Figuring out sidewalk cycling laws can be frustrating, but it’s critical for everyone’s safety.
Local laws often allow bicycling on the sidewalk in some cases, but prohibit it in others.
How do you make sense of all this? And do you really need to follow the law, anyway?
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Here’s whether you can ride your bike on the sidewalk
In most of the US, you’re not allowed to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk, but you can always get off and push it. However, some cities allow slow cycling (often just 5-10 mph) along roads with faster traffic (often 35+ mph) and no designated bike route.
Keep in mind that state, county, and city laws all apply. Even if one jurisdiction doesn’t specify, others may. If the laws seem conflicting or ambiguous, then consider contacting the local police department to clarify. Meanwhile, it’s safest to assume that the most restrictive law applies.
What’s wrong with cycling on the sidewalk?
Generally, sidewalk cycling is banned in order to keep pedestrians safe. It’s the same idea behind banning skateboarding, rollerblading, and other activities that are faster or less controlled than walking.
However, there are often exceptions along higher-speed streets that lack bicycle lanes. In those cases, it’s sometimes permissible to ride slowly on the sidewalk in order to improve the flow of traffic. (And ostensibly to prevent car-cyclist collisions, but the lack of cycle infrastructure implies that preserving car speed is the city’s main priority.)
When should you bike on the sidewalk anyhow?
A problem arises when laws prohibit riding on the sidewalk, but the street lacks safe infrastructure for cyclists of all ages and abilities. Unfortunately, it’s common to see sidewalk riding banned even along streets that are unsafe for most cyclists, which forces a tough choice:
- Do I obey the letter of the law and stay off the sidewalk, even when it means “sharing” a lane with fast traffic?
- Do I violate the law by riding slowly and cautiously on the sidewalk to ensure my own safety?
I’d argue for the second option, since cars pose a greater danger to cyclists than (low-speed) cyclists pose to pedestrians. Again, that’s not to say it’s legal; only that it’s the less dangerous and frightening option on the whole, as long as you do indeed ride at very low speeds around pedestrians.
Of course, it’s important to uphold the law, so strictly speaking, I don’t recommend this. And if it’s a crowded sidewalk, then it’s probably better for everyone just to walk your bike until the crowd thins out. But if your surroundings are clear, then it’s hard to see an ethical obligation to uphold laws that increase personal danger, especially when the city enforcing the law has failed to provide a genuinely safe alternative.
Important tips for sidewalk cycling safety
If you can or have to ride on the sidewalk, then the most important tip is to ride slower than you think you need to. Pedestrians will probably perceive you as traveling much faster than you really are. Limit yourself to no more than jogging speed (well under 10 mph) to avoid scaring people—even if you know you’re in control.
It’s also helpful to use your bell sparingly. A bell is a friendly way to pass others on a path or trail, but can be unnerving to hear frequent, urgent dinging in a crowd. If there’s too little space to pass comfortably and slowly, then hold your horses rather than trying to forge a path through the crowd.
Sidewalk cycling is often prohibited by at least one layer of city/county/state laws, but there are usually exceptions, too. And it’s sometimes a judgment call as to whether following the sidewalk laws is actually the safest thing to do.
Unfortunately, this dilemma only exists because most cities have neglected to design good cycling environments that encourage a practical cycle culture. But unless or until that changes, our lives as urban cyclists will involve riding on the sidewalk from time to time. Best to do it thoughtfully, sparingly, and with full awareness of whatever laws apply.