Guest post: Why cops ride on sidewalks

Posted by on January 23rd, 2007 at 8:20 am

[Officers Robert Pickett (L) and Rob Quick (R) on patrol on SE Hawthorne,
October 17, 2006.]

[Editor’s note: This special guest article was written for BikePortland.org by Portland Police officer Robert Pickett. For more on bike patrols, read about my “bike-along” with the Southeast Bike Patrol.]

“I patrolled my district in a car for over a year before I switched to a bicycle. I immediately discovered new streets, alleyways, buildings, nooks and crannies that I never knew existed. “
–Officer Pickett

As a member of the Southeast Bike Patrol, one of the persistent criticisms we get (often in the form of an under-the-breath comment from a passing pedestrian or cyclist) is that we shouldn’t be riding on the sidewalk. I’m sure that no amount of explanation will satisfy the entire breadth of the Portland walking and bicycling community, but maybe this information will help a majority understand why we do it.

First, to dispel a myth. Except for a specifically-defined area of downtown, it is legal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in Portland. One of the biggest things that (understandably) ticks people off is the idea of police getting away with doing something that the rest of us can’t, and we’ve found that many of the people we talk with mistakenly believe that it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk throughout the city. When they see us on the sidewalk on Southeast Hawthorne or Belmont, they get annoyed when in fact, we aren’t breaking the law.

On a bike-along in SE Precinct

My guess is that some people hear of the sidewalk bicycle ban in the downtown core and believe that it applies to all the sidewalks in the city. As for downtown, the city ordinance (Section 16.70.320) prohibits bicycle riding on the sidewalk there specifically exempts police and Clean and Safe officers from the ban. So they aren’t breaking the law either.

The other thing to mention is that in quiet, residential neighborhoods, officers do generally ride in the street. The lack of vehicular traffic usually allows them to accomplish their mission (described below) as well as they can riding on the sidewalks. It is generally the busier streets, such as Belmont, Hawthorne, 82nd Ave. or Burnside where we ride on the sidewalks.

That said, as a long-time cyclist (on and off the job), I would agree that riding on the sidewalk is not a very safe thing to do.

Sidewalk traffic is unpredictable, with meandering adults and children and dogs, and autos entering and exiting driveways, blind corners and shop and house entrances. Riding on the sidewalk is generally poor riding practice.

So why do we do it?

The short answer is that we ride on the sidewalk to be closer to the public. Keep reading for the long answer.

Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk at 3mph allows officers to communicate with people in a way that is impossible from a patrol car, and difficult and dangerous from a bicycle riding on a busy street. From the sidewalk, we are easily flagged down by neighborhood residents who share information with us about neighborhood comings and goings. We can quickly park our bikes and walk into shops to discuss problem locations or people with shopkeepers. We can also easily ask people to retrieve dropped cigarette butts, or wait for the green pedestrian light. Most commonly we share a smile or a “hi” as we pass, letting people know in a much more personal way, “Hey, we’re here and accessible to you.”

On a bike-along in SE Precinct

I patrolled my district in a car for over a year before I switched to a bicycle. I immediately discovered new streets, alleyways, buildings, nooks and crannies that I never knew existed. I also met dozens of new people as we crossed paths and I was able to simply put my foot down on the pavement and have a conversation.

Riding slowly on the sidewalk also allows officers a closer, longer view of the neighborhood, revealing things such as newly-applied graffiti that might indicate a new gang in the area, broken building windows which might point to a burglary, or a poorly parked car in a strange spot that might have been stolen and dumped.

We can also more easily spot people walking with poor balance whom might be inebriated and need help, pedestrians crossing against the light, or sidewalk drug deals. I can also better spot people dropping their cigarette butts. (Yes, it’s a pet peeve—I love our city and it bugs me to see people messing it up that way!) Such things are much harder to see, and significantly harder to address when riding in the street. Keeping up with and negotiating traffic demands most of a rider’s attention.

This is not to say that we aren’t paying attention when riding on the sidewalks, but the much slower speed gives us more time to react to things, allowing us to ride, and observe, safely.

Southeast bike officers give warnings to people if passing on the sidewalk is a squeeze, (which is actually required by law), and we usually thank folks once we go by.

And rest assured, when an emergency call comes out and we really need to get somewhere fast, the first thing we do is get into the street and pedal, as that is the safest, quickest way to go in urgent situations.

So while not everyone may agree with our reasons, at least you can know that riding on the sidewalk is a conscious, considered decision meant to maximize the advantages of pigs on bikes!

On a bike-along in SE Precinct

[Officer Pickett’s sense of humor. 😉 ]

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Kronda
Guest
Kronda

So, when going into these shops, do you lock your bikes up? Would anyone/has anyone ever been so bold as to steal a police bike?

Ethan
Guest
Ethan

Sounds like a great way to address the “cycle” of violence.

Seriously though, nice to get an officer’s perspective on bike patrols. I wish we had them in NE.

I remember well when CM rides were escorted with bike (bicycle) officers and one trailing patrol car . . . a totally different energy and experience from the screaming motorbikes and mayhem of the mechanized presence now favored.

Scott
Guest

Robert,
Great reply. Thank you for the information and thank you for the work you do.

I look forward to when budgets and the foot traffic might allow a bike patrol in the Alberta area. At the least, I’d love to see a bike patrol up here on busy nights such as Last Thursdays.

Val
Guest
Val

Depending on the sidewalk and the traffic thereon, riding on the sidewalk does not have to be a bad practice. The point is to mesh with whatever traffic you are in – cars on the street, pedestrians on the sidewalk. When riding on the sidewalk, one should never be in a hurry, and should always be ready to match the apeed of the person walking ahead, or to stop if necessary. Within such limits, bicycles on the sidewalk are not unsafe at all, and can effectively circumvent hazardous or blocked situations in the street. Just respect the pedestrians, and act like one.

Paul
Guest
Paul

Thanks for the post! Good perspective and I share the pet peeve on cig butts.

Tom
Guest
Tom

Thanks for the insight. It sounds like bike patrol duty could help A LOT of officers do their jobs better.

PS I love my neighborhood officer. Is there a way to get neighborhood specific bike officers?

ben
Guest
ben

yes! thank you for trying to stop the butt-litterers.

it amazes me that it has become so acceptable to let smokers fling there butts where-ever.
i wish everyone would make a big deal about it it anytime it happened.
especially when it is easily one of the biggest culprits of litter in our society.

Attornatus_Oregonensis
Guest
Attornatus_Oregonensis

I too appreciate the insight.

Perhaps one thing you cannot get by riding on the sidewalk, as opposed to busier streets, is the level of disregard and, at times, criminal harassment, that cyclists experience from those driving motor vehicles. As such an experience is critical to understanding the legal reforms needed to make cycling considered a safe transportation option for most Portlanders, I would urge you to at least consider riding on busier streets more frequently.

I believe this is an area of criminal activity that is underreported and poorly understood in part because police do not regularly do this. Also, I believe that such a practice could be extremely valuable in helping reform our traffic laws.

Justa
Guest
Justa

Not to be an ass, but I have seen my fair share of cops riding the sidewalks downtown and it does sort of rub me the wrong way after having been told off for that same offense.

Regardless, nice article.

Mick
Guest

Thanks for a great post, Officer Pickett. I’ve long resented downtown cops for riding on the sidewalk when I was not allowed to do the same. Now, I totally agree with your reasons.

Also, thanks for communicating directly with the bike community. And thanks to Jonathan for providing the forum.

Michelle
Guest
Michelle

Great article! I’m glad you hassle people about littering. I’ve discovered that picking up a piece of litter and returning it to its owner with an earnest, concerned “You dropped this!” [very very important and valuable hamburger wrapper] as though it were a $20 bill results in about a 75% apology rate.

Attornatus, I’m pretty sure that two cops riding down MLK or Sandy would not experience “the level of disregard and, at times, criminal harassment, that cyclists experience from those driving motor vehicles.” They would be given a wide berth! Officer Pickett, from riding in and out of uniform, is this your impression? Do you ever get buzzed or honked at by motorists while in uniform?

PFin
Guest

“Do you ever get buzzed or honked at by motorists while in uniform?”

Hmm…undercover bike cops…on the road…alone…late at night…yes…

Thanks to all parties for this dicussion.

Bike Cops: don’t forget about your bike’s “walk” and “skate” features (skating with left foot in pedal on right side of bike). It is painful to look at the picture of a sidewalk with no breathing room and two cops all the way up on their bikes. People get paranoid when bikes are being ridden on the sidewalk. This paranoia is lessened if the bike is not being balanced, even at low speeds, without a secure foothold on the sidewalk itself.

When traveling on the sidewalk, even for short periods, I will “flip over” into “skate” position. This lets peds know that even though I’m rolling, I can stop at a moment’s notice without comprimising my balance. Try It! *^*

cow
Guest

here here about the cig butts. i wish trimet would enforce the ban at light rail & bus stops.

Paul Cone
Guest
Paul Cone

Hear hear on bike patrols for Last Thursday. I witnessed a couple of instances last summer where police in cars trying to corral the crowds went overboard. In one case a crowd gathered around the fire dancers was partially blocking Alberta, and an officer saw fit to address the crowd from the PA system in his car while trying to drive through it. Needless to say it was not well received — the crowd was passive but certainly the officer was viewed as being a big bully. The crowd was large but certainly not worth the us vs. them approach (I wonder if he would have got out his water cannon had he not left it at home). Perhaps if there had been officers on bikes they would have been better received.

Of course, if they would just block the street off for Last Thursday (“festival streets” anyone?)…

organic brian
Guest
organic brian

“Of course, if they would just block the street off for Last Thursday (”festival streets” anyone?)…”

Paul, this has been discussed and a variation is being worked on for this coming season. Some proposals have been: closing the parking lane to parked autos at least on one side of the street, closing a section of Alberta except to TriMet traffic, or closing occasional side streets. Join up with the Portland Carfree group if you’re interested:

http://lists.riseup.net/www/info/portlandcarfreeday

Dave Thomson
Guest
Dave Thomson

Great article Officer Pickett. I’m not sure if posting this article would be considered Community Policing, but it should be. Communication like this (facilitated so well by Jonathon) can go a long way to bridge the gap between police and cyclists. It also personalizes the interaction, which is terrific.

I’ve always thought that bike patrols are so great because they combine the “up close and personal” aspect of the foot patrol with the enhanced mobility of a bike.

Keep up the good work; we appreciate you folks!

PoPo
Guest
PoPo

Thanks very much for the positive and constructive replies. (Sometimes it is easy to forget that we are appreciated!)

We often use our handcuffs to lock our bikes if they will be out of our view for a while. I’ve never had a police bike stolen, but I’m sure it would not make my Sergeant happy and result in oodles of paperwork.

Bry
Guest
Bry

Nicely done. I’d been irritated for a long time with bike cops on the sidewalk in and out of downtown (not only because I thought it was dangerous but that it sent mixed signals to motorists telling us to stay on the sidewalks). My opinions have shifted.

Thanks again, Officer Pickett

true
Guest
true

Thanks for the article, I apreciate the communication immensely. I can’t wait to see more bike cops in my neighborhood – SE Woodstock/Mt. Scott – without the barrier of the patrol car, communication is so much easier. Oh, and there’s plenty of room on our sidewalks…

Val A Lindsay II
Guest
Val A Lindsay II

Quick question; Why not walk on the sidewalk beside the bicycle? It probably has a good answer, but I thought it would be a good question as I’ve seen pretty ugly collisions between pedestrians and cyclists. Wouldn’t the city be liable for such an accident?

PoPo
Guest
PoPo

Yeah, good question.

I think the quick answer is that if we walked those streets we wouldn’t be able to cover nearly the same amount of area, though you’re right that when it is crowded we don’t go much faster than a walking pace, anyway.

Being on a bike also gives us a better view of things, and makes us more visible to the public because we’re up higher. That’s one of the advantages that horse-mounted police have as well.

I’ve been patrolling on a bike many months and have never hit anyone, and I don’t think any of my partners have either. We really do ride very slowly on those busy sidewalks. (This isn’t to say I haven’t fallen and hurt myself a few times, though!)

Yeah, we’d probably be liable if we did, though. Just about any possible mistake we make, and a lot of things we do that probably aren’t really mistakes, and people sue us. Just can’t win that one, because neither do I think the public would prefer us to stay inside the precinct all day and only venture out when we really have to. (Or maybe some parts of the public would prefer that!)

Indeed, riding in uniform causes most motorists to drive pretty carefully when they see us.

I ride a fair amount off duty, though, and used to be a bicycle messenger, so I have a decent idea of what it is like to ride the streets of Portland on two wheels. I’ve never been in an accident, though I’m usually pretty careful and don’t push the envelope that much. I’ve never felt personally attacked or targeted by a bike-hateful driver and don’t think I have too many near misses. Actually the closest call I’ve had in a long time was this past week when a car pulled out in front of me while I was heading west on SE Stark at 7th ave.

I yelled at the driver to get her attention, and then she saw me with big, shocked eyes and open mouth. She clearly hadn’t seen me, and clearly felt bad about it. I was mad for a sec, but she’s human and made a mistake, and it just takes too much energy and creates too much bad karma to carry a grudge. Got lots of other things that drive me crazy, and why let her ruin my ride on a gorgeous, sunny day?

Dabby
Guest
Dabby

As I have said before,
The SE MT. Bike Police came to our stick stop event. They watched, and even laughed as Scott threw a whole tree in front fo his tire.
I have always known why they can ride on the sidewalk, and I agree with it.
I just wish the working messenger could be given the same consideration, in regards to sidewalks, and the realm of the job…

MG
Guest

Thank you for this article. I now understand much better why a policeman would ride on the sidewalk. It is encouragin to know that while doing so, you make a point of traveling at a similar speed to other sidewalk users, and move to the street for higher speed traffic. This is riging behavior I can fully support.

Val A Lindsay II
Guest
Val A Lindsay II

Thanks for the response, Popo.

Although I think riding on the sidewalk is a bad idea, I personally think it is fine the police do ride on sidewalks as I do apreciate the communication and visibility it allows; Far better than a car offers for inner city patrols.

Not a total win/win, but advantages are far better than the disadvantages.

Torfinn
Guest
Torfinn

I think anything that has the opportunity to bring the police and community closer together is a big win for both parties.

Thanks for your efforts!

Joe Rowe
Guest
Joe Rowe

Thanks for the article. Thank you also for answering the question ( aka why not get off the bike and walk ).

Now, not to change topics, but can someone tell me why motorcycle cops drive on sidewalks in Portland? I\’ve reported this to the IPR and nobody in the city has gotten back to me with anything. I\’d like to know the policy and what officers are told prior to being handed the keys, and what type of correction is made when a complaint is lodged, and when complaint patterns emerge? Everyone wants checks and balances. What we have mostly from the city and police is silence.

We hae silence to the point where police do nthing when car drivers fail to yeild, then injure cyclists.

let\’s have more dialog and corrective actions…