Who You Callin’ Scofflaw? Sidewalk Cyclist

16 Sep

“Get on the sidewalk!” I don’t think there’s anyone who has ridden a bike on a city street or country road that hasn’t heard this one before. Most of the time the harasser is out of earshot if you yell back, “I have a right to the road.” And in all states in the US you do have the right to ride in the roadway just like vehicles with few exceptions, namely controlled-access highways, also known as freeways, interstates or motorways.

Of course, if you ride on the sidewalk, you’re just as likely get scolded with “Get OFF the sidewalk!” by people walking there, feeding yet again into the scofflaw cyclist image. You can’t win.

Claim: Scofflaw cyclists ride on sidewalks!

Whether it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk is not so clear. Most states, including California, Texas and New York, leave the decision to local jurisdictions. In San Francisco, it’s illegal for adults everywhere with a few notable exceptions. In my home city of Mountain View, it’s illegal for adults only in business districts. And in San Jose, it’s legal everywhere for all ages. So this man riding on the sidewalk in downtown San Jose is riding legally.


To those who are ready to scroll down to the comment section and give me a keyboardful about the dangers of sidewalk cycling: please wait. Yes, bicycling on the sidewalk can be dangerous, both for the person on the bike and for people walking or standing on the sidewalk. But much of the danger comes with speed.

Drivers are looking for people moving at walking speed, not faster than running speeds. (That’s one reason why young children are usually allowed to bike on sidewalks) Ditto for people walking along the sidewalk or stepping out of buildings. Let’s hope our sidewalk-cycling guy only rides this close to storefronts that are boarded up.

Why do people ride on the sidewalk? Sometimes it’s for convenience or out of habit, but much of the time it’s because the sidewalk feels safer than the roadway. This man was riding along Santa Clara Street, which has four lanes of car traffic and parked cars on either side. I ride it occasionally, but it’s very stressful. There’s a bike lane on a parallel street 1/0 of a mile away, but the one-way streets leading there don’t have bike lanes either.

Assessment: The sidewalk-biking guy is not a scofflaw; he’s riding legally even if arguably unsafely.

As someone who has the choice to ride a bike or drive a car, I’m not going to judge people who may not have that choice. He was riding slowly and I saw him give a woman ample room when he passed. Besides, there are several places I ride on the sidewalk in San Jose. With roads like the one below, can you really blame me?

Have you been called a scofflaw for riding on a sidewalk? Were you riding legally? Are you sure?


The City of San Jose is hosting a public meeting on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at 6pm at City Hall that includes discussion of a ban on sidewalk riding. If you live or work in San Jose, I encourage you to attend. All I ask is that you consider the needs of everyone who rides a bicycle, not just those with the skill, speed and courage to ride comfortably on any road, or the option to hop in the car where the roads are unforgiving.


Posted by on September 16, 2014 in Who You Callin' Scofflaw?


13 responses to “Who You Callin’ Scofflaw? Sidewalk Cyclist

  1. Examined Spoke

    September 16, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    I’ve never quite understood the studies showing that sidewalk cycling is unsafe. When I read them, they’re mostly about the dangers of leaving the sidewalk and entering a conflict zone, like an intersection. The sidewalks themselves seem quite safe. Meanwhile, LAB is reporting that forty percent of cycling fatalities are hits from behind, presumably when cyclists follow the ride-with-traffic principles:

    • ladyfleur

      September 17, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Driveways are dangerous because drivers entering the roadway often don’t stop and look before crossing the sidewalk. People who are walking can stop quicker so they don’t get hit as much. People driving from the roadway onto the driveway are also a big problem for both. The other dangers are mostly to the people walking who don’t hear the bikes approaching and can move in ways the rider doesn’t expect and there’s a collision or a near miss.

      But whether you’re safer on the sidewalk or on the road definitely depends on the road and sidewalk in question.

  2. Michael Harley

    September 16, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    I can’t remember exactly where I saw it now but I read this quote and it’s great: “Consider every person riding on a sidewalk as a vote for protected bike lanes” 😀

    The laws here in Nashville is the same as Mountain View; illegal in business districts.

    I almost never ride on the sidewalks but I don’t judge people who are doing what feels safe to them. I think we need more cyclists on the road to be noticed and in Nashville, the cycling populate isn’t very large.

    My wife and I normally cycle together but on the rare occasion that she cycles by herself, she’s been known to cycle on the sidewalk.

    • ladyfleur

      September 17, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Hear, hear on sidewalk riding as an indicator that the road doesn’t feel safe!

  3. Jim Fenton

    September 16, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    I wonder how many of the local jurisdictions to which the decision on sidewalk rising is left actually have decided whether it is permitted or not. How can a cyclist can reasonably know what the rules are, especially in places like the Bay Area, when we’re entering new local jurisdictions all the time? I’d love to have more uniformity, or at least something to tell us what the rules are.

    • ladyfleur

      September 17, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      It’s crazy, isn’t it. Like you’re going to memorize the exact rules of each city. And the cops don’t get it right all the time either. I had a mom call me up because a cop cited her for riding the “wrong way” on a sidewalk with her school-aged daughter on Miramonte.

      He said they should cross the street at an unsignaled crosswalk just S of El Camion, ride in a door zone bike lane in front of St Joseph School for 1/4 mile during school dropoff, then use another unsignalled crosswalk at Hans to get to Bubb school. Like that’s safer?

  4. katiekelly

    September 16, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    I e-mailed my local police department to ask for clarification, and keep a printed copy of the response with me in case neighbors have an issue with me on the sidewalk.

    • ladyfleur

      September 17, 2014 at 5:06 pm

      I remember you saying that. It’s crazy that we have to become traffic law experts just to ride a bike.

  5. Alfred Fickensher

    September 16, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    I’m old, I ride slow, and accordingly that means I ride wobbly. When not riding the Multi-Use path I ride the city streets. In some places I feel safer riding the sidewalk so I do. I don’t ask if it’s legal, I don’t know nor do I care. I just do it.

    I DO however do so fully understanding that people on foot have the right of way. On narrow sidewalks I come to a full stop a hundred feet or so from an oncoming pedestrian so as to make them aware that THEY do not have to step aside for me on the bike. (It _is_ their sidewalk after all).

    On wider commercial street sidewalks I plan my path left or right so as to never seem threatening to pedestrians. Always make eye contact with them and actively be the yielder.

    I have never been stopped by a cop nor confronted by an unhappy pedestrian. A bright smile and pleasant greeting seem to smooth out any disgruntlement that might been fomenting about the old fool riding a bike on the sidewalk.

    And if I ever am confronted about it by a cop I plan to unabashedly play up the Woobly-Old-Guy card.
    Alf in Davenport, IA

    • ladyfleur

      September 17, 2014 at 5:07 pm

      Totally agree on deferring to people walking on the sidewalk. It’s the people that don’t that cause all the problems. But I have been scolded even when I stopped completely and let the person pass. I assumed they had had bad experiences before with other people.

  6. PeterL

    September 17, 2014 at 12:53 am

    Bicyclists and pedestrians get along well on the sidewalks in Tokyo. (British “pavement” is American “sidewalk”)
    And here’s a humorous take on how people react to a bike bell:
    (in reality, it works well – people just step aside without looking and most bicyclists aren’t jerks who ride too fast or force their way through crowded areas)

  7. Mira

    September 17, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    the most dangerous part of my commute is in San Bruno, where there is no bike lanes and the sidewalk is too narrow to safely bike on (between the dips for the cars to turn into and the light/telephone/signage poles I’m just weaving) so I have to resort to biking in the full lane and pissing off drivers (who often speed by scary close to me).

  8. Dongoose

    October 21, 2014 at 10:31 am

    The signs and placards in downtown San Jose that say “Walk Your Bike” further complicate the issue by implying that it’s illegal even though it is not.


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