Cyclists on the Sidewalk: What's a pedestrian to do?

So a cyclist is cruising down the sidewalk, and there’s a close call with a pedestrian — or maybe even a collision. Harsh words are exchanged.

You should be in the street, you mountain of mad flesh!

I can’t ride in the street, you cockered dread-bolted strumpet. There’s no bike lane!

Listen, you rampallian, you fustilarian,  you’re not allowed on the sidewalk!

What?! You are certainly mistaken, beetle-headed, flap-ear’d knave!*

This discussion, however, does not resolve the issue.

Later, when the two have gone their separate ways, each in their own domicile, they go to their respective computers and do this:

Google: Bike on SidewalkAnd to settle this issue once and for all, look what they find at the top of the search results. It’s our very own article, “Top 5 Rules for Riding on the Sidewalk.”

Originally published more than three years ago — that’s 21 in dog years; 121 in Internet years — it continues to be one of the most popular pages on this site. Settling bets, resolving disputes, and pissing people off since 2008. Just look at the comments.

And I’m guessing that is how a “fit grandmother” named Denise, from  University Place, Washington, found herself on this site and then contacted me.

Denise is not a cyclist, she’s a walker, and she was on the pedestrian side of one of these exchanges.

She told me,

I am all for bikes and bike lanes. We have wonderful bike lanes in my neighbourhood, but people still choose to ride on the sidewalk.

I have been yelled at from behind and just about had a heart attack and I was hit once because people still ride on the sidewalk.

It is not illegal to ride on it either. As I said, we have WONDERFUL bike lanes and I do not understand why I helped have these installed with my tax dollars so I could still get hit and scared by some bikers.

The woman who hit me got back on her bike and said with a giggle, “sorry” and rode on. She never stopped long enough to see if I was okay.

She didn’t think it was a big deal, but I was unable to take my walks for three days because of pain, and I was fearful to go out there again.

Bridgeport Way, University Place, WABridgeport Way, University Place, WA | Image: Google Street View

It was a few weeks before I saw her again, that was yesterday morning. She’s still riding on the sidewalk, oblivious to sidewalk manners. Most people I see DO use the bike lanes and the people who have used the sidewalk have been very considerate. It is this one person I am trouble with. I am afraid if I don’t see her coming again, she will crash into me again. I like to relax on my walk and not feel I have to watch out like I do when crossing traffic.

The bike lanes here are really awesome too! They are in University Place WA on Bridgeport. If you can, check ’em out! They are wide and don’t get shared with parked cars like in many places. There is no reason for any adult not to use them!

I did a little digging, and could not find out whether or not it is actually legal to ride on the sidewalk in University Place. A nice person named Emilita at City Hall directed me to a Website with all of the City ordinances, including one requiring helmets on all cyclists (which I mention only as crazy bait). But I found nothing explicitly allowing or prohibiting bikes on sidewalks.

State law was not explicit either, instead referring readers to sidewalk rules in local municipalities. Frustrated, a little bored, and with other stuff to do, I abandoned my legal research on behalf of Denise.

I confess to occasionally riding on the sidewalk. On my daily commute, to be honest. My rationalizations are a mix of 90% laziness, and 10% safety. For me to ride entirely to work without using a sidewalk adds an extra half mile of mingling with traffic including two left turns in heavy traffic — as opposed to a 50-yard guilty slink on a sidewalk while pretending to be invisible. If I were to walk my bike this stretch, it would add only about one minute to my commute, but I don’t. I should, but I don’t.

But my demeanour is always, I don’t really belong here and I promise not to be a bother. It’s the same attitude I take if I walk into a restaurant where I will not be dining and use the bathroom.

Yes, I do that too sometimes. I know. I’m a terrible person.

Obviously, I don’t take an absolutist position on never biking on the sidewalk. I always think of two extremes in my bike-commuting life experience.

One is downtown Washington, DC, where cycling on the sidewalk among the crowded foot traffic would have been plain stupid most of the time. Bike lanes are not universal, but the speed of motor traffic tends to be slow, and the motorists for the most part are used to mingling with cyclists.

The other is Phoenix, Arizona, with its long, straight, sidewalks, where you can see the scant pedestrians from up to a mile ahead. There are few bike lanes, and the motorists commonly flout the 35 and 45 mph speed limits. I’d use the sidewalks and not feel the slightest bit of guilt.

For cyclists, most decisions about whether or not to bike on a sidewalk occur between these two extremes.

This Web site has lots of information and advice on how to deal with those “highly fed and lowly taught”* non-cyclists — from dogs to motorists. But how should a pedestrian deal with one of us when one of us is behaving badly? The cyclist described by Denise acts as though she has the right of way — as though it is the obligation of pedestrians on the sidewalk to get out of her way.

Me? When I see a cyclist riding down a sidewalk as though it were meant for bikes, I make sure to get in the cyclist’s way — casually and subtly, as though I’m just walking along enjoying my right of way. I’m kind of obsessive about etiquette and right of way. I want to make the street look like a better option.

But I don’t think Denise is up for that.

So what should she do?

* Shakespearean insults and epithets taken from a coffee mug acquired from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild.

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