23 June 2010

Bikes Belong On Sidewalks

Denver law requires bicycles to ride on streets like cars, rather than allowing them to ride on sidewalks like pedestrians, in most circumstances ("it's OK to ride your bike on a sidewalk in Denver if you are within a block of parking your bike and are traveling 6 mph or less. It's also OK if you are on a street that is part of a designated bike route, such as 20th Street between Coors Field and the Lower Highland neighborhood.") Denver police are enforcing this law at the moment.

Last month, police began a monthly "focused enforcement" day, where four officers on bikes, and a supervisor, hit the streets to cite cyclists for breaking laws. More than 40 bicyclists have received $60 tickets for such offenses as riding on the sidewalk.

The law in this case is an ass. In much of Denver, in places without wide bike lanes, it is unfathomably more dangerous for a bicyclist to ride on the street than it is for a bicyclist to ride on a sidewalk. Both parked cars opening their doors and cars driving by are a constant hazard. In collisions between cars and bicycles, the bicyclist almost always losses.

Many of the people I've known who bike to work regularly, Sam Van Why who works at the College for Financial Planning in the Denver Tech Center, for example, have been hit and seriously injured in the process of biking on the streets. Almost no regular urban bicyclist has never had some sort of mishap trying to bike on city streets.

Even when a bicyclist isn't hit, trying to have bicycles and cars share the road is a traffic hazard. A bicycle almost always goes much slower than the speed limit and holds up traffic if it is not passed. But, normal traffic lanes aren't wide enough to allow a car to pass a bicycle a safe distance away from the bike when there is oncoming traffic, something that is perpetual on busy city streets.

Often the driver of the car either makes a dangerous passing maneuver out of impatience, often risking a head on two car collision, or drives closer to the bicyclist than the driver should, often causing the bicyclist to have collide with something else while avoiding the near miss with the car.

In places that have designated bike paths (like most of Colorado's resort towns), they are precisely like sidewalks. Ideal bicycle lanes look like sidewalks, not roads. Bicyclists and pedestrians likewise manage to co-exist just fine on the very sidewalk like Cherry Creek bike path and Platte River bike path through Denver.

Injuries from bicycle-pedestrian collisions on sidewalks are almost always less serious and in much of the city, sidewalks are empty most of the time.

The better rule is to allow bicyclists to choose. They can follow the rules that apply to pedestrians and keep to sidewalks and crosswalks, or they can follow the rules that apply to cars and drive on the street, and allow them to switch regimes at any time when it can be done without causing a collision or confusion.

If Denver is really committed to multi-modal transportation it needs to focus on building safe places to bike, not on ticketing bicyclists who use sidewalks.


Michael Malak said...

While I don't see the value of ticketing bicyclists, the safety of riding on sidewalks is overrated. The right-of-way with respect to cars at intersections is confusing, and visbility of bicycles to car drivers is poor.

I used to ride 1000 miles per year from 1992-2002, and frequently advocated for bicycle accommodations.

I limit myself to roads signed for 35 MPH or less. And I ride on sidewalks only when there are no intersections -- either "within a block" or on a dedicated trail like Cherry Creek or Platte River. By sticking to low-speed roads, I am able to avoid the intersection dangers posed by sidewalk riding.

I avoid high-speed roads by identifying parallel low-speed roads, even if some additional distance is involved. Parallel routes are plentiful in and near Denver, due to Denver's extensive grid. It's more difficult in the suburbs.

The biggest needs for bicycle infrastructure are bridges over major linear barriers: Interstates, railroads, and rivers. In some cases, bridges exist but they disallow bicycles. For example, when I bicycle to work from Wash Park to the Tech Center, I cross I-225 by way of the pedestrian bridge at the Dayton Light Rail station. It's not permitted without a light rail ticket, but I do it anyway. There are a bevy of such RTD bridges that could be opened up to bicycle use, especially across I-25 for those who live in Littleton and Greenwood Village and work in the Tech Center. It would cost practically nothing to implement -- just a web site where bicyclists could apply for bridge passes.

For city riding, "vehicular cycling" is safest, where the bicycle follows the regular rules of the road. And in the city it's trivially easy to find parallel routes to busy roads. No special accommodations are needed, except for more bicycle bridges across I-25, the Platte River, and the BNSF tracks.

BSR said...

I'll agree with Michael on all his points. I used to commute from Wash Park to the Tech Center also, and found my biggest challenge to be dealing with fast traffic on Evans -- that being the best way to cross I-25 on days when I came from DU.

Andrew, you seem to be coming at this from a view that cycling on bike paths and sidewalks is safer than on streets. No study that I am aware of has proven this.

Bicycle lanes & paths are put in place in the name of bike safety, but many are created at the behest of auto & highway interests who just want bicycles out of the way. They sometimes contribute to poor cycling habits, which don't help cyclists once they get off the trail.

I would urge you to read John Forester's excellent book, "Effective Cycling". He is a planning engineer who is considered the father of the vehicular cycling concept. His research suggests that cyclists who ride on roads with cars make better choices and end up being safer. He has a very informative website at http://www.johnforester.com

I endeavor to bike more than drive most of the time, and have found that if I behave in a more vehicle-like way, motorists generally treat me that way. IMHO, most cyclists who are reluctant to ride in traffic have never learned how.

Bike Denver offers a very good course called Traffic Skills 101. It is sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists. Having commuted by bike for years, I thought I wouldn't learn anything new when I took the course last December. I was wrong -- I learned a lot, and highly recommend it to anyone.