Sometimes I Take The Sidewalk

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.

Sidewalk Riding

Sidewalk Riding

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.

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25 thoughts on “Sometimes I Take The Sidewalk

  1. While I believe that cycling on the sidewalk is generally more dangerous than on the roads, the kinds of roads you describe are an exception. In these situations I do the same thing, treating crossings, alleyways, and parking lot entrances/exits as stop signs.

  2. miss sarah says:

    Since you read my blog regularly you should know by now that I’m not an essentialist. There are exceptions to rules… and really, anybody who rides a bike for transportation knows that the sidewalk isn’t avoidable 100% of the time. Well, I’m sure there are purists that can avoid it but seriously, at an intersection I’m often waiting on the meridian instead of sandwiched between cars. It’s how I roll.


  3. Yes. While I agree that bikes belong on the road, I also agree it is better to occasionally ride on the sidewalk and stay alive.

    It is a long term policy of mine… ;-)

  4. dickdavid says:

    I agree with you on this. Bikes belong on the road, but the fact of life is, cars are horrible in some areas and sidewalk riding is a must. Staying safe and alive is my number one priority.

    My biggest mistake, when I started riding again, was to assume that sidewalks and bike lanes are safer. I’ve had to learn the hard way to be even MORE aware of cars while riding on the sidewalks because they are even less aware of you.

  5. ksteinhoff says:

    I’m with you. I’m pretty militant about riding the road, but I have one stretch of road where there is about a mile and a half of unbroken sidewalk. When traffic is heavy, I’ll yield to temptation.

    On the flip side, there is a “bike trail” which is a glorified sidewalk where I’ve been nearly nailed half a dozen times by cars pulling out of parking lots without looking until they get to the street.

    I take the road on that section and never have any problems.

  6. Mamavee says:

    You know I am with you right? I understand why bikes belong onthe streets. However I take to the sidewalk if I need to feel safe. I figure me freaking out and swerving into traffic is not worth it. I agree wholeheartedly with your rules of sidewalk riding. I’m happily surprised that the Sorte does ride well on the sidewalk. One of my fears about getting it was being road bound. Sometimes I feel better in the road, and sometimes I don’t. One area- the right lane turns into parking and then a turn only lane. the cars are always backed up about a block at the light. I am not nibble or thin enough to slide by, so it makes more sense for me to take the sidewalk and keep moving rather than sitting behind an exhaust pipe for two lights. I always always stop the bike and even drive onto the lawn to let people pass. It’s amazing how few pedestrians there are though :-/.

    My whole bicycling experiment has taught me that one doesn’t need to stay on the bike the whole ride. There is no shame hopping off to walk it across a cross walk. Or down a sidewalk to get to a safer area.

  7. k says:

    I agree entirely. I ride on the street 96% of the time, but the few times when I’m forced to ride along super busy 4-lane thoroughfares (Ashland, Sheridan, Broadway, or Western), I ride slowly and carefully on the sidewalk.

    That still doesn’t keep me from getting mad when I see someone flying down the sidewalk on my small, quiet, residential street.

  8. Karen says:

    Since classes resumed at NAU, traffic is heavier on Milton Avenue, which lacks bikes lanes. I definitely use the sidewalk these days on Milton, even though they aren’t very wide. Luckily, if no bike lane or multi-use path is available, except for downtown Flagstaff, it is perfectly legal to pedal on the sidewalk. I just try and defer to pedestrian and alert them with my bike bell if I am approaching from behind.

  9. Mishi says:

    I saw a helmet today that reminded me of your blog. It called the lazer urbanize helmet. Its fashion and function.

  10. Ghost Rider says:

    Right there with you…there’s a stretch here in Tampa where I use the sidewalk when my son is with me…otherwise I’m in the street.

    It’s not illegal within the city limits to ride on the sidewalk here, and the overwhelming majority of “cyclists” (technically, “guys on bikes”) use them rather than the roads or painted bike lanes.

  11. Aaron says:

    I agree: sidewalks are sometimes necessary. After 1050 miles of cycling from Boulder this summer, I used the sidewalk for the first time along parts of Golf Rd during the last thirty miles of my trip to Skokie. Schaumburg is a nightmare at rush hour.

  12. […] news on a new Missouri law that permits cyclists to roll through some red lights after stopping. Let's Go Ride a Bike confesses that sometimes, she takes the sidewalk. And KC Bike.Info reports that the Kansas City […]

  13. […] news on a new Missouri law that permits cyclists to roll through some red lights after stopping. Let's Go Ride a Bike confesses that sometimes, she takes the sidewalk. And KC Bike.Info reports that the Kansas City […]

  14. Dean Peddle says:

    I used to be a die hard roadie and racer so I have no problem being on the road with traffic but even I use the sidewalk sometimes….you just have to in certain situations and you need to be versitile. It looks like you are getting agreement amongst the board here.

  15. […] news on a new Missouri law that permits cyclists to roll through some red lights after stopping. Let's Go Ride a Bike confesses that sometimes, she takes the sidewalk. And KC Bike.Info reports that the Kansas City […]

  16. Kyle says:

    This morning for the commute I followed a bicycle cop who was riding on the sidewalk past a long line of cars waiting behind a paratransit bus.

    • Steven Vance says:

      I see Chicago Police bike patrol riding on the sidewalk more than I see them riding legally and safely in the street (the other maneuvers they make are “salmoning,” riding the wrong way on the street.


  17. […] news on a new Missouri law that permits cyclists to roll through some red lights after stopping. Let's Go Ride a Bike confesses that sometimes, she takes the sidewalk. And KC Bike.Info reports that the Kansas City […]

  18. Melissa Hope S says:

    Yeah, I ride on the sidewalk by my work cause it can get crazy there!

  19. It’s legal in Mpls and illegal in St. Paul. While I ride the street or bike lane, most of the time. I’ll ride sidewalks when it’ll save me some time or when it doesn’t feel safe on the road. Headed home most every day, I ride the sidewalk on the “wrong” side the road across the Hennepin Ave bridge, because it saves me a few minutes. It’s a wide sidewalk, so peds aren’t bothered much. I don’t see it as too much of a problem as long as I treat the pedestrians as the owners of the sidewalk. As for the “bikes belong on the road” idea, I’m all for it and would like those roads to get much safer. And the more bikes on the road, the safer we’ll all be(even the cars drivers will be safer, because bikes slow down cars). But one advantage of a bike is that it is an all-terran vehicle, able to go places other vehicles can’t. I like to use that advantage, now and then.

  20. ToddBS says:

    Totally agree with this. Sure, bikes have a right to the road but if you limit yourself to riding just on the road you are missing part of the beauty of the bike: versatility. One of the really nice things about bike travel is that you can go places cars are not allowed when the mood (or necessity) strikes you.

    I’ve caught myself sitting in traffic a few times when a nice MUP was just 50 yards off to my right. “What a dolt”, I thought to myself and proceeded to make my way to the path.

  21. Brrr says:

    There are certain stretches of my daily commute that I always use the sidewalk. Some bridges and underpasses have particularly narrow lanes and bad cracks/potholes, no chance am I taking the street.

  22. It sounds like the city should paint some bike lanes onto the sidewalks. They do that here (Oxford, UK) on the pavements of the type of roads that you are talking about. That way you can ride on the pavement without feeling guilty :)

  23. Dan says:

    If riding on the sidewalk is uniformly more dangerous than riding on the street, why is it legal for young children to ride on the sidewalk? I honestly think that the law is in place because of an ill-informed desire to protect pedestrians from reckless cyclists. Are there statistics showing that bicyclists riding on the sidewalk cause more severe injuries to pedestrians than automobile drivers cause to bicyclists? Bicyclists should generally ride in the street, but the sidewalk should be available as a legal option so that bicyclists can decide, based on circumstances, which is safer at the time.


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