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Family Biking: Sidewalk cycling can be a savior

Posted by on August 14th, 2018 at 9:24 am

Riding on the sidewalk on the “wrong” side of the street to get to the MAX station.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

When I lived in Seattle I often said the best pieces of bicycle infrastructure were sidewalks.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

I stuck to streets for the most part, but there were several places we regularly biked that required covering a couple blocks where I didn’t feel safe in the street, and in those instances, thank goodness for sidewalks! These were fast, four-lane streets with no bike markings whatsoever. No bike lanes. No sharrows (not that sharrows on arterials are great, don’t get me started).

As I’ve written previously, my routes differ whether I’ve got the kids with me or if they’re riding solo or attached via a trail-a-bike or cargo bike. This also affects the amount, if any, of sidewalk riding I do.

Here are more of my thoughts and experiences on sidewalk cycling…

I call this street furniture, my kids call it a trashteroid belt.

➤ Perception of safety
Biking on the sidewalk is a bit divisive. I bike all over the place, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, often on roads I wouldn’t want to bring my kids on. But at my core I don’t identify with the “strong and the fearless” person on a bike and try to think with the mindset of someone between the “enthused and confident” and “interested but concerned” (read more about the four categories of bicycle users here).

I see people walking their dogs on the sidewalks of neighborhood greenways while wearing high-visibility vests (usually just the humans, but sometimes the dogs, too) so I know sidewalks aren’t perceived as safe to walk on, and they’re even less safe to bike on. But they certainly feel safer than being in the street a lot of the time. And that’s important. As long as you’re aware of the risks — you’re not as visible to people in cars when you enter an intersection from the sidewalk versus had you already been in the street, you need to be cautious of each and every doorway and alley you pass, and be wary of “street furniture” (tables, chairs, trash cans, sandwich boards, musical instruments, etc…) — it can be a very useful way to get around.

➤ The law
Sidewalk cycling is against the law in one downtown Portland area: within the area bounded by and including SW Jefferson, Front Avenue, NW Hoyt and 13th Avenue, except for the South Park Blocks (City of Portland Title 16). There is no signage to warn people off the sidewalks with their bikes, so you just have to know.

Also see ORS 814.410: Unsafe operation of bicycle on sidewalk about creating hazards and yielding the right of way.

➤ Etiquette
If I wasn’t a family biker I would probably feel that anytime you’re on the sidewalk with a bike you should be walking it. That’s certainly a safe way to use a sidewalk with your bike, but family biking rigs are heavy and hard to push. I’m much less likely to topple over if I’m pedaling my bike, even at very slow speeds, than if I’m trying to walk it. Not to mention I take up less sidewalk when I’m atop my bike versus walking alongside it. So sure, go ahead and ride your bike, but do it at the speed of someone walking. If the sidewalk is absolutely empty and you’re tempted to go faster, don’t go more than jogging speed. And if it becomes too crowded to pedal, you’ll have to dismount and walk.

The law and basic common civic courtesy require you to give an audible warning before overtaking and passing another sidewalk user. Personally, I feel that if I’m in the realm of people on foot where I’m the only one equipped with a bell, it’s more appropriate to use my voice. And I prefer to do so in a conversational way rather than bark, “On your left!” I tend to use a whole sentence or two: “Hi, I’m on a bike and I’m going to pass you on the left now. Good morning!”

➤ When do we use the sidewalk?
There are several instances for which we use the sidewalk:

We bike through this parking lot every day to avoid biking on the sidewalk, but parking lots aren’t all that safe either.

In order to use a stop light on a busy street to cross a perpendicular busy street. I’m still not used to the lack of stop signs or lights to cross big streets in Portland. Every day on the way to school we cross two busy streets. One we can manage with no protection and just wait for an opening in traffic, but for the other we use the stop light on a big street with a door-zone bike lane. We can skip half of the long block by cutting through a parking lot and for the second half we ride the sidewalk.

➤ The last half block of a busy street to reach our destination, such as Bricks & Minifigs on Sandy Blvd.

➤ To stay on the close side of a very wide street rather than cross twice, like getting to the Cascades MAX station by Ikea.

➤ When we’re riding up a big hill, like heading east from Westmoreland Park Nature Playground via Bybee/28th/Woodstock (though usually we skip the Woodstock part and cut through the quiet paths of Reed College). These streets have narrow bike lanes, but I feel more comfortable with my kids being able to weave uphill on the sidewalk and stop as needed for rest breaks without cars zooming by.


The above examples are spots where I probably wouldn’t use the sidewalk if I was biking alone, but there are a few instances where I love that it’s legal for me to leave the pavement and take to the concrete:

Tricky left turns when I don’t feel confident to work my way out of the bike lane to take the lane and stop the traffic behind me. There’s one such intersection near my house where the streets don’t line up so I take to the sidewalk for the length of two houses and wait in a driveway for an opening in traffic.

Avoiding construction closures, especially if I’m in an unfamiliar neighborhood and don’t want to switch to a different street and get lost. In fact, a lot of construction signage routes bikes onto the sidewalk.

➤ This is more of a sneaky way to avoid getting stuck in traffic on a bike, but I love leaving a car-clogged road for a half-block of sidewalk to get to a side street. I’d love if there were protected bike lanes and traffic-free greenways everywhere, but since there aren’t I like that I can morph between “like a car” and “like a pedestrian” as it suits me to avoid getting stuck in traffic.

On the sidewalk to hit the “jellyfish powerup” (which is really a car tire skid mark, eek).

One sidewalk thing I’ve yet to master is the kid-on-the-sidewalk-parent-in-the-street thing. I assume this is prevalent in cities that have laws keeping adults on bikes off sidewalks, like San Francisco. Knowing that sidewalks feel much safer than they actually are, I’ve never been comfortable with my kids on them if I’m not also there creating a bigger, more visible obstacle to people driving nearby.

How about you? How do you feel about biking on sidewalks?

Thanks for reading. Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if it sounds like fun to you. I’d especially like to profile families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in being profiled. And as always, feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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26 thoughts on “Family Biking: Sidewalk cycling can be a savior”

  1. Avatar Andrew says:

    The only time I ride on the sidewalk is after riding up a curb cut to get to the door of my destination. And that’s only if there’s nobody walking.
    This may change as my commute takes me on SE 148th when it’s dark out. Bike lane is cramped and in a door zone. Traffic goes much faster than it should.

  2. Avatar Dave says:

    Madi, unlike most sidewalk cyclists you’ve got manners and sense. The sidewalk cycling you describe is a rational response to a built environment that’s missing a ton of connections for active travelers, just as “vehicular cycling” was developed as a rational response to other aspects of that environment i.e. long stretches of high speed streets with wide lanes, in a time with less traffic and drivers that were closer to being human. If more sidewalk riders behaved like you our street system as it is would work better, chapeau!

  3. Avatar Matthew in PDX says:

    Generally, I try to plan my cycling route to avoid the roads most heavily trafficked by motor vehicles, so I am not forced onto the sidewalk. There are occasions when this is not possible. I was riding through the industrial NW on the way to St Johns Bridge after the Providence Bridge Pedal, I took to the sidewalk there, not because of traffic, but because of the poor state of the road surface – however, there was only one lone jogger, and I left the sidewalk to pass her, and next to no road traffic on Sunday morning.

    One of my regular training rides is along N Lombard to the industrial area, where N Lombard goes over a bridge above the railroad tracks, I take to the sidewalk, because the bicycle lane is full of debris, and the road has a 45 mph limit, meaning the trucks and cars are driving at 55 mph – too fast for me to feel safe. There are rarely pedestrians along here when I am riding, so I am not likely to cause a problem, but if there were a pedestrian, I would either slow to walking pace or walk my bike.

  4. Avatar bikeninja says:

    I rarely sidewalk cycle but one of the places I do is when coming up Wheeler from my shop and then turning back 270 degrees to go up Flint to the rest of North Portland ( at least untill ODOT tears down the Flint Bridge gggrrrrr. As Wheeler intersects with Broadway on a huge Westbound only lane the only safe way to do it is to go left over the sidewalk in front of the apartments , then ride up the left hand sidewalk till you are well clear of the intersection, and then when you get to the first driveway, look both ways and merge on to Flint Northbound.

  5. Avatar soren says:

    I enthusiastically support sidewalk riding because not everyone is comfortable riding next to multi-ton vehicles. Sidewalk riding also makes sense when connections are poor or when there is no bike infrastructure.

    PS: Some cycling “enthusiasts” claim that sidewalk riding is less safe than riding in the roadway but evidence for this claim is weak.

    1. Avatar B. Carfree says:

      Like all social things that involve low probability events, it’s tough to get any worthy numbers on the relative risks of sidewalk riding. However, the dramatic decline in cycling deaths that occurred simultaneously with a decline in children riding does suggest that sidewalk riding is a risk factor, assuming (ouch! lots of assumptions) that children are more likely to ride on sidewalks.

      Personally, I only end up on sidewalks when I’m riding with someone who insists that we ride there. I both feel more at risk and have more events that require me to take preventive action in order to not come to harm when I’m on a sidewalk. It’s only anecdotal and it could well have more to do with the fact that we’re moving at a speed that’s part way between what I normally ride at and what a pedestrian walks at that accounts for the not-really-so-near hits.

      Wow, I should get an award for the longest worded response that basically says I agree with your comment about there being a lack of evidence.

      1. Avatar Eric Leifsdad says:

        A lot of the danger and inconvenience depends on the speed, and the width of the sidewalk. Square curbs and other obstacles can be a problem too. Faster than ~8-10mph has a lot of risks due to blind corners at driveways or intersections. In many of these places, you’ll rarely encounter someone else even walking on the sidewalk (except probably with a dog.)

        Many streets in SW have no sidewalks or they aren’t continuous, it’s hardly worth leaving the street for a block or two.

  6. Avatar rick says:

    Everyday life on most of the westside.

  7. Avatar Tom Hardy says:

    I have never felt comfortable riding on sidewalks since I was a paperboy in the 50’s. I also rode in the streets with traffic then also.
    I just used adrenaline to match the speed or downhill for the same especially on Greeley or interstate. I rode on the traffic lane in the mid 50’s through the mid 60’s across the St Johns bridge, and later from the mid 70’s to this last year. This was at the advise of my father that also did some of the same rides except not Skyline in the mid 50’s and crossing Canyon rd. when it had a stoplight on 2 single lane roads before bike lanes or overpasses.

  8. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

    You don’t have to justify your sidewalk riding to me. As a parent, job one is to keep your kids safe and if that means selective adherence to traffic laws, so be it. It’s nice that Oregon law is flexible in that regard. In the last city I lived in, Budapest, Hungary, riding on the sidewalk was against the rules for anyone over 12. But on many streets, this was not realistic for anyone, let alone those with kids in tow. I had a good speech worked up for any cop who dared give me a ticket, but this never happened, and I never heard of anyone else getting hassled for it. In fact, the local cycling club advised on their website to treat he no-sidewalk law flexibly — while also being courteous and deferential to people on foot. Apparently, it was very different in Belgrade, Serbia: strict prohibition on sidewalk cycling, but far fewer bike-friendly streets than in Budapest.

    Anyway, now that we’re in bike-friendly Portland, we have the challenge of breaking our 13-year-old of the sidewalk-riding habit he got into in Hungary. One step at a time …

  9. Avatar Johnny Bye Carter says:

    I wish I never had to bike on a sidewalk, but sometimes it’s the best route when on-street infrastructure is inadequate.

    My kid usually only bikes on the sidewalk when the road is too bumpy. There are many bumpy cement , and several pothole-riddled greenways where the sidewalk is a much more enjoyable experience. If the city doesn’t want us riding there then they’ll have to fix the bike streets.

    I mostly bike on sidewalks when there’s no room for bikes on the street due to motor vehicle congestion. This is where the downtown sidewalk riding ban is really annoying. There aren’t a lot of bike lanes downtown and during rush hour if you end up on the wrong street you have to get off and walk your bike down the sidewalk. Sure, it’s still faster than sitting in traffic in the street, but I wish there was somewhere for me to ride past all the SOVs in the way.

    Slightly off topic, but I also bike in crosswalks sometimes when I’m making a Copenhagen left and there’s a bunch of cars clogging the left lane making it nearly impossible to merge in and make a real left. I always do this when going south on SW 3rd approaching the left at Madison to go across the Hawthorne bridge. I ride into the crosswalk and green bike box on Madison from 3rd and point myself toward the bridge.

  10. Avatar B. Carfree says:

    It was hard to read beyond the tribal and divisive term “strong and fearless”. It was coined to be dismissive and should NOT be used, ever. It’s a riff on “The Fast and the Furious” and diminishes people who happen to be competent and confident riders. It’s a way for relatively new cyclists (those who started riding in the past dozen or so years) to shut down those who have been cycling in all conditions for decades and often just happen to have deep knowledge of why some separation ideas are giant steps backwards.

    Let’s retire this dismissive term. It serves no positive purpose whatsoever.

    1. I didn’t know that! I know a lot of people outside of Portland who like and use the term about themselves. I thought I was the oddball feeling fine with identifying as “willing but wary” whereas many people find that offputting. I won’t use it again, and please know I didn’t mean to upset you or anyone else 🙂

    2. Avatar Johnny Bye Carter says:

      As somebody who has only been riding frequently (and not as my main mode of transport) in the last dozen years and wants to have all modes separated I describe myself as strong and fearless.

      I find your “othering” attitude dismissive.

      1. Avatar soren says:

        I’m capable of riding on most roadways in PDX but I’m hardly fearless. The suggestion that I do not experience fear (of being hit, maimed or killed) is demeaning and, even, somewhat dehumanizing.

    3. Avatar paikiala says:


      Making stuff up in your head doesn’t make it true.

      Roger Geller of PBOT started the classification of cyclists, not some outsider.

      1. Avatar Cpt. Obvus says:

        Please comment on why that prevents it from being dismissive. Does it?

        1. Avatar paikiala says:

          How a person feels is entirely up to them. And how a person feels regarding their ability can vary over an hour, day, week, month, year, lifetime.
          One person may use any label in an attempt to be dismissive. that is on them. How you choose to react to the slings and arrows of men is entirely up to you.

    4. Avatar Chris I says:

      As a strong and fearless rider, I disagree. My riding behaviors when alone and those I practice with my children are completely different. Strong and fearless perfectly describes the type of attitude and physicality needed to take the lane on busy roads, riding fast to keep up in traffic, descending at high speeds in an urban environment, etc.

      1. Avatar soren says:

        I think it’s great that you do not experience fear of close calls or near collisions when you bike alone. This is not my experience at all.

        Although I’m capable of riding on most roadways in Portland, I’m far less strong than I was 30 years ago. In fact, I plan on purchasing an e-bike at some point to compensate for this aging-related loss of strength. Many other people who use cycling as their main form of transportation also do not necessarily describe themselves as “strong” or “fearless”. In fact, as e-bikes continue to become more popular this less-strong demographic will only grow.

        It’s unfortunate that both you and Roger feel the need to label me as “strong and fearless” when I feel those terms do not reflect my experience (or the experience of many people who cycle for transportation as their primary mode).

        1. Avatar Chris I says:

          Given your description, I wouldn’t label you that way.

  11. Avatar John Liu says:

    Little kids get a pass for riding on the sidewalk, in my book. Good to teach them to do it safely and considerately.

  12. Avatar bendite says:

    I cringe when I see kids riding on the sidewalk at any speed over a jog. Drivers rarely stop as required when exiting a parking lot or alley, and if they’re making a right turn they may not look to the right until they’re already starting their turn. It’s a set up for kids to get clobbered.

  13. Avatar Oliver says:

    I rarely do it myself, but I’ll not chastise anyone for choosing to ride on the sidewalk (outside of downtown) for their safety. But.

    Please do not ride on the “wrong” side of the street, as it were. The problem arises because (even conscientious) drivers who do look down the sidewalk to verify there is no one approaching from the right before looking left to see if the roadway is clear for making a right turn.

    But if a bicycle is travelling faster than walking speed, then a rider can appear ‘out of nowhere’ (ugh, I know) in a place that the driver has already verified is vacant, because their mental calculus is based on people travelling at walking speed.

    Incidentally, this scenario underpins my antipathy for left side, “contraflow” bike lanes.

    1. Avatar bendite says:

      In a way you’re also suggesting people not walk or jog on the “wrong” side of the street.

  14. Avatar Mark smith says:

    All the sidewalk haters hating on people being safe. Or in Georgia where cops are free to harass minorites for the crime of riding in a safe space….the sidewalk. anti sidepath laws are simply minoritje harassment laws.

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