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Thursday, April 24 2014 @ 04:37 PM UTC

Why I support sidewalk bicycling (sometimes):

Bike LawsBy Greg Hinchliffe

I was going to call this “Why I support House Bill 160”, which would legalize sidewalk riding in Maryland unless the locality prohibits it, but, really, the bill does not do much. It merely makes prohibiting sidewalk riding an “opt-in” system, rather than the status quo which is “opt-out”: sidewalk biking is currently banned by the state unless the locality specifically permits it. I suppose as a practical matter, sidewalk riding would be legal in more places, as the issue is probably not a high priority for county and municipal lawmakers. What makes it even more irrelevant is that the existing state and local bans are hardly ever enforced, except for a short time in Baltimore City, when Mayor O’Malley’s administration tried, unsuccessfully, to make the ban a tactical weapon in the War on Drugs.

But, my, oh my, it has engendered some debate, so here is my two cents’ worth. I am Baltimore City resident and an experienced urban cyclist. I don’t bike to work but cycle often for fun, exercise, and to run errands, logging thousands of miles per year. I am confident in traffic and can hold my own in the crosstown rush-hour madness of Lombard or Fayette Street. But I also frequently ride on the sidewalk in certain places, sometimes even against the flow of adjacent traffic. Russell Street around Oriole Park? I am cruising that 20-foot sidewalk. Towsontown Boulevard between Charles Street and greater Towson, where the county has striped what seems to be a dozen 8-foot lanes, all occupied by speeding, distracted motorists? No, thank you. I am lovin’ that new sidewalk as I grind up the hill. I know, I know, I have seen the stats: twice as dangerous to be on the sidewalk as on the road, but here I am. How have I survived the (more than I care to count) decades of playing such bad odds? Simple. I am not an imbecile. Well, maybe I am, but I don’t ride like one. The sidewalk is not the problem.

Some sidewalks ARE dangerous: nasty, narrow things, with blind corners and hordes of pedestrians. Clearly these should not be cycled. But many of our city and suburban sidewalks are much better, with generous width, good sight distances, and few other users. Bicycling on such a facility is not, in itself, dangerous. What IS dangerous is shooting out from that sidewalk into an intersection, appearing suddenly and unexpectedly in the path of a surprised motorist, who had no idea there was a bicycle nearby until it disappeared under his front bumper. I have coined a new name for this spectacularly foolhardy maneuver: Inexcusable Intersection Idiocy, or I.I.I. It is pronounced AY-yi-YI !!! It is also known as Darwin, Unselecting Moronic Bicyclists. You can probably pronounce that one without my help.

In short, the main hazard of sidewalk cycling is not the cycling on the sidewalk part, but extremely poor intersection technique. This dangerous foolishness is what drives the statistics that condemn sidewalk riding, and trail riding as well. And it is a subject for education and regulation, not prohibition. Any cycling-safety course, whether taught by the LAB, WABA, Bike Maryland, the ‘Y’, the scouts, or the school system, should not just teach NOT to ride on the sidewalk, but HOW to ride on the sidewalk, and when it might be safer to do so. They should teach the tenets of safe sidewalk riding. Are there any such tenets? Yes, scads of them. Scads. S.C.A.D.S. Sidewalk cyclists must ride Slowly, Courteously, Alertly, Defensively – Safely. Get it? Scads? Get it? Anyone? Anyone? OK, never mind. Lame. Sorry.

Look, riding on a sidewalk can be dangerous, but so can riding in the dark. The way we deal with night-cycling is by educating about the requirement for reflection and illumination, legislating the equipment required to ride in darkness, and sponsoring light give-aways and discounts. We do NOT prohibit cycling after sunset.

I am further concerned that prohibiting sidewalk riding discourages new cyclists. If faced with the choice between a.) riding on the sidewalk (illegal), or b.) riding in traffic (scary), a less experienced cyclist is likely to choose c.) take the Buick. We need all the cycling allies we can get out there to improve the physical and political cycling climate. We shouldn’t be scaring them away.

In a perfect world, cycling on the sidewalk would never be necessary, due to the superb bike facilities nearby. No, cyclists don’t ride on the sidewalks in Amsterdam, but that’s because they don’t have to. In our decidedly un-Dutch environment, sometimes the sidewalk is part of the cycling space. We should make sure prospective riders know how and when to use it safely. A blanket prohibition does not help.

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