Some might say that this blog is only updated sporadically. Others might think that I’ve run out of things to say. I prefer to think of this blog as a “limited release” or “carefully curated.” No matter, dear reader(s) we have a good topic in front of us today.


If you ride a bike for any length of time with any proximity to motor vehicles in any sort of climate where the drivers of said motor vehicles may have their windows down, you have no doubt been subjected to someone yelling this at you. If this type of motorist was capable of putting together a sentence, they would say, “You should be riding that bicycle on the sidewalk.” The subtext of this is, “I’m driving a car in the street, therefore I am more important than you who ride what is equivalent to a child’s toy and should therefore be riding it on the sidewalk. Get out of MY way.”

Spouse received the “SIDEWALK” yell from someone recently. Here’s how she relayed it in a tweet:

Me (on bike): Were you just honking at me? He: Yeah. Me: Any special reason? He: Sidewalk! [i.e. I should be on it] Me: Check the law [WTF]

I agree with Spouse’s sentiment, so I retweeted to my many followers, one of whom replied to Spouse with this gem:

talked about this w/bikers & drivers alike; they all agree the root of hostility is mostly when bikers DON’T obey traffic laws

Well that’s one way to respond, I guess. A law-abiding cyclist is verbally harassed by a motorist, and this particular tweeter’s response is to say that the source of such hostility is when cyclists break the law.

I disagree.

The source of the hostility is this motorist’s sense of privilege. He’s driving a vehicle that he paid a lot of money for. He has encountered a cyclist in “his” way. Because of this cyclist, he is going to have to 1) pay more attention to piloting his 3,000 pound vehicle. 2) Endure a slight delay in his travel on a 25 mph city street (I’d say as much as 15 seconds).  3) Turn his wheel slightly to the left in order to pass the cyclist. 4) Turn it back to the right to return to his lane. 5) Get really annoyed when he sees the cyclist in his rear view mirror because she caught up to him at the next light.

I know, I know. It’s a tough life driving a car with all of these cyclists around. But maybe this motorist is right, maybe we should be riding our bikes on the sidewalk. I certainly see lots of people doing it, what could be so bad about it? Maybe I’ve just been reading too much propaganda (and state laws) that say that cyclists are entitled to the rights and responsibilities of using the roads of our great little state (and every other state). Maybe I should give up on the streets and take to the sidewalks like so many motorists love to suggest.

So I did just that.

For my commute home last Monday, I resolved to ride only on sidewalks. I started out from Kennedy Plaza, riding on the sidewalk along the south side of Burnside park. It was a lovely day, so there were many people walking along, not really paying much attention. I had to keep it pretty slow. I made my way over to what I call the “RISD Riviera” – that part of the campus that is right next to the Providence River.  I made my way down to Water Street and crossed over to the wide walkway between the street and the water. Some maps designate this as a bike path, but I never ride on it – too many desultory pedestrians. On this afternoon, there was this:

This required me to slow down to about 3 MPH and weave between the barriers and the parking meter where there was just enough room for my shoulders. I headed up to Wickenden, passing many people out on the sidewalks who were just trying to get to a shop or restaurant. I turned up Brook St., a normal part of my commute (aka, the Providence Wiggle, aka the Pwiggle), but I had to make a detour. I just couldn’t allow myself to ride on the sidewalk as I passed my local bike shop – the shame! Instead, I encountered obstacles like these:

Recycling bins, and pedestrians! (I ducked into the street for a second to pass the pedestrians).

I’ll stop boring you with a turn-by-turn account of my commute, let’s just say that it sucked, it was slow, and it was more dangerous than if I had ridden on the street like I always do. How did it suck? While I hate the pothole-encrusted streets of Providence, the sidewalks make for a much rougher riding experience. Expansion joints out of whack, bumps, uneven pavement, and the lack of curb cuts made for a bumpy ride. Why was it slow? I couldn’t get much over 10 MPH with the rough pavement and pedestrians in my way. In fact, I was usually riding about 8 MPH.  How was it less safe? I was constantly crossing driveways where a car could pull into the sidewalk, and I was crossing streets at a place where drivers do not expect to see a cyclist. And oh yeah, it wasn’t particularly safe for the people who were using the  sidewalk to, you know, walk. In fact, I passed 40 pedestrians in my 2.6 mile commute home that day – all of whom I inconvenienced in some way or another.  5 of the pedestrians were children aged 6 or younger. A block away from my home, I saw a mother with two small children walking towards me on the sidewalk. I pulled into a driveway to let them pass and the mother apologized to me as she passed. There was no need for her to apologize – I was the one doing it wrong!

“Well sure,” you may be saying to yourself, “you inconvenienced a few pedestrians, but how many motorists do you slow down when you insist on riding in the street?” I’m glad you asked. I had never really counted before, so the next day, on my way home, I counted the number of cars who passed me. There were 17. However, 5 of them passed me on Waterman Ave where there are two lanes headed in the same direction – the drivers merely had to change lanes in order to pass me. Another 10 passed me on Water Street – also two lanes wide. Of those 10 that passed me on Water Street, 6 of them passed me while I was riding about 23-26 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. That is, they were exceeding the speed limit when they passed me. I caught up to 5 of those cars at the next light. That leaves 2 motorists who passed me on two way streets where there was only one lane in each direction. I delayed each driver by about 5 seconds.

There are some rare occasions where I might consider riding on the sidewalk. In fact, I used to do it on a regular basis (for a very short distance). There are some more suburban areas of the country where it might be occasionally appropriate to ride on the sidewalk. And I can understand how a timid cyclist may feel safer on the sidewalk – but most of the time, you are going to be safer in the street.

So, the next time a motorist tells you to get on the sidewalk, tell them to go drive on the interstate. Or just wave and smile – that might be more productive.

20 responses to “SIDEWALK!

  1. I’m sticking with the wave and smile, no matter how tempted I am to quote state law, because the last time I got cranky, I got threatened and followed by a car for the compound crimes of being on a bike, on the road, and an entitled white hippie who does things like quote state law. (The driver allowed her anger to delay her trip by about four minutes, rather than the ten seconds it would have taken to just pass me.) I concluded from the experience that there is a lot of rage out there, and a lot of people who are ignorant of the rules of the road, and an unfortunate few who feel entitled to express frustration, anger, and even violence towards cyclists.

    That was also, coincidentally, the last time that I rode on the sidewalk – for about four blocks, while being trailed by the car. And, the insanity of the situation aside: the sidewalk sucked. It was uneven, I couldn’t cross side streets safely, and there were parked cars/ bins/ etc everywhere. Urg.

    • Yuck! Sorry I brought the memory back to you – my heart is racing with rage just imagining the incident you went through.

      Yeah, it’s all smiles and waves from me these days (despite my daydreams of U-lock revenge, I will pursue them only in my imagination). My favorite place to smile and wave is when I catch up to an a-hole motorist at the next light and they can see me in their rear-view mirror. I should probably stop doing that.

      • I am much meeker as a result. Which is probably good for my karma… though I do feel a particular private triumph when I keep pace with the bus for ten+ blocks. I might be slow, but I’m steady. And all it’s costing me are calories.

        But it did something good – I realized that I everything I know about biking on the road, I learned from observation, and that I don’t bike as defensively and visibly as I could. I found a (free!) two-day workshop on city cycling, and I’m actually pretty psyched… I hope there’s a certificate.

  2. actually, i think cyclist endanger pedestrians when we ride on the sidewalk. And, i have been yelled at by pedestrians for riding in the sidewalk, and they’re right! – they deserve unthreatened access to the sidewalk. I’m not arguing with James’s larger points – I agree with him. But it’s a complex problem. About obeying traffic laws – sometimes I try to just get out of the way – the laws are not designed for cyclists, but some cyclist do seem to feel entitled and adrenaline driven. I recall being yelled at for being in ‘the middle of the street’ when I was waiting my turn in stalled traffic to make a left (i was trying to be polite – that is).

    I also could go on, and it seems I will, about the inadequacy of sidewalks in many locales. I live in a part of Barrington where you risk your life ( or at least play a serious game of chicken with motor vehicles) *walking* to the local bus stop for lack of sidewalks.

    I used the sidewalks on Pawtucket Ave. in East Providence while the eastbay bike path was closed this winter – it sucked and i had to be careful of the, relatively few, pedestrians. But riding in the street was too dangerous and that was the right decision as long as i was careful.

    Now, in Barrington, on Pawtucket Ave and even in Providence, I have to say that the vast majority of drivers are very considerate but the infrastructure is often horrible (I am truly impressed with *most* drivers given the conditions). In Providence (and I ride there a lot too and not just on the east side) the situation can be more intense and there are some drivers, not just in Providence, who are hostile. I think its part of the town vs. gown thing that goes on Providence.

    Mean people suck – sometimes they’re in cars and sometimes even on bikes (have you ever watched a jock-ed out cyclist scold a family for being in his/her way on the bike-path on the weekend – not pretty). Public infrastructure is a separate issue. And, in this response that is way too long (sorry). I just want to acknowledge the many considerate drivers out there – in the great words of Rodney King “why can’t we all get along”. I sometimes drive a car too.

    I haven’t been killed yet – been biking to work, more or less, since 1985 in Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, Providence, Princeton NJ….hoping for the best.


    • Jim – you’re absolutely right! I was trying to convey that I was endangering the pedestrians by riding on the sidewalk. I was surprised that I passed so many of them in such a short ride. I think I need to write a brief follow-up post about this topic.

      The closure of the East Bay Bike Path was really atrocious. I think you were right to ride on the sidewalk in this case – it is one of the exceptions. I’ll be visiting my family in suburban Olathe, KS soon, and if I borrow a bike, I’m sure I’ll ride on the sidewalk occasionally. It’s one of those places where so few people walk on the sidewalks that it is sometimes the better place to ride.

      It’s ridiculous that there are residential neighborhoods in Barrington that don’t have sidewalks, thus forcing you to walk in the streets.

      I haven’t seen a jocked-out cyclist scold a slow family on the path, but I have seen them blow by little kids at 22-25 MPH. Really, if those jocked-out guys are so hardcore, they should be riding on the hills, not mixing it up with people out for a relaxing ride. My personal speed limit for passing a young person on the bike path is 12 MPH – and that’s only if I’ve warned them I’m passing and they’ve acknowledged that they saw me. Otherwise, I’m more like 8 MPH.

      I also agree with you that the vast majority of drivers treat me with plenty of respect. In general, I don’t let the mean people get me down (part of the reason I update this blog so infrequently!)

  3. I have never yelled at a cyclist (so that they could hear me) – and the only times I have ever raised my voice (with windows up so only I could hear) is when cyclists do something completely unpredictable as a consequence of blatantly disregarding traffic laws. Basic ones – like stop when you get to a stop sign so I don’t have to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting you (coincidentally, this happened today…). I’m not saying this is the root of every drivers’ cyclist directed angst, but it’s the one and only reason I get ticked off. I am more than happy to share the road, but please, for the love of god, SHARE THE RULES. Ok, rant over. :).

    • Allison – I definitely agree with you. I often mutter to myself something along the lines of “Dude, what the hell are you doing.” Salmon cyclists particularly bother me. I just have to remind myself that when I see someone doing something stupid on the road, it is not a “teachable moment” because they are not ready to be a “student” to the wisdom I would like to impart on their ass!

      (Hat-tip to Steve A of DFW Point-to-Point on the “teachable moment” concept)

      But that’s not what this particular post is about.

      • I don’t support sidewalk riding, for what it’s worth. I *want* the cyclists to share the road, just share the damn rules too. Everyone is safest that way. Trouble is, the next non-“teachable moment” might get that cyclist killed…

  4. For some reason, some, whether driving SUVs or riding bikes, seem to forget that the one overtaking must take due care to protect the superior rights of the one being overtaken. Which is a major reason why sidewalk riding is a poor practice, even if the rider faced no danger due to being where motorists do not expect people to be coming. OTOH, WALK your bike and sidewalks are fine – but then the bike is merely decorative.

    Which is why I wave and smile -and don’t understand “get off the road” – and ride on the road. At least on my better days…

    • I hear ya on that one. I should have ended this post with this:

      If a driver tells you to get on the Sidewalk, smile, wave and say “Sidewalks are for walking.”

  5. If you insist on riding your bike in the road, then you are forcing drivers to divert their attention from their very important phone calls to pilot their vehicles around you. How can you be so rude?

  6. Cool case study.

    Not surprising to hear that a driver doesn’t know basic rules of the road. Sadly, an expectation that a bicycle should be a on a sidewalk is far less egregious than most of the offenses I see on the roads every day.

    Today’s driving standard is nothing short of shocking. Ignorance and obliviousness on the part of motor vehicle operators have conspired to make the road a dangerous place to be, period. You can be 100% in the right and still wind up in a heap on the side of the road when Ms. cigarette in one hand, cell phone in another mows you down. Ride at your own risk in that environment. It’s bad enough that I choose not to now.

    I will add, there is a cyclist equivalent to the bozo behind the wheel. The Lance Armstrongs who feel the need to ride 2 wide down the middle of a lane on a winding road, or teenagers on child-sized stunt bikes riding on the shoulder against traffic, you put everyone in danger by ignoring elementary school level road safety.

  7. The expectation to bike on the sidewalk is a huge pet peeve, and is definitely a Rhode Island thing. I’m from Burlington, VT, where adult cyclists are prohibited from using the sidewalks. I’ve biked a lot of other cities in a lot of other states and countries, and the sidewalk thing just doesn’t seem to come up. I simply refuse to get on Providence’s sidewalk (unless safety is an immediate issue, or I need to travel a one-way street in the opposite direction), and I certainly feel justified in taking my allotted road space when biking across Providence every day. On multi-lane streets, I now prefer to ride in the middle of the right-most lane — as drivers are far more likely to see me there and have to just deal with it, but also have the option to pass on my left. On regular two-way streets, I stay as far right as possible, but not at the risk of being doored, hitting potholes, etc. I generally ride at the speed of city traffic, I signal, and I (largely) obey the lights and signs. I am observant and vigilant, and I am courteous if someone does want to pass — but my safety always comes first. If I displease a few drivers, so be it.

    That said, in the 2 & 1/2 years I’ve lived in Providence, I’ve had several unpleasant and dangerous confrontations by intentionally hostile drivers, even when I’m completely within my rights. And (upon reporting my first issue, which resulted in an accident) the PVD police helpfully told me “Maybe you shouldn’t be biking in the city.” … We all know it’s a matter of education. I don’t have a Rhode Island license, but can someone tell me if questions about cyclists’ rights-of-way are asked on the driving test? (I know the topic is lightly covered in the RI driving manual. I’ve read it.) I’ve had New York and Vermont licenses, and both tests included these questions. (Pedestrian and equestrian as well.) … I’m pleasantly surprised when a driver IS overtly courteous in Providence, (it does sometimes happen), and figure they’re not from around here.

    Bike lanes, sharrows, and stop-boxes (or ASLs) would help tremendously, particularly on the shoulderless bridges across I-95. Anything to visually reinforce our legitimate right to be on the road.

    My larger grievance recently has been other cyclists in the city. Just this morning, while biking across PVD to work, I scolded some dipsh!t biking the wrong way down the middle of a one-way streets adjacent to Kennedy Plaza. In rush-hour traffic! I don’t know how we reach and educate this population, because any idiot can ride a bike — but they do the rest of us an enormous disservice. (I normally don’t shout, but was feeling tetchy this morning.)

    An unrelated story, but check out this amazing cycling mama in Portland — an inspiration!

    • Yep, other cyclists often suck. That’s not the point of this particular post, but I do address it every once in a while. I encountered a salmoning cyclist on South Main this morning. As I swerved to avoid him, I gave him a “dude, what the hell?!”

  8. As a pedestrian myself I’m sometimes tempted to tell the bicycle riders to get off the sidewalk!

    • Yep, tempting indeed. When I’m walking, I’m usually with Spouse, and I know she doesn’t like me to get all pedantic with people, so I just quietly seethe.

  9. Such a timely post for me as I’m now living in Phoenix where streets seemed to be designed for speeding cars. From what I am told, the city is making progress (slow) at becoming more bike friendly, with the installation (slowly) of bike lanes but pedaling on the sidewalk is par for the course here. I hate doing it but it seems the notion of a driver’s god-given right to travel everywhere at maximum speed is the rule in the American Southwest. Safety be damned. I’m making gains at learning how I can get to my usual destinations via side streets in an effort to spend as little time as possible on the sidewalk. I will give it to pedestrians, though. They are so thoughtful and gracious about sharing their space with me.

  10. Today, I actually got yelled at for riding on the sidewalk. A man didn’t want to stop at a stop sign and apparently was really inconvenienced when I continued across the road in front of him. “Don’t you know you aren’t allowed to ride on the sidewalk.” He screamed out his window. (Mind you this was after he an I had traveled down the road a ways and he was waiting at a stop light and I for my pedestrian signal. “Sir you are wrong in the city of Olathe, it is recommended I ride on the sidewalk.” He continued to tell me I was wrong and if, “I got hit it would be my own fault.” Seriously, I think no matter what you do, we live in a Bike Haters America. I shared many of the beliefs that are now being shouted out windows at me, but your perspective changes when you are the one riding. That man had probably not recently tried to ride a bike or he would understand that he expends a lot less energy than I do trying to move. 45MPH for me is too fast to share a roadway, unless there is a bike lane.

    • My sister lives in Olathe (I grew up in Overland Park). It is definitely a different riding experience. I’ve only done a little bit of cycling there as an adult – I wrote a blog post about it a few years ago that you can find right here. I can only imagine what it would be like to ride in Olathe on a regular basis, I can see how it would be difficult to decide whether to ride on the sidewalk or the street. In general, I say that the street is better in most cases, but those 45 MPH roads (where most cars are driving more like 50) could be quite scary. When one rides on the sidewalk, one has to be aware of a different set of dangers because the traffic interactions are different. It seems that no matter where you ride in Olathe, motorists aren’t really ready to deal with you.

      And any jerk who would say “If you get hit it will be your own fault,” is really just saying “I don’t want to have to think about anyone else except myself.”

      Thanks for commenting – it’s exciting to hear from a Kansan!

  11. The roughness of the sidewalks here does make a compelling argument. I don’t know, though. I don’t go out of my way to ride on the road or the sidewalk, I just ride wherever I feel the most comfortable. That can and does change on a minute-by-minute basis depending on cars (in motion or parked), pedestrians, width of road, width of sidewalk and overall weather conditions.

    Note also that I am fat, lazy and don’t really enjoy cycling at all…I use it as a means to get home and get a modicum of exercise. Anything that makes my ride seem “easier” is automatically the preferred method.

    FWIW, I started riding primarily in college at Boston University, which primarily lies along Commonwealth Avenue. Riding a bike on Comm Ave in the late 90’s was instant death if you rode in the street; there was no bike lane, there were too many car lanes (so each was narrow) and the odds of getting doored at some point on every ride were at least 70%. Meanwhile, the sidewalks on Comm Ave were extra-wide and had many good shortcuts around/behind buildings. There weren’t all that many cross-streets, and the intersections were manageable. And this was before everyone had their nose buried in an iPhone whilst walking about, too. So it definitely cemented a pattern in my head.

    True story: at one point in the summer of 1997 I was riding to my job in Harvard Square, and a Cambridge cop on foot patrol yelled at me for riding on the sidewalk along Brattle St. I yelled back that I’d do it when he got off his ass and made the streets safe to ride on. I think he was going to chase me except right then a car driving past slammed on the brakes and laid on the horn as he narrowly avoided hitting another cyclist who was in the street. Sometimes karma does work in your favor.

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