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Reposted with permission by The League of American Bicyclists.
Here's a look at biking on sidewalks — which is a perfect microcosm of the complicated relationship between traffic and bicycle laws in most states.
What Are Sidewalk Riding Laws?
Sidewalk riding laws define the rights and duties of a bicyclist when riding on a sidewalk. Whether a bicycle can be legally ridden on a sidewalk highlights the complicated and hybrid nature of the bicycle under current traffic laws in most states. A bicycle is at once a vehicle, given all the rights and duties of a vehicle; its own entity, subject to specifically tailored alternative rules; and in some cases treated as a pedestrian, with all accompanying rights and duties. In some instances, laws related to sidewalk riding can also highlight a division between adult and child bicycling.
When states do not explicitly allow bicycles to be ridden on sidewalks, court interpretations of statutes may still allow bicycles to be ridden on sidewalks. In most, if not all, states, either statutes or court decisions say that whatever laws govern bicycle behavior on sidewalks will also apply to crosswalks.
In addition to these issues caused by the hybrid nature of bicycles, many states leave their traffic laws open to change by localities, either in limited circumstances or through a general grant of power. Whether a bicycle may be ridden on a sidewalk is often explicitly allowed to be a local decision and may also be limited in central business districts, where pedestrian traffic is likely to be heavier.
Here's a full chart of laws and regulations (PDF).
Why Should You Care?
The League recommends that bicyclists ride on the road. Riding on the sidewalk is a significant cause of bicyclist-motorist crashes and creates unnecessary conflicts with pedestrians. There are many reasons that bicyclists belong in the road rather than upon the sidewalk, including obstructions, unpredictable pedestrian movements, limited visibility, and the limited design speed of sidewalks. However, there may be appropriate times to ride on a sidewalk or crosswalk, such as when crossing an unsafe high speed roadway or when the skill or ability level of the rider is not suited for the adjacent roadway, as can be the case with children.
When a bicyclist chooses to ride on sidewalks or crosswalks, sidewalk riding laws can clarify expectations for pedestrians, motorists, and bicyclists regarding how each mode will interact. When states fail to make the rights and duties of users of different modes clear in these hybrid situations they make it more difficult for public education efforts to be authoritative, create confusion regarding who is “right,” and may unintentionally limit the ability of crash victims to recover. It is possible that this lack of clarity may be a sign that these hybrid situations are thought more suitable for court decision-making rather than legislative decision-making because of the individualized and context-sensitive nature of these mode interactions. Even in states where there are “good” laws that make the rules for each road or sidewalk user clear the best answer to these context-sensitive situations is to create a better context. Dedicated bicycle infrastructure is a demonstrated way to reduce sidewalk riding by bicyclists and an appropriate response.
How Many States Have These Laws?
- 8 states prohibit bicycles on sidewalks because bicycles are vehicles, and vehicles are prohibited on sidewalks.
- In 10 states it is unclear whether bicycles are prohibited from sidewalks because they are not defined as vehicles, but a bicyclist has all of the rights and all of the duties applicable to the driver of any vehicle except as to those provisions which by their nature can have no application, and vehicles are prohibited on sidewalks.
- In 8 states no law was found regulating the use of sidewalks by either bicycles or vehicles.
- 21 states require a bicyclist to yield to a pedestrian while riding on a sidewalk.
- 18 states require a bicyclist to give an audible signal before passing a pedestrian while riding on a sidewalk.
- 4 states limit the speed of at which a bicycle can be ridden on a sidewalk.
- 13 states say that a bicyclist riding on a sidewalk has all the rights and duties of a pedestrian in the same circumstances.
- In all but one of these states there is a variation of the requirement that pedestrians cannot suddenly leave a curb into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.
Spotlight State – Utah
Utah clearly navigates the hybrid nature of bicycling on sidewalks using statutes that address a bicycle as a vehicle, as a quasi-pedestrian, and as its own entity. In Utah, bicycles are vehicles and vehicles are prohibited from operating on sidewalks. However, bicycles are explicitly allowed to ride on sidewalks in the same statute that prohibits vehicles from doing so. In a separate statute the rights and duties of a bicyclist on a sidewalk are given. In general, bicyclists have all the rights and duties applicable to pedestrians on a sidewalk, path, trail or crosswalk, but there are several exceptions. These exceptions generally do one of two things:
1) Give priority to pedestrians
- A bicyclist must yield to a pedestrian; and
- A bicyclist must give an audible signal before passing a pedestrian.
2) Establish rules specific to bicycles on a sidewalk
- Bicycles may be prohibited from sidewalk, path, trails, and crosswalks by sign or ordinance;
- Bicycles must not be operated in a negligent manner so as to collide with pedestrians, other bicyclists, or other vehicles or devices propelled by human power; and
- Bicycles must be operated at a reasonable and prudent speed.
Upon the shared space of a sidewalk, path, trail, or crosswalk a bicyclist is most likely to be the largest, fastest moving user of that shared space, with the most potential to injure another user of that space. The exceptions that are found in Utah’s law reflect the idea that a more dangerous user of a shared space should be subject to rules that account for that danger. Several states make a distinction between bicycles and motorized bicycles to further account for the real or perceived danger of heavier, faster, moving users on a sidewalk and prohibit motorized bicycles. Whether these additional rules are necessary or desirable can be debated, but they provide some parallels for discussions of appropriate rules for shared roadways.
Ohio also has a statute provision worth mentioning: In the Buckeye State, bicycles can be prohibited from sidewalks by sign or ordinance, but cannot be required to ride upon the sidewalk by sign or ordinance. This ensures that bicyclists can always use the road, and is an at this time unique provision to bolster the vehicle portion of the hybrid rights and duties of bicycles.
Photo by Fotolia/dasharosoto