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

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

“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.