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Don’t bike on the sidewalk…

June 11, 2014

Given the recent debate surrounding Idaho stop lawsmy view is here — I wanted to take a look at another rule as it pertains to cyclists: biking on the sidewalk.

First, the requisite admonition, one that I hope will absolve me of the sin of nuance I’m about to commit in this post:

Don’t bike on the sidewalk.

You don’t want to act like Alec Baldwin, do you? (Image via PageSix.com/Splashnews)

This rule is printed on the handlebars of every Citibike and was part of the 2011 DOT public service campaign, “Don’t be a Jerk.” It’s simple, direct, and, in most situations, worth following. “I don’t care that you’re only going half a block. Walk your bike, buddy.”

But there are some problems with such sidewalk absolutism that no PSA or badgering about the rules can fix. First, most of the city’s bicycle parking is located on sidewalks. Many Citibike stations are there, too. In such cases, telling cyclists not to bike on the sidewalk is about as effective as telling drivers to get out of their vehicles to push them into parking garages.

Second, the city’s bicycle network, while better than it used to be, still leaves a lot to be desired. On streets where bicycle lanes don’t exist — and even on streets where they do — no one should be surprised when people on bikes choose the possibility of pissing off a pedestrian over potentially falling under the wheels of a bus.  Infrastructure and real-time perceptions of danger, not televised ads or printed lists of rules, tell people what to do. For example, before the Prospect Park West bike lane was installed, almost half of all cyclists rode on the sidewalk. After it was installed, only 3% did. (I’ve written before about the scofflaw myth and street designs that actively encourage people on bikes to make technically illegal, yet highly rational choices.)

But there’s perhaps one even bigger problem: retrofitting cities for cycling means that people on bikes are frequently encouraged by the powers that be to do the very thing that the powers that be tell them never to do.

Consider this spot:

photo 2 (12)

Rush hour at Chrystie and Rivington.

Cyclists traveling West on Rivington Street are directed by official signage and pavement markings to cut through Sara D. Roosevelt Park. This requires crossing the sidewalk at Rivington and Forsyth, riding through a shared space in the park, and crossing the sidewalk along Chrystie Street to continue on to the Bowery. (There’s also a Citibike station in the park.)

While it might be nice if cyclists could queue up for the light in a way that didn’t block north/south sidewalk traffic, no one freaks out about it.

Pedestrians and cyclists can co-exist.

Pedestrians and cyclists can co-exist.

Consider another spot shared by cyclists and pedestrians, City Hall Park:

cityhallplaza

The thermoplastic bike symbol.

To get to the Brooklyn Bridge from Warren Street, cyclists have to ride through a shared space between City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse and then on the sidewalk to get across Centre Street. It’s probably not all peace, love, and understanding in a space that’s typically teeming with tourists and downtown workers, but Crashstat.org doesn’t show any ped/bike crashes here.

Then there’s one of Brooklyn’s most popular cycling routes, which until very recently was set up like this:

kentave

Image via Greenpointers.com

Kent Ave, before the new configuration, required northbound cyclists to take the sidewalk. And while there was marked space that divided pedestrians and cyclists into separate channels, it wasn’t always clear who should go where. Even though this area is highly trafficked by Orthodox Jewish families, who have a (somewhat unfair) reputation in the tabloids as being uniformly anti-bike, the design generated zero stories in the Brooklyn Paper or New York Post.

I can think of lots of other places where design encourages people on bikes to lawfully share the sidewalk with pedestrians. Here’s Allen Street, which features multiple crossings where bike and foot traffic co-exists peacefully:

allenst

Shared space on Allen Street even includes benches and chairs.

When I put the call out on Twitter asking for locations where cyclists and pedestrians share space, I got a torrent of responses from people all over the city. Shared ped/bike space can be found on the Hudson River Greenway and Riverside Park, the East River Greenway and Esplanade, Sands Street, Grand Army Plaza where the Prospect Park West bike lane ends, the bike path through Herald Square, Ralph Demarco Park in Astoria, the Willis Avenue Bridge, paths on Randall’s Island, the Myrtle Avenue Promenade through MetroTech, Van Cortlandt Park, and many more. To the best of anyone’s knowledge there isn’t a high rate of injuries or fatalities in any of those locations.

Why do these spaces work?

Because there are no cars!

When one removes cars from the equation — along with things like traffic lights, signs, and giant pavement markings designed to be seen by people operating motor vehicles at high speeds — people on foot and people on bikes are more able to safely negotiate shared space. And that’s when you see that the “war” between pedestrians and cyclists elsewhere is really just a bifurcation that occurs as a result of ignoring bull in the china shop. You know why pedestrians and cyclists on the Brooklyn Bridge hate each other? Because the cars get all the space!

That’s also not to say that we need to remove cars from every inch of the city. Nor is this post an argument in favor of biking on the sidewalk. But as long as the rules remain inconsistent from place to place, cyclists will make choices that don’t always jibe with the narrowest application of the rules. More protected lanes, slower traffic speeds, and streets that prioritize people over automobiles would go a long way toward deflating the problems that sometimes arise when a cyclist chooses the sidewalk over the street. (And when a pedestrian chooses the bike lane over the sidewalk, as Bike Snob recently observed.)

It should be noted that children age 12 and younger are legally permitted to ride on the sidewalk. But that law only makes sense in relation to our dangerous streets!  I’ve recently begun allowing my daughter to ride on the Prospect Park West Bike lane. We have to use some caution, but the stakes are rather low. About as low as they are on a sidewalk.

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8 Comments
  1. June 11, 2014 2:26 pm

    I’d love to see one vehicle lane on each side of the Brooklyn Bridge change to bikes only on weekends. Hell, I’d even compromise with one bidirectional lane on one side of the bridge.

    There are just too many peds on the walkway above, many without a good grasp of where they need to be. And when there are few bikes coming through, it’s so weird to see one half of the promenade nearly empty while tourists are spilling out of the other half.

  2. invisiblevisibleman permalink
    June 11, 2014 3:53 pm

    Doug,

    It’s a good post. I’ve had grief from pedestrians – as in people really screaming at me that I shouldn’t be there – in City Hall Park. The Sara D Roosevelt Park section that you mention (and Allen St) are both on my normal daily commuting route. I’ve had less trouble there but did a while ago get admonished by a runner who didn’t like my riding into the park when she wanted to run across my path on the road up Forsyth St. As you point out, however, these conflicts aren’t normally anything like the ones involving people in cars. I’ve come across only one serious injury from a conflict in shared space. I had to call an ambulance once for a cyclist who’d been knocked off when a runner stepped in front of him on the Hudson River Greenway. It looked like he’d broken his shoulder.

    Robert.

  3. Asdf permalink
    June 12, 2014 10:41 am

    I think the default rule should be no biking on the sidewalk, but biking on the sidewalk should be allowed in more places where it makes sense. For example, on Riverside Drive, particularly on the viaduct above the 130s or near Grant’s Tomb. There are very few pedestrians there, and drivers tend to speed. There are no intersections. Hence cyclists who ride on that sidewalk (and there are many) create very little conflict and are much safer than on the street. Still, it’s technically illegal.

  4. June 12, 2014 1:30 pm

    As a seasoned recreational cyclist and long time commuter, I have no issues with shared spaces. Except for the clueless/ear plugged runner, the guy on a bike going too fast in a mixed use path is the biggest problem. Some people don’t know how to go slow on a fast bike. Every minute on a bike needs to be at near max effort. People getting buzzed create ill will, and it’s dangerous around unpredictable small children.

  5. June 12, 2014 1:39 pm

    Excellent piece. Made a believer out of me.

  6. June 12, 2014 2:41 pm

    Hmm, is it legally allowed to bike on the Myrtle avenue promenade? I’d always assumed it wasn’t.

    • BrandonWC permalink
      June 21, 2014 12:00 am

      The Myrtle Ave promenade though Metrotech is marked as a bike path on the NYC bike map (nyc.gov/bikemap), but I’ve never been able to find any markings to that effect in the real world.

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