Yet Another Sidewalk Cycling Post

So, we’re not the first blog to go on record about the sidewalk cycling issue, we’re probably in the minority on the side we take though (I actually haven’t checked with Graham on that so he might lay into me a bit for this).

The first thing I want you to do before reading on is to forget about the letter of the law. I know it’ll be tough for some who view the law as the divine word, but try. After all, the laws are fine, but they do change from time to time when they no longer make sense. I might be in the minority on this too, but being ‘against the law’ is not a compelling enough reason in a lot of ways.

There are a few reasons why I choose to embrace sidewalk cycling more than the average ‘avid’ cyclist.

  • I think it’s really hard to make a convincing argument to a maybe-biker that the road is the place to be. We need to convert these maybes into ‘avid’ bikers. Shouting them all onto the road will never work.
  • Pedestrians aren’t a difficult breed to get along with. There isn’t a real rift between cyclists and pedestrians the way that some surly cyclists and pedestrians would have us believe. Most don’t mind sharing their infrastructure if we are respectful.
  • The big argument against sidewalks is always the crossings. I think there’s a lot of noise and wind on this, but I’m not sure there’s real difference between being a pedestrian and being a cyclist at a crossing, if you do it right.

Newbies

Since I got more involved in cycling community activism, I talk to a lot more people about what it would to get them riding. The answer is nearly always the same. Biking on the road is a non-starter. People won’t ride if they need to take the road. Bike lanes help a lot, although, they probably aren’t the safety panacea that people think.

At first, I challenged people on this. I knew that it wasn’t as terrible as they imagined and I knew that they would eventually be able to ride in many circumstances on the road. But new cyclists aren’t open to this conversation. No matter how much experience or how many techniques I offered, there was no way to convince most people that I was right. In the end, you just have to accept that people want to be on the sidewalk when they’re not in the car. That’s just the way it is. If you pretend it isn’t then I hope you stop talking to the ‘maybe cyclists’ because you’re not doing them or us any favours.

In a couple decades when the ranks of cyclists have swollen, new cyclists will start out on the roads. There’s safety in numbers, for now, we don’t have the numbers.

Pedestrians

It’s not difficult to deal with pedestrians on the sidewalks that I frequent. In all my sidewalk zones, there are wide grass boulevards and I normally go around pedestrians of they are travelling the same direction as me. I don’t treat the sidewalk as a bike path and call out ‘on your left’ to get them to move either. I feel it’s more appropriate if I simply go around. If they’re coming the opposite way, there’s never been an issue with sharing the sidewalk.

The odd spot is so barren of pedestrians and driveways that I am comfortable getting my speed up. In the rare case I see a pedestrian, I drop speeds again and pass at a respectable pace. No buzzing the tower!

Sometimes, there’ll be a surly pedestrian who doesn’t like what I’m doing. It probably doesn’t have anything to do with me or my use of his sidewalk. It has more to do with him being surly. These grouches are always middle aged to older men. It bothers me more than it should.

Crossings

My real beef with sidewalk cycling bylaws (HTA laws in the crossings) is that I don’t really see any difference cycling crossings compared to when I’m a pedestrian in them. But when I am riding two wheels, any incident is my fault for some reason.

I’ve been a runner for years. Longer than I’ve been a cyclist. Until I got injured last year, my weekly running mileage was much higher than biking mileage. When I was training for a marathon, I might have been running up to 100km per week. Not a lot for a cyclist, but it’s a lot for a runner. Lots of that running was done on my commute.

At that time, it would be irregular for me to go a week and not have a close call at a crossing. There were two types, one where the motorist is perpendicular to my travel and looking the other way for an opening then proceeding without looking in front again. The second where the motorist is turning left through a gap in oncoming traffic and they forget to look in the crosswalk for pedestrians before proceeding. No different from close calls I have these days on my bike. Although they are less frequent now.

There’s no simple way to make an apples-to-apples though. There are just way more miles of sidewalk running than sidewalk biking, though I would estimate the crossing speeds to be roughly the same.

So, if you’re going to tear a strip off me for this, then do. But be mindful that ‘against the law’ isn’t a reason and I don’t care or want to hear what happens in European cycling cultures.

Can you really blame someone for riding the sidewalk?

35 thoughts on “Yet Another Sidewalk Cycling Post

  1. I think there’s a difference between perceived safety and actual safety with respect to biking on sidewalks. I understand that the real problem with sidewalk cycling is not intersections, but driveways. You just don’t have the necessary visibility to cars backing out when you’re pedalling along on the sidewalk; your speed is much higher than expected for someone scanning the sidewalk for obstacles.

    I don’t think sidewalk cycling is a good idea. I do think that separated bike paths would be better, but we don’t seem to have any of them in Ontario.

  2. Your basic argument is that someone could theoretically ride their bike safely on the sidewalk. It’s a pretty hard argument to disprove. In fact, I’m quite sure it happens all the time.

    I could, however, make the same argument about riding a motorcycle on the sidewalk or on the iron horse trail. I could make the same argument about car drivers treating stop lights like stop signs and moving through if there is no oncoming traffic. Theoretically, we could have no traffic laws at all, and could all drive nicely and manoeuvre our respective vehicles around each other in the quite civilized way that pedestrians do on the sidewalk. If that’s what you’re suggesting, I’ll concede your point.

    To some degree, the laws and the police are about enforcing rules from above on the lowly citizens without their necessary approval. Sometimes, they are created by agreement of the general population to facilitate both efficiency, safety and convenience. Personally, I find it really annoying and inefficient to have to step aside for cyclists on the sidewalk while I’m walking through downtown Waterloo (I cycle on King Street and it’s not a big deal – why can’t you?) so I’ve generally stopped moving aside. If you want to cycle on the sidewalk, you can do it at my walking pace.

    1. I definitely do not agree with your assertion that if you can ride King Street then anyone should be able to. I’d really like to see people try to ride their bikes even if they don’t feel comfortable on King/University/Bridgeport/Homer Watson.

      If we really stuck to the bylaws and enforced them, we’d almost certainly see a reduction in the total number of cyclists. The only ones left would be us ‘avids’. And I don’t think too many new ones would be anxious to start.

      Why not just accept that it’s going to happen and see if we can’t convert the sidewalk bikers to road bikers in time?

      1. University has bike lanes!

        You’re advising people to do something statistically unsafe because they feel unsafe doing something that actually safe?

        I don’t think there is much unsafe about riding on King Street. I go slow, and cars go around me. There are intersections ever 2 blocks, so cars aren’t going particularly fast.What’s the problem?

      2. And I’m referring to King Street between William and Spring, where sidewalks are crowded. In long stretches of busy road, where there are way less pedestrians, it’s less of an issue.

      3. Johnathan, you are looking at a very narrow cross section of this city. University Ave. does not have bike lanes all the way out to RIM park. There’s a long section with no lanes at all. This is where cars are going fastest too as they enter and exit the expressway. There are way more streets in this city than you personally ride.

        As for statistics, I’m afraid that I haven’t seen a study yet that convinces me of anything regarding sidewalk cycling.

        I almost got hit 3 times on my way to work today. I was in control of my lane in all three cases. These were all at 60kph too. I’d much rather take my chances with cars that are nearly stopped at an intersection.

      4. I’m totally going to walk in front of cyclists and they can go the speed I’m walking because it’s safer. Kind of like when a cyclist goes in front of a car at less than half the speed limit and makes it impossible to pass…

      5. I don’t think anyone is complaining about sidewalk cycling in remote areas going fastest too as they enter and exit the expressway. There are rarely pedestrians in those places anyway, and not many bikes either. If it’s not really impacting anyone, it’s obviously not a problem. I doubt it’s being enforced out there anyway, is it?

        Where there is going to be fast traffic, I’d imagine bike lanes are a minimum, and probably segregated bike paths, but I didn’t think that’s what we were talking about.

        People turning right have a harder time seeing cyclists on sidewalks if there are cars parked along the side of the road as they are in urban centres, but that’s less of an issue out further from the core.

  3. Thanks Rob! I take the sidewalk up King St, which is a minor portion of my daily commute. I’ve biked on King St. several times, but had too many close calls. King St. is no longer an option for me. While I don’t consider myself a newbie, I appreciate your argument (that happens to fit my own justification).

    1. I take king st too. The section of King street from Conestoga mall to Waterloo Motor Inn is so busy. 4 lanes of traffic and no bike lanes. But, as said before, that is the biggest problem with Waterloo. There is no safe bike route is if are trying to cross the Conestoga Parkway.

      Widening the west side sidewalk on that section of King street to a full path (there is so much room there!) would be a perfect solution, for me at least.

  4. The only run-in I had with a car was when I was a kid, 15 or 16, riding up Lancaster and someone that was busy arguing with his wife rolled through the stop and over me. I was lucky that I was unscathed but he mangled the front wheel and didn’t even bother to stop and see if I was okay. I used to ride the sidewalk on Ottawa Street near the interchange and HW until I found an alternatve way to school… I couldn’t really ride on the sidewalks downtown there are too many people and enough parallel streets that one rarely has to tangle with traffic unless it’s by choice.

    The comments on the record article are a lot more civil than I would have expected but I guess they are heavily moderated these days too.

  5. Promoting sidewalk cycling is giving in. It provides more rationale for the car-crazed rights agenda of oh-so many in Waterloo region.

    If you’re afraid to ride your bike on the road with the other vehicles, take the bus.

    ZS

    1. IMO to offer up the public transit system as a reasonable alternative to cycling is silly. If a suburban guy like me doesn’t feel safe biking, then he’ll be in the car.

      No question that the bus is not an alternative. It takes too long, it’s far too infrequent, and on my route, the bus is packed like a tin of sardines. I’ll never do it again.

      How would you propose to help people get accustomed to riding in traffic in the first place? I know I didn’t start day one on the road for my whole route. I could now, but I couldn’t then.

      1. “How would you propose to help people get accustomed to riding in traffic in the first place?”

        By riding on the city’s many many quiet sub-streets, not by riding on sidewalks through busy commercial centres.

        If you get hit by a car, it does a great disservice to the cycling community, because it scares people away from riding at all. And if you are riding on the sidewalk, you are statistically *way* more likely to get hit by a car. You do the math, Rob.

      2. I agree with Jonathan about starting with lower traffic streets and building up confidence. For what it’s worth, this is the approach CAN-Bike takes.

        This leads to the question – how do new cyclists find routes that fit this description? One of the problems with Waterloo is that many of the neighborhoods have winding, labyrinthine streets that make it difficult to ride through efficiently. Waterloo’s bicycling map* highlights busy (albeit mostly bike-laned) roads instead of helping cyclists find lower-traffic alternative routes.

        How did other commenters here figure out what are good routes in KW?

        * http://www.city.waterloo.on.ca/Portals/57ad7180-c5e7-49f5-b282-c6475cdb7ee7/PWS_ROADS_documents/WaterlooCycleMap.pdf

      3. Another issue with low traffic streets is connectivity. To traverse subdivision boundaries, or to get into the core, a stretch of riding on busy road is usually required. Sometimes you’re lucky and there’s a lane, othertimes, not so much.

  6. Good post Rob and I agree with your arguments.

    The sidewalks filling up with cyclists is better than waiting for the car/bike accident metric to rise as a way to get better infrastructure for cyclists. I personally hit the sidewalks for two different sections of my commute and have had closer encounters with skunks and raccoons than I have with pedestrians.

    I would argue that on many K-W roads that you might want not to bike on, the sidewalk is so underutilized I would lobby to have it converted to a dual use “trail” or “path” like some of the trails through RIM Park. Most of Homer Watson, Weber between King and Northfield, and King between Northfield and Columbia are good examples (I think the general propensity to walk somewhere is also on the steady decline). It would be the cyclist obligation to yield to pedestrians on these “trails”. Sure downtown Waterloo, Kitchener, or Toronto for that matter cycling on the sidewalk is impractical and stupid. Get off your bike – walk it, and lobby for more and better bike lanes in these areas.

  7. Pertinent to the discussion, a man was killed as a result of a cyclist hitting him on the sidewalk last week: star article. There was another sidewalk-cyclist death a few years ago, found a link to that story, and while some sidewalk riders may be safe I still don’t think it’s really all that smart to do.

  8. I’m always torn on the sidewalk cycling issue. I’d rather see people riding on the road or bike lane when present, but completely understand why people choose the sidewalk.

    I haven’t ridden on a sidewalk in years, mostly because I feel less safe because of driveways and intersections.
    Of course once I do move from this city, it’s hard to say what the city I move to will be like. If it’s similar to what K-W has become, I’d be a sidewalk cycler. As I’ve mentioned in the past, my family use to live in the Pioneer Drive area which would mean a considerable amount of riding on Homer Watson. No question I’d be on the sidewalk along that “highway”. It’s too bad also, as there seems like plenty of space for a proper bike lane there.

    I also disagree with what ZS said about taking the bus and agree with what you said. Even though I don’t drive, I’d sooner hop in a car then take the bus.
    When motorists talk about dangerous roads, we don’t tell them to take the bus. Instead we put hundreds of thousands of dollars into studies to find out how to make it safer.

  9. “When motorists talk about dangerous roads, we don’t tell them to take the bus. Instead we put hundreds of thousands of dollars into studies to find out how to make it safer.”

    Agreed. When motorists are worried about dangerous roads, we fix the problems that make the roads dangerous. We don’t tell them, in the mean time, to make their way to work by driving on the sidewalk, or across people’s front lawns, or through he park.

    1. That’s because there are more than 6 people driving cars. As a tax payer, I don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars toward improved bike lanes so that we might double our cyclists to 12. Just means more activist cyclists who think they are a car when they want the road and a pedestrian when they want the sidewalk.

      1. All that time you save by driving you waste by going to cycling websites and using hyperbole to troll cyclists into arguments? You might as well be biking.

      2. I love how motorists believe THEY are the only tax payers around. I pay thousands of dollars in taxes each year. A good chunk of that goes to fund the roads.

        Also, why should MY tax money go to fund roads when less then 1% of roads even have bike lanes?

  10. Good Post. I ride both the road and the sidewalk on my commute to work. I do it where I feel the most appropriate, and it happens to be where sidewalks are very underutilized (Lexington between Davenport and cutoff into Lincoln heights). I rarely see an actual pedestrian, and when I do, I move to the grass and give them lots of room. I am not racing and am enjoying the ride, not blasting past driveways and intersections. I understand it might not be right, but the way the infrastructure is created it works the best for me.

  11. So…isn’t it odd, folks, that there is plenty of comments about lack of pedestrians on KW sidewalks? Is that something then that may need examining? Car-free Sundays was a bust, IMO, can we have PedetrianPlus Sundays (to begin with)?

    Perhaps people aren’t using the sidewalks because there is a car-culture and an anti-transit sentiment here in KW.

    Is there any value in looking at that rather than polarizing the discussion around bikes vs. pedestrians?

    1. As a percentage of trips, walking is several times more popular than cycling in Waterloo Region. However, walking just won’t get you very far in the suburbs – where sidewalks (even if used infrequently) are especially needed for pedestrian safety. It’s hardly an issue of culture, except insofar as that influenced the built environment we have.

      You would need dramatic change of land use and dramatic increases in density before there would be any reason to have lots of people walking along, say, Fischer-Hallman Road, or Hespeler Road.

  12. I’m gonna throw in my comment, in case anyone cares.
    I don’t like sidewalk bikers as a pedestrian or as a cyclist.
    However, there’s a time and place for everything, and there are certain spots in KW where it’s plain stupid to be on the road. One of those spots is on Rob’s commute, which is why he wrote this post. Hopefully, the city will follow through with their plan to make that area more bike/pedestrian friendly so that he doesn’t have to ride the sidewalk.
    I personally don’t care much for King St. or other high car traffic areas and stick to side roads or baths where possible. Thankfully, I don’t depend on my bike to get around and also get in the car often to get places. Car traffic is getting pretty bad around these parts, come to think of it.

    1. More comments the better.

      BTW, my new work location takes me off the sidewalk. The whole distance is either low enough traffic, wide streets, or well provisioned with bike infrastructure.

  13. Cycling on the sidewalk removes the initial fear barrier to cycling, but increases the actual risk. This can end up defeating the purpose of encouraging sidewalk riding. Of the people I’ve encountered, the people who are most fearful of cycling (and least likely to cycle) are people who previously cycled, but were hit by a car. Every single one of these people was hit by a turning car while they were riding in a crosswalk.

    Given that the road is statistically proven to be the safer place to be, we need to make it appear as such. Between crossing an intersection from an obscure location and travelling in a straight line beside fast cars doing the same, people are disproportionately more afraid of the latter. For this reason, we should not be building our bike lanes directly on the road, but instead place some sort of barrier between cyclists and cars. This is what wil get people cycling.

    However, such a barrier might be perceived as a waste of space, because it does not directly provide any transportation capacity. That was a huge issue in Toronto, where I used to live.

    As a compromise, I propose 3 simple rules for bike lane design to increase people’s safety, and more importantly, their perception of bike lane safety. Unlike most barriers, these barriers increase actual safety in addition to the perception of safety.

    1. Bus stops/shelters should be located between the bike lane and the auto travel lane. Buses encroaching on the bike lane force cyclists to either risk overtaking a large vehicle with poor outward visibility and waiting, which obviously increases travel time. Bike lanes can easily be moved around that zone of conflict very easily, so it is absurd that the current designs plow straight through. Fear of buses can be a major hindrance to encouraging cycling, and buses are frustrating for even the most experienced cyclists.

    2. On-street parking should be located between the bike lane and the roadway, wherever cyclists’ visibility is not crucial (places with long distances between driveways/intersections, for example). Cars entering and exiting parking spots will then not cross the bike lane, further avoiding conflicts. Furthermore, no part of a bike lane should be located within the door zone. That means placing a buffer between the edge of the parking area and the bike lane.

    3. When a bike lane crosses the top of a T intersection, traffic controls (lights or stop signs) should not apply, since there are no conflicting vehicle movements. To allow pedestrians to cross the road without stopping bicycle flow, the bike lane should diverge from the roadway to leave room for an island where pedestrians can wait to cross the roadway. This improves average speed in addition to subjective safety.

    And of course, wherever there is enough space, and doing so does not increase actual risk for cyclists, the bike lane should be moved away from the roadway.

  14. I see what you’re talking about here and on the topic of crossing, I agree it should be no different from a pedestrian for a cyclist. For all it’s worth I think that it should be an option to ride on the road or on the sidewalk, if a car hits a bike for whatever reason who’s in the larger amount of pain(Not the mention bills and repair costs)? Where as if a cyclist somehow hits a pedestrian both would walk away with minor scrapes, which seems safer?

    1. I’d be interested to know how many actual tickets for sidewalk riding are issued in a year.

      It seems to me that with the exception of the downtowns most places in town where I don’t feel safe on the road the pedestrian sidewalk use is so light yielding to pedestrains is never an issue.

      Bottom line is whether you are driving, cycling, or walking pay attention and remember rightly or wrongly the car will win every fight.

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