Every time I notice someone riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, I cringe.
People who ride on the sidewalk, in my view, are there because they lack either the education or the proper infrastructure to keep them riding safely and comfortably on the street. Either way, sidewalk cycling is a sign that we can do better.
The most obvious drawback of sidewalk biking is that sidewalks aren’t built for it. Riding on the sidewalk will actually put a person on a bike in many more dangerous situations than riding on a typical street. Bouncing over cracks and tree roots, swerving around trash cans and dodging mailboxes takes a cyclist’s attention away from the biggest threat to a person on a bike: intersections.
Almost all collisions between bikes and cars happen at intersections. I like to tell people, “You’re not going to get hit while you’re on the sidewalk. You’ll get hit in a driveway.”
A study from Cornell University found people on bikes entering an intersection from a sidewalk were 1.8 times as likely to be hit by a car as a cyclist riding in the road. The numbers add up fast. Roughly half of all cyclist/car crashes happen when a person is riding on the sidewalk and a car pulls into or out of a driveway.
This tracks with what I’ve seen while working at the City of Fayetteville. Among the dozens of bike crash reports I’ve reviewed, nearly all of them involve someone riding into an intersection from a sidewalk. Speaking from my own riding experience, I’d say about 1% of my riding is done on sidewalks and that 1% accounts for about half of my close calls with cars.
Still, the fact remains that many people say they feel safer riding on a sidewalk. This is understandable. Most of the biking in Northwest Arkansas takes place on paved trails, as our cycling community has grown to love riding away from cars. Riding in the street can be intimidating, and nobody wants to be that person who slows down traffic with a line of cars behind them.
But I ascribe to an axiom in bike education: “Never compromise your safety for anyone’s convenience.” Has anyone ever been late to work because they were stuck behind someone riding a bike? I doubt it.
Accordingly, Arkansas state law gives no love to cyclists in crosswalks. A person mounted on a bicycle in a crosswalk never has the right of way and must yield to all pedestrians and vehicles. Local ordinances often restrict sidewalk riding in downtowns as well.
The solution, as I see, is one part education and five parts engineering. People need to understand the risks of riding on the sidewalk and learn the skills to ride in the street more confidently.
The big fix is new infrastructure that makes biking safe and comfortable for people of all ages and abilities. To accomplish this, we need more projects like the Old Wire Cycle Track in Fayetteville. The work brought a separated cycle track and a sidewalk to a densely populated section of Old Wire Road that had been only a two-lane, blacktop road where only the bravest cyclist would ride. Today the route sees more than 50,000 bikers and walkers per year and is frequented by kids still using training wheels.
Roughly half of all cyclist/car crashes happen when a person is riding on the sidewalk and a car pulls into or out of a driveway.
As is so often the case, implementation may be the best education.
Dane Eifling is mobility coordinator for the City of Fayetteville.