Bikes belong in the street, not on the sidewalk. In fact, it is illegal for anyone over the age of 12 to ride on a sidewalk in Chicago. Riding in the street is generally safer because you are visible, while on the sidewalks you encounter pedestrians, cross streets, alleys and parking lot entrances where drivers don’t expect to see bikes. Riding in the street is also generally faster and smoother, on better-maintained pavement instead of concrete blocks. Finally, riding in the street sends the correct message to drivers: that bikes belong.
Despite all of this, sometimes I take the sidewalk. Very rarely and only on the arterial streets when there is no way around them. This is the type of Chicago street where you’ll find the Targets and the McDonalds. Four lanes, two in each direction, no shoulder, definitely no bike lane, high speeds, and ginormous potholes. Meanwhile, the pedestrian-free sidewalks beckon. For these reasons, if I absolutely cannot avoid taking these streets, I usually ride on their sidewalks.
The most recent sidewalk expedition was on Thursday night, as my destination was on an arterial street and it’s the only way to get across the highway and river dividing the east and west sides. On top of everything, it was dark and raining. After studying Google maps in preparation for the trip, I decided that I would take side streets as far as possible and then hop on the sidewalk.
I am more interested in getting from point A to point B safely than in sending a message or exuding street cred (which is hard to exude on an Omafiets, anyway). 98% of the time it is safer to ride in the street, and even when I decide to take the sidewalk, it is only safer if I follow these rules:
- Ride slowly.
- Watch out for pedestrians and either slow to a crawl or walk your bike past them (if a sidewalk has a lot of pedestrians, don’t even try riding your bike on it).
- Keep an eye out for alleys, driveways, parking lots or any other place from which a car could spring. Be extra cautious and look both ways.
- At cross streets try to cross with the light in the cross walk. Assume that drivers do not see you. They certainly don’t expect anything faster than a pedestrian. Look over your shoulder for turning traffic.
This particular ride was more stressful and took longer than normal rides in the street because I had to slow and stop at so many intersections. Although I passed no pedestrians, I passed a few bikes – a couple on the sidewalk and a couple in the street. Did I feel a little sheepish when I passed the street riders? Sure, but not sheepish enough to throw myself in a situation where I did not feel safe.
The problem is that the city traffic design completely disregards bikes at the most dangerous areas, such as crossing rivers and highways. (Read about this problem in more detail at Chicago Bike Blog, where the author eventually decides to take arterial street sidewalks for a particular route with her son). So for those who are passionately against sidewalk riding under any circumstances, I respect that, but don’t hate the player, hate the game.