Cycling on the sidewalk is dangerous to cyclists

The cyclist, a middle-aged woman, approached quickly. Her expression alternated between fear and anger as she desperately tried to stop her bike or else she would slam into the side of the pick up truck I was riding in.

I’m sure she would disagree but the potential accident was her fault. She was riding on the sidewalk–and against traffic. The pick up had stopped at a light and seeing no pedestrians about to enter the intersection, the driver edged it forward to see if it was safe to make a right hand turn. As he looked and waited for it to be safe to turn, the cyclist approached. Thankfully she was able to stop.

But I can’t blame the driver since he did what he was supposed to do. And like the vast majority of drivers, he was not looking for cyclists further down the block. But they shouldn’t have to. Cyclists on the sidewalk move much quicker than the type of traffic that drivers associate with in that type of situation. The result is that cycling on the sidewalk is dangerous for the cyclist–the person who put themselves in that situation. And even more dangerous when they are on the sidewalk that goes against the traffic. Going in the same direction as vehicles would be an improvement though still unacceptable.

The tweet that hit a nerve

The next day I was walking along the sidewalk when before I knew it a cyclist was on top of me and passed me. I was surprised because next to no warning that they were coming even though he wasn’t moving that quickly. So I shouted to him to use the road.

The incident though still uncommon seems to be increasingly common over the last several years so I pulled out my Blackberry to tweet that there should be a crackdown on adult cyclists on the sidewalk. I expected it to be one of those tweets that disappears into the Twitterverse but apparently I touched a nerve since it soon developed a life of its own.

Surprised that cyclists defended the practice

What surprised me the most were the cyclists who ride on the sidewalk who were upset that I didn’t want them to. Some were even indignant about my position and that I stuck to it despite their concerns about their safety. At the same time, I couldn’t understand that they felt they had a right to ride on the sidewalk even if it was unsafe for pedestrians like myself and other people commonly found on sidewalks like my young children.

Cyclists can keep pedestrians safe with or without changes to infrastructure

To a large extent, I can understand their concerns about biking on the road. There have been times when I’ve been riding my bike on the road when I had my own safety concerns. Some responses to my tweet had complaints about drivers in the bike lanes–which is obviously unacceptable. Others wanted changes to our biking infrastructure that would make them feel safe enough that they didn’t need to be on the sidewalk. What I find interesting about those comments is that these people ultimately agree with me that bikes don’t belong on sidewalks because it’s not a use they were intended to have nor one that has been encouraged or taught.

I am deliberately avoiding the issues about biking infrastructure changes that could make cyclists feel safer since that is not what I  am addressing here.

You can choose safe roads to ride on

When it comes right down to it, whether changes are made or not. It is possible to feel safe cycling without using the sidewalks. The roads that make cyclists most concerned are major streets like Weber or King. They like them for the same reason that cars do because they are fast and direct. But they are not the only choices. I recommend that cyclists concerned about their safety on the road plan a route that avoids as much as possible the roads where they have concerns about their safety.

Follow the law–or risk being a hypocrite

Adult cyclists (with the exception of beginners) do not belong on the sidewalk. The Ontario Highway Traffic Act defines the bicycle as a vehicle that belongs on the road. It says so in part because it keeps pedestrians safe–all pedestrians because they get taken by surprise from behind. Some pedestrians present special concerns. Young children like mine can be unpredictable and tough for even the most aware cyclist to be confident they won’t hit and seriously injure. Or the elderly who move slower and can’t react quickly.

Cyclists who use the sidewalk say that they do so because they are afraid of their safety. But doing so puts others at risk and creates legitimate fears by those who are the sidewalks were built to be used by. Where are pedestrians supposed to go to be safe from the bikes if the bikes are on the sidewalk to get away from the cars?

If you’re an adult cyclist, please be considerate of the proper use of sidewalks. Anything less is being hypocritical because you expect drivers to respect the rules of the road.

27 thoughts on “Adult cyclists don’t belong on the sidewalk

  1. Last year I started cycling from north of Waterloo to downtown Kitchener, and picked the shortest route to do so: From Conestoga Mall south along King St, then left on Weber and all the way to downtown Kitchener.

    I’m an experienced cyclist, but the last few years I haven’t cycled in an urban environment, instead spending time on long country road trips. Car traffic moves faster there, but it’s much less frequent, and the lanes tend to be wider so there’s more room for the cars to pass cyclists.

    It took only two or three trips of white-knuckle riding along King and Weber to decide that there must be a better way; Now I start at the St. Jacobs farmers market, follow Weber to Glen Forest, then follow the Laurel Trail and the Iron Horse trail to Kitchener. It adds some 5km to my trip, but the ride is much more pleasant, and far less exhausting than death-gripping the handlebars.

    My trip is shared pathway with pedestrians, or (mostly) marked bike lanes on the road. We do need better cycling infrastructure. Having some curb-delimited bike lanes will not only keep both cyclists and pedestrians safer, but the very visible indicators that bicycle traffic exists will help educate drivers too.


    1. Thanks Bob for confirming that it is possible to find safe routes if the cyclist chooses to do so. Of course, it’s helpful the easier the choices are to make.

    2. And sometimes it isn’t possible to find routes! Waterloo is lacking a bike route from east to west. Getting to the University from the Eastbridge area is very dangerous with only 3 very busy crossings (all with no bike lanes) over the Conestoga Parkway and (Northfield Drive, King St., Lexington) Sidewalk and possible fine? Oh well.

  2. I’ve been a road cyclist since I was 5. Commuted to other cities by bike, and raced for several years. Imagine my horror as I nearly took out a cyclist who was barreling down Westmount Road, the narrower treed part, where it’s harder to spot moving objects on the side walk. I did see him several blocks earlier, but as I was making a left turn, he came almost out of nowhere, speeding downhill, not watching the intersection.

    This was a “confident” cyclist, not someone without great balance or lack of handling skills.

    Usually, my experience with side walk cyclists involves them weaving in and out of pedestrians, forcing them to jump aside, to avoid being clubbed in the shins by a pedal, or just run over. Often, the cyclist has bags dangling, from the handle bars, causing imbalance, or the bags get caught in the wheels, and disaster ensues.

    People need to get around the best way they can. People also need to be courteous of others (this includes “road cyclists”). Often, the problems with cyclists on sidewalks occur on downtown sidewalks, where there are numerous pedestrians, and they should be walking, not trying to weave in and out, causing dangerous situations for all.

    Yes, there are times when I briefly use the sidewalk, but not as a preference. In these instances, I’m aware of the danger to myself if crossing driveways, and to others who may be walking, and take extreme caution, and extend the right of way to those who really belong on the sidewalk.

  3. “Where are pedestrians supposed to go to be safe from the bikes if the bikes are on the sidewalk to get away from the cars?”

    I’m having a difficult time parsing this without sharing what seems to be the assumption that pedestrians and motorists are more important than cyclists.

    “I recommend that cyclists concerned about their safety on the road plan a route that avoids as much as possible the roads where they have concerns about their safety.”

    What a ridiculous thing to suggest in a city that very often has few alternatives to the direct arterials. When cycling for transportation, distance matters greatly. Moreover, there are very few truly low-speed streets in this city on which it is and feels safe to share the road.

    Just last September, a cyclist was killed while riding in the bike lane on University Avenue. Please have a little respect for those who may not find it in them to ride “where they belong” after something like that.

    And just for some context: ultimately, if a person can’t make their trip on a bicycle, they are likely to make it on a car instead — and pose a greater danger to people on foot.

    1. I’m sorry we don’t agree on this one Michael.

      I don’t place pedestrians and cars above cyclists. They all have a right to be safe in their space. My point in that sentence is that cyclists don’t have a right to take away a safe place from pedestrians.

      Alternatives do exist. And some streets are definitely safer than others. If you want to cycle and feel safe, plan a route with that objective in mind. If you want the fastest route. don’t rob pedestrians of their space at the same time.

      I regret the loss of life you mention. In that case, the driver was clearly in the wrong. But two or more wrongs, do not make cyclists right to take over the sidewalks. I also do not want to see a cyclist be in an accident with a vehicle because of being on the sidewalk or that a pedestrian–perhaps one of my kids is seriously injured or killed after being hit by a cyclist.

      As your are a public transit advocate, I’m surprised that you would suggest that a car is the alternative to cycling. It’s not the only or best alternative. I could walk, take the bus or ride my bike to work. Walking is the slowest but the one that I prefer.

      Ultimately, my objective here is to suggest how we can ensure that streets are walkable. The trend towards cycling on sidewalks works against what is important to creating safe, vibrant neighbourhoods. Respecting the rights of others is an important ingredient in achieving this objective, it’s what cyclists want and it’s what pedestrians also deserve.

      1. I don’t think Michael is encouraging the use of a car as an alternative to biking, he is making the observation that people will take a car if biking is seen as too dangerous.

        It does seem as if cyclists are third-class citizens. Pedestrians have sidewalks, cars have roads, but there are few dedicated bike paths. Yes, bikes have every right to use the roadway too, but it’s clear from the comments here that this is not always in the best interest of the cyclist. And bike lanes are getting better too, but we need more, as well as bike lanes that are physically separated from the roadway.

        One of the dangers of biking on the Laurel Trail and the Iron Horse trail is that the pathway is shared by cyclists and pedestrians. Dangerous for the pedestrians, that is. I haven’t had any incidents yet, since most pedestrians are well aware of cyclists (Thank you, pedestrians!). I’ve got a bell, and will occasionally shout “Passing to your left!” if the pedestrians seem confused about which way to move.

        The Iron Horse Trail is not an ideal arterial bike path — there are too many road crossings that require dismounting. A single-purpose North/South bike lane along King with curbs to keep out cars and pedestrians would be wonderful!


        1. Thanks again Bob! I know Michael wasn’t encouraging use of the car but he did make the leap in logic that it was the natural alternative which is what I disputed. I also don’t agree that more car drivers would mean a greater threat to pedestrians.

          I’ll leave it to others to determine what our biking infrastructure should be. I’m just making the point here that the sidewalks should not normally be a part of that infrastructure.

  4. I used to cycle to work in Hamilton, which has done a relatively excellent job of being cyclable; at least in the area near the university. I did four blocks of the 15km trip on the sidewalk in deference to not being hit by a car on Main St. (I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had two close calls, being brushed by truck mirrors), and the rest on multiple use trails or wide streets. As Pam above, on the sidewalk I was very conscious that I was not in “my” space. Overall I agree with you, James. Experienced adult cyclists don’t belong on sidewalks. I do think that there are times when it’s an acceptable alternative to a decent bike lane, but only if the cyclist is hyper-aware of those around him/her, and aware that everyone, including pedestrians and cars, has the right of way over them when on a sidewalk.

    Cyclists on the sidewalk are not just a hazard to others, but definitely to themselves. Just before your tweet I almost hit someone I didn’t see coming on the sidewalk (he didn’t defer to the stop sign, either, just barrelled through as though he were walking) and he gave me a look as though I was in the wrong. I consider myself to be someone in full sympathy with cyclists, but I was not impressed. I could have hit him if I hadn’t seen him coming at speed out of the corner of my eye; and I didn’t expect to see him on the sidewalk at all. I would have been devastated if I’d hit him.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences Kiirstin. You help to reinforce that keeping cycling to roads and paths is not only reasonable.
      I agree that there may be times when it’s in a cyclist’s best interest to use the sidewalk but hopefully it’s the exception and done carefully.

  5. I entirely agree, and would also go on to admonish my fellow cyclists to get and use a bell or horn when on a sidewalk or multi-use path. It’s the law. Srsly.

    It won’t do a whole lot of good, though. The people who need to hear the message aren’t listening. I’ve been hearing all sorts of things about what cyclists ought to do to be better cyclists or what drivers need to do to be better drivers, but judging by what goes on on the roads, very little of it seems to sink in.

    Sidewalk cycling is a venial sin. (Mind you, sidewalk cycling against traffic and blowing through intersections is a mortal sin. Mortal as in you’re gonna die if you keep doing it). It shouldn’t be happening, but I can tolerate it in deference to the cyclist’s *sense* of personal safety (and if it comes out in conversation, I will point out that that’s an illusion).

    As for what to actually do, I’m not sure. I think you’re right to point out that alternate routes are available. I’ve taken to pointing people to Google Maps’ cycling directions, which are pretty fantastic.

  6. Right off the batt since i’m a cycling blogger this post pisses me off 🙂
    Especially when it’s found on a blog who’s identity is defined by automobile routes.

    We’re sharpening our pencils at, this should be fun.

    For starters, I’m a pretty confident urban cyclist and don’t shy away for the busiest of intersections, but from time to time I do cycle on sidewalks and mostly it’s for convenience.

    Here’s the route I do everyday, most of it is shared with pedestrians but you’d be hard pressed to label these sidewalks. –

    Here’s a map of waterloo cycle routes off the beaten path –,-80.38132&spn=0.165788,0.348459&source=embed

    Here’s an article from Billy Bean at the Record on the subject from a cyclist perspective –

    You’ll hear more from us towards the end of the day,

    1. If you like, think of my blog as Perspectives from the eastern end of the Iron Horse trail.
      Thanks for contributing to the discussion here.
      As I’ve indicated, I’m open to exceptions. What I’m saying is that I don’t think it should be the norm.
      A final note, I’m shocked that Bill Bean recommends against warning pedestrians when approaching from behind.

  7. Thanks for the idealogical rant. I found it quite amusing. Normally, on we refrain from admonishing all motorists when one breaks the rules or acts discourteously, but this is your blog.

    No doubt that sidewalk riding is a different beast than road riding. As a cyclist, ride on the sidewalks as if you are a guest in someone else’s house. By that I mean, slow down. It’s 100% true that cars are not looking for 30kph traffic in the sidewalk. Travel no faster than a brisk running pace and you will have to look both ways before crossing the intersection.

    That reminds me, I’ve passed lots of people and startled them while running, should I run on the road for fear of making someone uncomfortable?

    Sometimes it’s not a safety issue, but an issue of infrastructure discontinuity. In my case a bike path dumps me on the wrong side of a major road with no crossings close by. What to do?

    In short, riding like a vehicle on the sidewalk is a no-no. If you ride like a pedestrian, then you should be OK no matter what pedantic pedestrians have to say.

    1. If it was just one or two cyclists I wouldn’t have written the post. But as I indicated, I’ve noticed a trend and have many folks agree. If sidewalk cyclists behaved like you suggest, I might not be concerned but I am. I just saw another one who had no reason to be on the sidewalk except that he chose not to wear a helmet.

      1. Now now, James. Choosing not to wear a helmet doesn’t mean someone will be on a sidewalk.

        Your irritation cannot be stated in such pithy terms. I dislike cyclists on downtown sidewalks, or those who don’t respect that they are on a pedestrian concourse. However, as someone pointed out up there: cycling on a sidewalk is like being a guest in someone else’s house. I just with being on the road where the opposite.

        I think the irritation mostly occurs when there is a lack of respect, and isn’t that really the point here?

        1. I tweeted this morning before I saw this comment that both cyclists and pedestrians deserve respect. For pedestrians that means respecting that sidewalks are meant for them and bicycles normally belong on the road or trails–and if they need to be on a sidewalk that they treat pedestrians with respect. Cyclists should expect respect in their spaces.

          As I have pointed out, there are important safety issues too that support my position that cyclists don’t belong on sidewalks.

  8. I ride my bike back and forth to work. I wear a helmet, have a bell, obey all traffic lights and stop signs and I ride on the sidewalk for a portion of my ride, why? Because it is the only safe option I have for that stretch of road. It is a very busy road that requires me to cross two entry and exit ramps on to the expressway. There aren’t any bike lanes and frankly, the cars are all driving much faster than the speed limit. While on the sidewalk, I slow down and make sure that any pedestrian makes eye contact me with so we can both avoid each other. To date, I have never had a problem.

    I can appreciate that not all bike riders are the same and there are a few that, I agree, are reckless and don’t appear to be aware of how their actions might affect those that are also sharing sidewalks with them but don’t paint us all with the same brush. We all have to right to get to our destination the safest way possible.

    1. When did I say I don’t support cyclists? I support and respect cyclists. I just want them to stay off the sidewalks. And there’s been no backpedalling. I realize there may be a need for exceptions–but they are exceptions and as short as possible.

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