Guest post: Why cops ride on sidewalks

[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 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.

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.”

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!

[Officer Pickett’s sense of humor. 😉 ]
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