, 2008. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://www.commutebybike.com/2008/07/09/top-5-rules-for-riding-on-the-sidewalk/
  • "Traffic laws for bicyclists and motorists to know." Florida Department of Transportation. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://www.dot.state.fl.us/safety/ped_bike/laws/ped_bike_bikeLaws1.shtm
  • "The World's Most Bicycle Friendly Cities." Copenhagenize. July 21, 2009. (Sept. 19, 2012) http://www.copenhagenize.com/2009/07/worlds-most-bicycle-friendly-cities.html