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US Secretary of Transportation: “Bicycling is only healthy when you ride safely”

Posted by on May 20th, 2009 at 11:04 am

“While we are working to improve conditions for bicyclists on the roadways, let’s, please, remember the culture we’ve created over the last 100 years will not welcome bikes overnight.”
— From the US DOT blog

Came across an article on bike safety published to the official blog of the U.S. Department of Transportation this morning (which is unfortunately called “Welcome to the Fast Lane”). Since May is National Bike Month, the US DOT found it fitting to remind folks on both sides of the windshield that safety should be the top priority.

A blog post about bike safety isn’t usually news, but when it comes from the US DOT I think it’s worth noting how they approach the topic.

The basic gist of the article is, ‘hey, we all know bikes are great, but this new push get more people on them will only work out if people don’t run into each other’.

“As this Administration works to develop environmentally-sound transportation options, making our streets more bike-friendly is high on the list,”

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the DOT adds,

“But, as more people take to bicycling, that idea can only be sound when drivers and cyclists help each other share the roads safely.

And they share these tips for “motorists”:

Motorists should:
* Recognize that bicyclists have a right to ride on the roadway;
* Stay alert and keep distractions to a minimum;
* Make a complete visual check for bicyclists before entering or leaving a lane of traffic.

It’s great they made it clear that bikes have a right to be on the roadway. But what’s with, “Keep distractions to a minimum”? How about “Do not drive while distracted”?

And here are the tips for “bicyclists”:

But, bicyclists have an obligation as well. They should:
* Ride on the roadway, rather than on sidewalks;
* Follow the same rules of the road as other vehicles;
* Wear a bicycle helmet every time you ride;
* Make yourself visible, day and night.

Sidewalk riding is indeed dangerous, but unfortunately in many parts of our country it’s the only viable — and safe — option. Sidewalk riding is also a common focus of anti-bike rants, so it’s too bad that more isn’t done to explain why people do it.

Then, after pointing out links to bike safety information resources (for some reason they didn’t point to any car driving safety websites), the DOT went on to write (emphasis mine):

We all know about “defensive driving.” But, bicyclists are vulnerable and exposed in a way that motorists simply are not. While we are working to improve conditions for bicyclists on the roadways, let’s, please, remember the culture we’ve created over the last 100 years will not welcome bikes overnight. In the meantime, during National Bike Safety Month and throughout the year, I urge you to “bike defensively.”

I like that part about how our entrenched car culture “won’t welcome bikes overnight.” That’s true, and it’s good to be honest about where things stand.

Read the whole article here.

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  • Hart May 20, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Did anybody see Keith Olbermann last night quoting national cycling commuter statisics and blasting neocon columnist George Will for mocking said bike commuters?

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  • david May 20, 2009 at 11:20 am

    I wish I had!

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  • Kathleen McDade May 20, 2009 at 11:21 am

    “Don’t drive while distracted.”? Got kids? I think “Keep distractions to a minimum” is fairly accurate. Both for driving and transporting by Xtracycle. πŸ™‚

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) May 20, 2009 at 11:23 am

    that’s a good point Kathleen… it’s just that if you give an inch folks take a mile.. if you give nothing, folks will take a few inches.

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  • Idegen May 20, 2009 at 11:31 am

    “Sidewalk riding is indeed dangerous, but unfortunately in many parts of our country it’s the only viable β€” and safe β€” option.”

    What parts of the country are you speaking of? I have lived in many states, and I can only think of a handful of roads where riding on the sidewalk is actually safer (assuming you are biking faster than walking speed). These are generally sidewalks that are more like paths that don’t intersect with many roads or driveways.

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  • DJ Hurricane May 20, 2009 at 11:50 am

    “While we are working to improve conditions for bicyclists on the roadways…”

    And what, exactly, are the Washington bureaucrats doing to improve roadway conditions in Portland? Funding for “bicycle boulevards”?

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  • A May 20, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I understand why they wrote, “Keep distractions to a minimum.” Tuning the radio, adjusting the heat/AC,drinking a travel mug of coffee are all distractions. Keeping distrations at a minimum really that would be a huge step forward with what we have now. I saw a wanker this morning – smoking, drinking coffee (coffee and cig in one hand) and talking on a cell phone (craddled on their shoulder) as they were driving. I actually changed my route to get away from the car. There is plenty of sustained education and awareness that needs to take place and this is at least a start (?)

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  • Diogo May 20, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I can think of many places, even in Portland, where riding in the sidewalk is safer than the road – like Boones Ferry Rd (that is, where there’s even a sidewalk available).

    I also think that it’s only dangerous to ride in the sidewalk when it is, well, dangerous. I can ride in the sidewalk just like a pedestrian or a scooter…

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  • ean May 20, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    I have to say that while I am cycling or motorcycling I assume that no driver sees me. That way when there an unattentive driver does not see me I do not get hit. Sure it would be the cars fault but some things can’t be undone. When driving my car I assume every other car or cycle is about to pull out right in front of me.

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  • Hart May 20, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Even if riding a bike on the sidewalk didn’t put pedestrians in danger, cycling on sidewalks is extremely dangerous when approaching a crosswalk, as it is the last place a motorist will spend time looking for you as they try to turn.

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  • Peter Noone May 20, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    What @ean/9 said.

    And an anecdote about sidewalk riding: I almost always ride on the sidewalk on SE 17th between Powell and Holgate. Narrow lanes, trucks, busses, impatient drivers, and sparse pedestrian traffic. Though I generally ride in the road, I think it’s OK to be pragmatic sometimes.

    It’s probably better to avoid that section of 17th altogether, but for my particular commute, I have to execute some tricky maneuvers and go significantly out of my way to do so.

    There are also numerous places around town where I’ve hopped on the sidewalk briefly to avoid a hazard created by haphazard/legacy infrastructure.

    @Idegen/5 How about Midwest City, Oklahoma?

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  • Brad May 20, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    It is refreshing to see a rational, realistic, and adult approach to our changing transportation picture in America.

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  • Matt Picio May 20, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Idegen (#5) – Metropolitan Detroit. In the Detroit suburbs, major roads (which are the only way to get anywhere quickly) more than 5 miles from the city limits typically have no shoulder, or a sand and gravel shoulder. The sidewalk along these roads is typically 10-20+ feet from the road, and removed by another 20+ feet from structures. Detroit suburb blocks (especially in Sterling Heights, and Macomb & Shelby townships) are large, and the major arteries have a right-of-way of hundreds of feet, even when it’s just a 2-lane road. Over time, the road grows closer to the sidewalks with widening, but because the sidewalks are typically a good distance from structures and developers cut down every last tree during construction, sight lines are really good.

    Check out these pics for what I mean:

    In many areas, connectivity between subdivisions is so bad, you have to take the arterials to get around. With 45mph speed limits being typical, and drivers impatient, distracted, and upset at anything delaying them, it takes real guts to ride on the roadway. Those who do are subject to constant harassment.

    It’s a large part of why I left Detroit and moved to Portland.

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  • Idegen May 20, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Matt Pico: Although I can’t really tell much from the pictures, if what you say as accurate, these sidewalks are similar to what I described in the last sentence of my comment.

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  • Pfeif May 20, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    As for riding on sidewalks how about Memphis, TN I lived there for three years everyday I rode to work (airport) I rode on the sidewalk as it was the lesser of two evils. Memphis has 6 lanes of traffic in a space for only four. The sidewalks were full of broken glass the first day I rode my bike I double flatted on blocks from my apartment.

    I went out and bought Mr Tuffy’s for my tires and solved that problem. The side streets had the same problem so it didn’t matter which way I rode to the airport. Plus my shift would end at midnight and the sidewalks were the only safe bet after dark. I gave up on road racing while living there and instead did a lot of Mtn biking as it was safer. Funny part was moving to PDX and having to switch back to road riding and fore go the mtn biking due to a lack of in city riding. Thanks to the wolf creek trail system Memphis has more sigle track in city then PDX.

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  • AdamG May 20, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    “Sidewalk riding is indeed dangerous, but unfortunately in many parts of our country it’s the only viable β€” and safe β€” option.”
    Education would be another option:

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  • Paul Tay May 20, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    LaHood is right about sidewalks. Under OK State Statutes and Tulsa Ordinance, it’s illegal to operate bicycles as vehicles on sidewalks.

    But, hey, who cares, right?

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) May 20, 2009 at 5:22 pm


    i understand the dangers associated with riding on sidewalks.

    my point is that in some places, it is both legal, and much safer to ride on them.


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  • AdamG May 20, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Please provide a couple of references for your claim that riding on sidewalks can be much safer than riding on a road.

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  • Kris May 20, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Echoing Matt Picio (#13) and others, there are many places in the Portland area (especially along busy arterials in the suburbs) where riding on the sidewalk is safer than riding on the road.

    A good example: Bethany Blvd going north from Hwy 26. Here is the Google streetview: http://tinyurl.com/q4hen4

    I am a pretty confident rider, but when I ride that stretch of road with my 4-year old daughter in tow, I feel much safer riding on the sidewalk, which – sadly – are hardly used by pedestrians.

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  • AdamG May 21, 2009 at 1:49 am

    The danger to cyclists riding on the sidewalk does not involve pedestrians. It’s that the most common types of accidents (turning vehicles at intersections) get more frequent
    I’m not referring to feeling safer but being safer.

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  • Kris May 21, 2009 at 6:49 am


    I don’t want to rehash the vehicular cycling debate here and I am the first to tell people that you need to exercise a ton of extra caution when riding on sidewalks (basically act like a pedestrian, particularly at intersections and around driveways). However, when it comes to the debate of feeling safer vs. being safer, I challenge you to go ride that particular stretch of Bethany Blvd or other similar roads (i.e. 2 lanes, no shoulders, 35mph speed limit) in the larger Portland area. After you get buzzed a couple times by cars or trucks zipping by at 40mph, while trying hard not to cross the double yellow center line, you might agree that the difference between feeling safe and being safe is somewhat a moot point. And when I have my child in tow, I tend to follow my instinct and ride where I feel the safest, not where some wikipedia posting tells me I am statistically the safest.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) May 21, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Please provide a couple of references for your claim that riding on sidewalks can be much safer than riding on a road.”

    When a road has zero shoulder room and cars going 35+ miles per hour, i think riding on the sidewalk is sometimes a better option.

    strap a heart rate monitor on someone and have them ride on the sidewalk and then in a roadway with fast cars and no shoulder room.

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  • Idegen May 21, 2009 at 9:22 am

    strap a heart rate monitor on someone and have them ride on the sidewalk and then in a roadway with fast cars and no shoulder room.

    Since when are fear and safety equivalent (or even strongly correlated for an inexperienced cyclist)? Those cars going 35+ are going to be making fast right-hand turns that could kill a cyclist riding on the sidewalk that the driver does not see or expect. Unless cyclists are traveling at walking speeds, they do not belong on the sidewalk.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) May 21, 2009 at 9:29 am

    ldegen and others,

    i’d love to talk with you about this in person… there’s obviously much more to my thinking on this than I have time to share in comments right now.

    i never said “fear and safety” are equivalent, i was just making the point that riding in the roadway is not an option for all riders and that when a sidewalk is available, it is a good option.

    obviously sidewalk driveways are very dangerous and they are the reason for a lot of collisions.

    I agree with you that while on a sidewalk and in the presence of pedestrians and/or cross traffic, riding slowly is the thing to do.

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  • Paul Tay May 21, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    How to Roll Busy Two-Laner, Without Really Trying.

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  • jami May 21, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Regarding sidewalk riding, if you’re comfortable on the street on 39th, you are brave and awesome. But not everyone is there yet. I’ve been cycling regularly for over a decade, and I’m still on the sidewalk on 39th.

    I realize that I’d be much, much more visible cycling on the street on 39th than on the sidewalk. Better visibility certainly seems safer. But I feel like I’m likelier to get run over by a rager (who can see me all-too-clearly) on a fast street with room for only one vehicle per lane than get hit by a car turning across the sidewalk without looking.

    In the absence of data, I’m more comfortable on the sidewalk on 39th, and people, especially new cyclists, shouldn’t be embarrassed about cycling however they feel safest.

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  • Dave Thomson May 21, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    I am surprised to see so many posters, including our illustrious Jonathan basically saying “you should ride where you feel safest”. If you want to be safer (you are never safe), you need to ride where it actually IS safer, not where you FEEL safer. Individuals are inherently bad at evaluating situations involving low probabilities of really bad events. That is why we invented statistics.

    There IS actual data on sidewalk riding vs road roading, referenced in AdamG’s massbike link above. In that California study it was almost twice as dangerous to ride on the sidewalk than on the road, and 4 times more dangerous to ride against traffic on the sidewalk. This data is not 100% applicable to every situation, but it is objective, real data. Ignore it at your own risk.

    So if you decide to ride on the sidewalk because you FEEL safer, you need to be more observant and ride slower, because the odds are actually higher someone is going to do something that puts you in danger.

    Stay safe out there.

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  • WayUpNorthInAlaska May 21, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    Sidewalk riding is illegal in downtown business districts under Alaska state statutes. One reason is the danger to pedestrians is higher when cyclists are on the sidewalk, higher even than the danger to cyclists in the road being doored by a parked car.

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  • AdamG May 21, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Just today I rode in town for 6 hours (really) ‘took a lane’ the entire length of MLK the upper deck of the steel bridge, all of NE 15th, and almost every road downtown, without a single safety related incident, as usual. If drivers are buzzing you and ‘trying not to cross the yellow line’ you are not riding far enough to the left.

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  • Peter Noone May 22, 2009 at 12:13 pm


    Obviously, you are exceptional. Most people don’t spend 6 hours riding around town during the day, ever. Try riding around on all those streets at 10mph and see what kind of reaction you get.

    As far as safety and statistics, the consensus here seems to be that riding in the road is usually the safest option but that it’s OK to use the sidewalk if needed (with extra caution).

    Where’s the problem?

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  • wsbob May 23, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Re; Bethany Blvd, Kris #20. Not exactly a very pedestrian friendly place for people to walk, what with the dirty roar of all the cars swiftly rushing by on that road.

    For people riding bikes, imagine if the sidewalk were expanded the additional 3-4 feet to meet the roads shoulder…it might make a fairly decent MUP then.
    The real kicker though, in that google street view, is the approximately 25 feet expanse of unpaved ground adjoining the west side of the road. It looks like there’s more than enough room for a really wide MUP that would provide plenty of room for bike traffic and provide a more comfortable distance away from MV traffic for pedestrians as well.

    People that want to help make biking safer might put some serious thought to securing such land and expanding it even further along roads such as Bethany Blvd for the purpose of making such an alternative to motor vehicle travel.

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  • jim May 26, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Mark Twain once said ” I get all my exercise walking to funeralls of my friends who excercise”

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  • jami May 28, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Dave #28, the data linked compares riding in a bike lane with riding on a sidewalk. When I said I feel safer on the sidewalk, I was comparing the sidewalk to a high-traffic street with room for only one vehicle per lane, with no bike lane (i.e., SE 39th). Maybe biking on such streets is indeed safer than the sidewalk, but I’d prefer applicable data, preferably involving real crashes and their outcomes rather than some nebulous “crash risk” as in that link.

    As with the numbers showing the effectiveness of bike helmets in preventing brain injury, if applicable numbers showed people are less likely to suffer traumatic injuries in the lane on streets like 39th than on the sidewalk, I’ll take the lane and encourage other cyclists to do so. But I looked at that link, and I haven’t seen those numbers yet. Until then, I trust my gut.

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