Riding a bike on the sidewalk seems like a safe and reasonable alternative to riding next to cars on the road. However, riding on the sidewalk is not always the safest option, especially in areas with lots of pedestrians.
Biking on the sidewalk should be avoided in crowded cities due to the increased risk of colliding with pedestrians. Many cities ban biking on sidewalks due to the risks of pedestrian collisions. In areas with fewer pedestrians, biking on sidewalks can be safe if pedestrians are given plenty of space.
In this article, we’ll go over the specific dangers and benefits of riding on the sidewalk (AKA footpath or footway), and how exactly it can be done safely.
Dangers of biking on the sidewalk
Regardless of what the local law says, there are a few significant dangers that every cyclist should know about when riding on the sidewalk.
1. Danger of drivers not seeing cyclists on sidewalks
One of the dangers of biking on the sidewalk is the increased danger of drivers not seeing cyclists. Drivers typically do not anticipate encountering cyclists on sidewalks, and therefore they are not looking for them.
You should be extra careful when crossing intersections, stop signs, and driveways. The risk of not being seen by a driver is especially increased at intersections, stop signs, and driveways.
It seems counterintuitive to say that there’s a risk of being hit by a car while riding on the sidewalk, but the reason drivers do not see cyclists on sidewalks is because they are generally only looking for other cars. Since cars pose the greatest threat to drivers, they will prioritize looking for other cars over cyclists.
2. Danger of colliding with pedestrians on sidewalks
The main danger of biking on the sidewalk is the increased risk of colliding with a pedestrian. Sidewalks are typically narrow and not wide enough for pedestrians and cyclists to ride alongside each other. Especially in large cities, such as NYC, cyclists pose a greater threat to pedestrians due to the crowded sidewalks.
Pedestrians who are walking on the sidewalk are generally not expecting to encounter cyclists. Therefore, it is even more dangerous because they are not expecting it. The typical behavior of a pedestrian on a sidewalk is to not walk in a straight line, but rather walk diagonally across the pavement. Since they are generally not anticipating meeting cyclists, it is even more dangerous for them.
3. Pedestrians feel threatened by cyclists on sidewalks
Not only can biking on the sidewalk be dangerous to pedestrians, but it can actually make pedestrians feel in danger. People who are walking or running feel more threatened by a cyclist that is riding on a narrow sidewalk.
The experience of a pedestrian encountering a cyclist on the sidewalk is comparable to the experience of a cyclist encountering a moped on a bike path. Mopeds are wider, faster, and heavier than bicycles, so they pose a threat to cyclists on a bike-only path.
Benefits of biking on the sidewalk
If biking on the sidewalk is allowed in a particular area, then there are a few clear benefits of riding on the pavement that every cyclist should consider.
1. Decreased risk of car collision
If you are concerned about riding on the road shoulder alongside cars, then riding on the sidewalk can be a great alternative.
Riding on the sidewalk will give you the extra distance between you and the cars that will keep you safe from any incidents involving cars. However, riding on the sidewalk does not completely eliminate the risk of cars. As mentioned in the above section, drivers are typically not keeping their eyes out for cyclists on sidewalks. Therefore, it can be dangerous to assume drivers can see you just because you may have the right of way. Just be cautious when crossing driveways and intersections you’ll be fine.
2. A safer and more enjoyable ride
If you feel safe, you will enjoy biking more. If you feel safer by riding on the sidewalk, as opposed to the road, then you will probably bike more often and enjoy it much more. At the end of the day, whatever makes you enjoy biking more often is usually the best thing to do for your health and wellbeing.
I happen to live in an area of North Carolina that has beautiful sidewalks on every road in our town. They are rather narrow sidewalks, but there are very few people walking on them, so I feel comfortable riding on the pavement. As soon as a pedestrian comes my way, I ride off the sidewalk to let them pass.
Since I generally feel safer on the sidewalks than on the road in my area, I find myself enjoying cycling more and tend to get out more often.
List of cities where you’re not allowed to bike on the sidewalk
In many countries, the law regarding biking on sidewalks is left to local and state governments. In the United States, many states allow sidewalk riding but may restrict it on the local level. Many local governments make laws giving access to only children to ride on sidewalks. For example, the state of California does not have a law that bans sidewalk riding, but the city of San Francisco does not allow riding on sidewalks for ages over 12.
Here’s a list of major cities that do not allow biking on sidewalks. Be sure to also check the bicycle laws in your local area.
|CITY||SIDEWALK BIKING LAW|
|New York City||Banned (unless 12 years old or younger)|
|San Francisco||Banned (unless 12 years old or younger)|
|Chicago||Banned (unless 12 years old or younger)|
|Houston||Banned (within business districts)|
|Toronto||Banned (unless 13 years old or younger)|
|Calgary||Banned (unless 13 years old or younger)|
|Melbourne||Banned (unless 12 years old or younger)|
|Sydney||Banned (unless 15 years old or younger)|
List of cities where you’re allowed to bike on the sidewalk
Here’s a list of major cities that allow biking on sidewalks. Be sure to also check the bicycle laws in your local area.
|CITY||SIDEWALK BIKING LAW|
How to bike safely on sidewalks (if it’s allowed)
Taking into account the above-mentioned risks and benefits of riding on the sidewalk, there are a few things you can do to ensure a safe ride while on the sidewalks.
1. Assume that drivers don’t see you
Just because you may have the right at an intersection and have flashing lights, it doesn’t mean drivers can see you. In fact, they probably can’t see you because they are simply not looking for you. Meaning, drivers generally have what is called “tunnel vision”, which means they cannot see what they are not looking for. Since they are just looking out for other cars (not cyclists), they generally don’t see cyclists.
This is precisely why it’s so important that you assume no one sees you. Better yet, just pretend that you are completely invisible. I know, we don’t want to live in a world where cyclists are invisible to drivers, but the reality is that being invisible will keep you SAFE.
After years of biking from New Jersey to NYC every single day, I never once had a crash or even came close to it. How? By simply pretending no one saw me. If a car is pulling out of a driveway or going a little too fast through a stop sign, I just stop and let them go.
I wrote a detailed guide on how to ride safely in a big city, so be sure to check that out here as well.
In this video, I outline some not-so-obvious tips that will keep you even safer on your bike commute.
2. Take caution at intersections and driveways
Even if you have the right of way, it is very likely that drivers don’t see you if you are crossing an intersection or driveway. The reason for that is because drivers are keenly looking out for other cars while they are pulling out of driveways or turning at an intersection. By default, they are not typically looking for cyclists in those situations.
Let’s imagine a real-life scenario. Pretend you are riding along on the sidewalk and then a car pulls out of their driveway with the intention to turn right onto the main road. Since you are approaching on the sidewalk, you would assume that they see you. But they do not because they are looking to their left for oncoming traffic.
If you assumed they saw you, you would have made the mistake of riding in front of the car (even though you have right of way). But since you’re a smart cyclist that read this blog, you know that if you assume that they see you, you’re in for a disaster. So you stop to let them go before you or just ride behind their car.
3. Give plenty of space to pedestrians
As mentioned earlier in the article, pedestrians generally feel a bit threatened by cyclists on the sidewalk. Be sure to give them plenty of space to feel comfortable, especially while riding on narrower sidewalks. If you need to slow down or get off the sidewalk for a moment to let them pass, then be sure to do that.
In many cases, pedestrians will move over to let you pass. Be sure to give them a nod or thank them for sharing the sidewalk.
Biking on the sidewalk can be beneficial if done safely and legally
If your local area allows for sidewalk riding and you prefer to ride alongside pedestrians rather than cars, then biking on the sidewalk is a great option for you. If you live in an area that bans sidewalk riding, then be sure to follow local laws and just learn to get comfortable riding on the road.
In the end, any riding you do is healthy and far more beneficial to you than not doing anything at all.