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Bikes on sidewalks: Could Washington County be held liable in tragedy?

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on February 13th, 2008 at 10:45 pm

"Signing any sidewalk as a bicycle path increases the likelihood of tort settlements even years later."
--FHWA Course on Bicycle and Transportation Planning

The recent tragedy in Beaverton leaves many unanswered questions.

Among them is whether or not Washington County contributed to a dangerous situation by designating a sidewalk as the bike route -- a practice that state and federal transportation agencies strongly discourage.
______

Before being struck by the #52 TriMet bus, 15 year-old Austin Miller was likely riding in the bike lane on SW Murray Blvd., just south of of Tualatin Valley Highway. Near the middle of that block, the bike lane ends and a sign directed Miller up onto a sidewalk adjacent to Murray Blvd.

While likely intended to increase safety for bicycle riders, sidewalk bikeways are anything but safe.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) all strongly urge planners and engineers to avoid routing bike lanes onto sidewalks.

The FHWA takes it once step further and suggests that when municipalities direct bike traffic onto a sidewalk it's not only dangerous, but it could expose them (Washington County in this case) to legal liability.

A reader led me to the online materials of an FHWA course on bicycle and transportation planning. Under the chapter of "Tort Liability and Risk Management" is a section titled, "Governments can be sued for what they do", the FHWA writes (emphasis mine):

"Signing any sidewalk as a bicycle path increases the likelihood of tort settlements even years later. By designating a sidewalk for bicycle use, you send the message that it is "safe" to ride there. Sidewalk facilities have built-in "booby traps" for the unsuspecting.

Sight-distance problems at intersections with streets, driveways, and alleys are common on sidewalk facilities...

Motorists expect pedestrians on sidewalks, not bicycles moving 10 times as fast. Bicyclists, with the wind in their ears, on two-wheeled vehicles, are not as sensitive to noise cues as pedestrians and not as maneuverable. It takes them much longer to react and stop.

...Bicyclists using the sidewalk... don't see stop signs at cross-streets (located to be seen by motorists on the other side of the street) and they are not part of the normal scanning pattern for motorists.

...A fast-moving bicyclist can easily escape detection and a crash can result. For these and other reasons, sidewalks are not recommended for designation as bicycle facilities."

ODOT also warns against sidewalk bikeways. Page 71, Section C.1 of their Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, under the chapter "Practices to be avoided", says that sidewalk bikeways "should be avoided in most cases." The section goes on to state,

"Bicyclists are put into awkward situations at intersections where they cannot safely act like a vehicle but are not in the pedestrian flow either, which creates confusion for other road users. Cyclists are safer when they are allowed to function as roadway vehicle operators, rather than as pedestrians."

Then, a few pages later,

"It is important that every effort be made to ensure bike lane continuity. Practices such as directing bicyclists onto sidewalks or other streets for short distances should be avoided, as they may introduce unsafe conditions."

Local bike and pedestrian facilities planner Jessica Roberts concurs. She says, "There is abundant national guidance that bikes do not belong on the sidewalk. As a rule a sidewalk bicycle facility is not an acceptable substitute for an on-street bike lane."

Roberts thinks continuation of the bike lane on Murray Blvd. would be a safer option.

So does Beaverton Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) Chair Hal Ballard.

Ballard has been on the BAC for 10 years and he said that section of SW Murray Blvd is a "sore spot". "As an experienced cyclist," he said, "I never ride on that sidewalk."

Ballard expressed frustration that even though he and other members of the BAC have repeatedly brought up concerns about this intersection, Washington County has still made no improvements. "They say there's no funding, but I would say it's a lack of motivation...there's no impetus from the County to make changes there."

He says there's plenty of room to widen the roadway and continue the on-street bike lane.

"It's past time to do something," said Ballard, "this kid was only 15 years old, and he was just doing what he was supposed to be doing."

The investigation into this crash is ongoing.

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Comments
  • Matt Picio February 13, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Wow! Useful federal guidelines - I thought those were a myth.

    Yo, Beaverton City Council - WAKE UP! Cycling is DANGEROUS in your city - FIX IT!

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  • Aaron February 13, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Hal is shouting into a tornado. Washington Cty. has continuously turned a deaf ear to human safety on the road. The arterials continue to be deadly at all intersections. The design for the Wilsonville MAX line even crosses the road at a 20 degree angle which is an invitation for tragedy (to which residents will simply view cycling as dangerous). We need some real leadership on the west side

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  • Bjorn February 13, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    I find this to be very interesting because there are several spots in Vancouver where it is unclear from the signage whether the described bike route is the 40mph street that has no bike lane and no exit strategy (you can\'t move right easily because of the curb up to the sidewalk) or if they are trying to get you to ride on the sidewalk. Since the Vancouver city council seems so concerned with bike safety these days maybe they will get to work on some of their facilities...

    bjorn

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  • Stripes February 13, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    Interesting that \"ODOT warns against sidewalk bikeways\", and yet, across their St John\'s Bridge, that\'s all cyclists have, despite the fact there was very widespread support for the installation of bike lanes on that facility.

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  • BURR February 14, 2008 at 12:02 am

    I call BS on Washington County \'not having the funding\' to fix this problem. I\'m willing to bet the Washington County Transportation budget has more than ample funding, it\'s just that they cater to motorists first and bicyclist safety is simply not one of their priorities. If it takes litigation to force them to make bicyclist safety a higher priority and allocate funding for necessary bicyclist safety improvements, I hope that a coalition of local bicycle attorneys can bring such litigation to fruition. It\'s too bad that it takes tragedies like Austin\'s death and other recent cyclist fatalities in Washington County to bring about this much needed change.

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  • Steve (not steve) February 14, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Stripes

    The signs posted on the St. John\'s bridge warn drivers of cyclists on the roadway. Cyclists are encouraged to use the sidewalk on Bridge Ave. westbound to access the bridge.

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  • Joe February 14, 2008 at 7:34 am

    I\'ve been on a bike for along time, sometimes if the sidewalk is safe i do it
    I could go on and on, but will spare you all to much of \" my view \"

    When I did live in Vegas, it was insain
    riding there for 4 years.* sidewalks were
    wide for a reason, no bike lanes in some
    areas cars doing 50+ behind you.

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  • Steven J. February 14, 2008 at 7:35 am

    While Portland is \"touted\" as the most bike friendly city, Beaverton could easily be considered, most deadly.

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  • Andy February 14, 2008 at 7:46 am

    Bicyclists are forced onto the sidewalk at the other end of this block too where the bike lanes get pinched off at the railroad crossing. Bicyclists travelling north on Murray are forced onto the sidewalk only to re-emerge at the crosswalk at TV Highway, hidden from the view of right-turning vehicles on Murray by a telephone poll and the railroad crossing bar.

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  • Vance February 14, 2008 at 8:16 am

    I\'m a little surprised to see the, \"cycling community\", position on this. The city, at the behest of special-interest, cycling special-interest at that, has diverted many, many bike-lanes onto sidewalks, or directly into predominantly pedestrian byways. Why is it that this particular intersection should be any different?

    Did any of you bother to read this. I believe that there are two things happening that don\'t bode well for cyclists\' freedom of access in Portland. First is that there are traffic solutions being deployed with little to no thought given to the ramifications for one or more modes of transit. And second, when it comes to bikes, it seems to be taken for granted that dismounting, and assuming the role of pedestrian, even for short periods of time and distance, is perfectly acceptable to all cyclists.

    Bike-lanes can be incredibly dangerous. As an option, really who cares? But bike-lanes are not intended to be optional. Bike-lanes are absolutely intended to be the only place bicycles are allowed access to the public right-of-way. Thanks to the uncontrollable fear that some weaklings can\'t get over, we all will be obliged to reduce our lives to the lowest common-denominator, until we are crawling around in the dirt on all fours.

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  • miguelaron February 14, 2008 at 8:24 am

    i rode canyon road the other day and it was not a very pleasant ride, even though there were bike lanes.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 14, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Stripes, bridges are a known and permitted exception to these guidelines. Many of the factors that cause bicycle riding on sidewalks to be dangerous do not exist on bridge sidewalks (such as cross traffic, intersection visibility and driveways).

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  • brian February 14, 2008 at 8:42 am

    All the engineering guidelines in the world won\'t change the fact that if the when operator of a motor vehicle is not paying attention to the space they are moving through, they will run stuff over.

    This is basic.

    Whats worse is that when stuff like this happens, the blame is shifted all around. Instead drivers should be 100% accountable for what they have done. No excuses.

    This is criminal negligence. Lets start holding drivers accountable for their actions.

    This is not some engineers fault.

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  • John Reinhold February 14, 2008 at 8:50 am

    I too have a belief that Washington County has only automobiles in mind when they design infrastructure.

    It seems to me that they only design pedestrian or bicycle facilities just to keep the cars moving freely. Their primary concern seems to be how can they keep people out of the way.

    This summer they removed the school zone in front of my child\'s school. I contacted Washington Co. Sherriff and Washington co. Land use and transportation. Their main reasons for removing the school zone? There were too many rear-end collisions as people slowed for the 20mph, and the low rate of compliance (the sherriffs office told me they would write hundreds of citations there in a day).

    So they basically said screw pedestrians if they make it hard on cars...

    And it would appear they follow that principle throughout the county.

    However that is just my personal observation.

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  • SH February 14, 2008 at 8:57 am

    Lately the going rate for an improved bicycle facility seems to be a minimum of one dead cyclist.

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  • Moo February 14, 2008 at 9:03 am

    Being from inner SE Portland, in the hub of cycling commuters and recreation oriented neighbors, I find myself getting alittle more spoiled each and every time I read or see a bike infrastructure problem. Spoiled in the fact that, although there\'s always room for improvement, my accessability to most places I need or want to go by bike are without worry or angst. How lucky are we?

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  • bahueh February 14, 2008 at 9:13 am

    folks this is Beaverton we\'re talking about...this isn\'t Portland and Portland laws do not apply. its a suburb and its not going to change any time in your lifetime to any substantial degree...

    your choice...don\'t ride there. I refuse to set foot in that town with a bike. Moo has it right, we are lucky within the PDX UGB...crying about Beaverton from this side of the west hills will not fix beaverton. its an internal problem for them to solve...

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  • BURR February 14, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Vance, no one\'s arguing against the fact that many bike lane designs are unsafe or can lead to a false sense of safety, or that Portland is full of poorly designed bike lanes. I\'m 100% behind you on this.

    The facts are still that sidepaths (because this facility in Beaverton is truly a sidepath and not a multiuse path) are probably the most poorly designed and deadly of all bike-specific infrastructure out there.

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  • BURR February 14, 2008 at 9:22 am

    bahueh - I find it highly ironic that in this case you are arguing for \'choice\'.

    Did the helmet Austin was wearing do anything at all to keep him from being any less dead? Would it have mattered at all if he hadn\'t been wearing one?

    You\'re a raving hypocrite if you honestly think choice applies in one situation but not the other.

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  • Me 2 February 14, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Great post Jonathan. Its great to see that people are start to think beyond assigning blame to a specific crash and look at the role poor design plays in making the streets more dangerous for cyclists.

    I hope the BTA is thinking about the role of design as they advocate the city for more bike boulvards. One area of concern for me is the plan to make NE Klicktat from NE 9th a bike boulvard for about 80 blocks eastward.

    I think NE Klickitat would make a great bike boulvard expect when it crosses NE 9 through NE 14. The part of NE Klickitat is a catwalk with very poor visibility for cross traffic. If it becomes a designated bike boulvard I fear this could be a very dangerous spot for cyclists.

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  • Liu February 14, 2008 at 9:54 am

    Aaron, you said the Westside Express Tracks cross the road at a 20 degree angle. Where is that? I\'d like to know and it would be useful for all of us. Thanks

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  • Andy February 14, 2008 at 10:00 am

    bahueh,

    I can\'t speak for everyone else here but I\'m \"crying about Beaverton\" from Beaverton, and I appreciate any support I can get from the other side of the hills. Choosing not to ride isn\'t going to make riding safer. More riders, not less, makes riding safer.

    Beaverton may not be SE Portland, but we\'ve got a good start on having a bikeable suburb. A few streets like 5th Avenue are outstanding. Murray Blvd could be a OK place to ride if a few simple improvements were made, though a parallel street with less traffic would be better. I\'m not asking for bike lanes on every road. I\'d be happy with a few good roads running east-west and north-south to get me where I\'m going.

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  • Joe February 14, 2008 at 10:06 am

    brain=100% correct

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  • McAngryPants February 14, 2008 at 10:21 am

    /me
    crawls around in the dirt on all fours

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  • Curt Dewees February 14, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Just four days ago I rode with hundreds of other cyclists through Beaverton and parts of Washington County on the \"Worst Day of the Year Ride\" (40-mile option). It was Sunday morning, of course, so not as much car traffic as on a weekday.

    It\'s true: Beaverton and other suburbs are not as bicycle-friendly as Portland, but let\'s not give up on the suburbs so soon. That\'s where the real hard work of bicycle and pedestrian advocacy is going to be. Unfortunately, most suburban transportation grids were designed primarily with car-drivers in mind. They are naturally much less bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly than what we have here within Portland city limits. It\'s going to take a lot of effort, advocacy, and education to help change the way people live, work, design roads, police the laws, and get around in the \'burbs. A lot of hard work. But I believe it can be done.

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  • Andy February 14, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Vance,

    I actually like the bike path on this particular part of Murray. What I don\'t like is having to re-enter traffic from the bike path. A quarter-mile bike path in the middle of five miles of bike lane is not helpful. If I thought the county would put a separated bike path from Sunset Highway to Scholl\'s Ferry Road and connected bike paths on a few significant crossroads, I\'d ask for that. Since that isn\'t going to happen, I\'d settle for uninterrupted bike lanes.

    Crossing or turning onto a busy road like Farmingtom is always going to be hazardous, but it would be far better not to have to appear from out of drivers\' sight to do so.

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  • Mmann February 14, 2008 at 10:25 am

    I\'m still so saddened by this accident. In any case where the traffic infrastructure contributes to a tragedy like this, it makes it doubly painful. It shouldn\'t, of course, take this to bring about a swift redesign of that intersection and similar ones in the area. But if this doesn\'t do it, maybe a lawsuit will.

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  • Todd Boulanger February 14, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Hi Bjorn,

    You wrote in #3 post: \"I find this to be very interesting because there are several spots in Vancouver where it is unclear from the signage whether the described bike route is the 40mph street that has no bike lane and no exit strategy (you can\'t move right easily because of the curb up to the sidewalk) or if they are trying to get you to ride on the sidewalk.\"

    Where is this facility ? A cross street would help. (Andresen?)

    Thanks,

    Todd Boulanger
    Senior Transportation Planner
    City of Vancouver
    360.487.7726

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  • Todd Boulanger February 14, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Hi Bjorn,

    You wrote in #3 post: \"I find this to be very interesting because there are several spots in Vancouver where it is unclear from the signage whether the described bike route is the 40mph street that has no bike lane and no exit strategy (you can\'t move right easily because of the curb up to the sidewalk) or if they are trying to get you to ride on the sidewalk.\"

    Where is this facility ? A cross street would help. (Andresen?)

    Thanks,

    Todd Boulanger
    Senior Transportation Planner
    City of Vancouver
    360.487.7726
    todd.boulanger@ci.vancouver.wa.us

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  • Vehicular Cyclist February 14, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Burr and Vance,

    I concur with you and would like to add to your comments.

    Bike lanes are not \"safe places to ride\" nor do they \"separate you from traffic\" as many in PDOT and the BTA would like people to believe. They isolate cyclists in to more, and more frequent, turning and crossing movements by keeping them at the edge of the road (and encouraging them to overtake on the right, thus getting right-hooked). If they truly were separate from traffic, same-direction cars would be prohibited from turning right, and oncoming traffic from turning left, something our society would never allow. So cyclists bear the full brunt of this discrimination and increased endangerment. I haven\'t even touched on how most bike lanes fill up with debris, have drain gates that span most of their width and often have broken pavement. Just do a little head-to-head comparison of bike lanes and \"car lanes\" and you\'ll see how we give motorists the best, cleanest pavement space and discriminate against cyclists.

    So how does this relate to the above tragedy? Well, take the \"safe places to ride\" paradigm to it\'s logical conclusion. I think it\'s reasonable to assume that this poor fellow saw this bike lane/side path as his safe place to ride, despite being on a busy arterial (that requires a minimum of traffic skill to ride safely, but of course not impossible to do). It\'s especially heinous that Beaverton still has sidewalk bike routes (sidepaths), whose extreme danger was well recognized over 30 years ago. Some might accuse me of leaps of logic, or blaming the victim (which I\'m not), or excusing carelessness by motorists (which I\'m not), but consider the traffic situations that these bicycle \"facilities\" place cyclists in, then the fact that we\'re ironically trying to attract beginners to these facilities (and proclaim them to be safe for such riders), despite the more difficult traffic situations they create, then explain to me why it\'s not crazy to think that allowing a child with no traffic skill to ride on such a busy road simply because there\'s a white stripe or a sidewalk and is safe to do so.

    I hope someday people will see bike lanes and other \"facilities\" for the sham that they are and the \"safe places to ride\" lie will be exposed for the dangerous lie that it is. Yes, there are times when a motorist is at fault for hitting a cyclist, but much more often the facility is to blame for contradicting established traffic principle and creating conflicts. The \"safe places to ride\" lie has also mostly covered up the original reason for bike facilities in the US: the convenience of motorists, so motorists don\'t have to worry about those damn bicycle riders getting in their way. Knowing all this, there has yet to be considerable questioning of or opposition to Oregon\'s mandatory bike lane law. And so long as we are treated as second-class road users, we will be treated as second-class collision victims.

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  • freddy February 14, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    So, Vehicular Cyclist, you think it\'s safe and reasonable for a cyclist to take the lane in 45 MPH suburban traffic on Murray Rd? If that were all we offered people, no one would ever ride a bike, me included. I think it\'s ludicrous to expect anyone to integrate with auto traffic that\'s moving more than 25 MPH ... which means most of our suburban roads. On busy roads, if there\'s a bike lane, I\'ll consider riding. If not, no way. I think I\'m not alone.

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  • shelly February 14, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Vehicular Cyclist,

    Very good point about the irony of bike lanes. As a rider of nearly 20yrs I concur that I rarley feel safe in bike lanes and that bold white line does not secure my safety. But Freddy also rebutaled an equally valid point as well because it is nearly an impossibility to expect a cyclist to merge w/ 25mph+ traffic. Thus the conclusion is education and improving infrastructure. Should children under the age of 16 be allowed to ride with traffic given their lack of \"traffic skill\"? And where/how is the education facilitated?

    And folks no need to divide yourselves geographically because if you ride your bike you are a part of a group, hence the cycling community-like this very blog we are on. So please, if you live in a place where the infrastructure is maybe safer, then lend your cyclist-voice.

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  • BURR February 14, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    valid points in all of the last three posts. What I\'d like to see are not no bike lanes at all but better bike lanes - wider, without the drainage grates, out of the door zone, and kept clean by regular maintenance. When speed differentials get too high between cyclists and motorists, like on these Beaverton arterials, mixing it up with traffic vehicular style is not a pleasant experience.

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  • antonio gramsci February 15, 2008 at 12:26 am

    Myths vs reality about bike lanes:

    On roads with a wide enough outside lane to fit a bike lane, painting that solid white line does NOT make you any safer from overtaking vehicles.

    Also, by extension, riding on the right of a wide outside lane that lacks a mere painted stripe does NOT constitute \"dangerously mixing it up\" with traffic.

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  • ChipSeal February 15, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    I find the last few posts amusing.
    I am car-free in Dallas, and we have no bike lanes. (Thank goodness!) What we do have is multiple laned streets (Two to three lanes each direction.) with narrow right lanes.
    I always have an 8\' to 14\' lane all to myself. It is always swept clean, has a surface the same as all other traffic lanes, and I have never been right hooked.
    I daily travel on such roads with 55 MPH speed limits without concern. Seldom do I have traffic pile up behind me. I am never even anxious about my safety- traffic moves around me in an orderly and elegant manner.
    I have traveled thousands of miles in southern California, where wide outside lanes are very common, and I found that to be inferior to the narrow right lanes here in Dallas. I had many more conflicts with motorists there than here. (6,700 miles in Dallas last year, for reference.)
    It is tragic that so many will have to be injured or worse simply to pander to the convenience of motorists.

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  • Marc Rose February 29, 2008 at 9:19 am

    There was a reference above to the idea that \'you can sue the gov\'t\' over a badly designed area. This surprised me, as several years ago I broke my hip crossing the TriMet tracks which cross E. Burnside around 99th at a dangerous angle, and was told by local lawyers that unless TriMet had let that area fall into disrepair, I had no recourse due to \'original bad design\' etc. I think there should be a big warning sign there about the tracks alerting cyclists and alerting cars to give cyclists time to ride across the tracks at more of a right angle.
    Comments anyone?

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