When I lived in Seattle I often said the best pieces of bicycle infrastructure were sidewalks.
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…
➤ 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.
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:
➤ 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.
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.
Browse past Family Biking posts here.
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Madi Carlson (@familyride on Twitter) wrote our Family Biking column from February 2018 to November 2019. She’s the author of Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living (Mountaineers Books).
In her former home of Seattle, Madi was the Board President of Familybike Seattle, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting bicycling as a means for moving towards sustainable lifestyles and communities. She founded Critical Lass Seattle, an easy social group ride for new and experienced bicyclists who identify as women and was the Director of Seattle’s Kidical Mass organization, a monthly ride for families. While she primarily bikes for transportation, Madi also likes racing cyclocross, all-women alleycats, and the Disaster Relief Trials. She has been profiled in the Associated Press, Outdoors NW magazine, CoolMom, and ParentMap, and she contributed to Everyday Bicycling by Elly Blue.