Cycling on Sidewalks in NJ: Dangers and safety precautions.

This is the first of two blog posts about cycling on sidewalks in New Jersey. This article focuses on a) the dangers of riding on sidewalks; b) when it may be appropriate to ride on sidewalks; and c) precautions cyclists should take while riding on sidewalks. The next article will focus on laws surrounding cycling on sidewalks in New Jersey.

 The Dangers of Cycling on Sidewalks

Despite the prevalence of cyclists on sidewalks and the common perception that they belong there, researchers have well documented the dangers of cycling on sidewalks. In their 1994 paper, Wachtel and Lewiston found that cycling on sidewalks increases accident risks by 180%, while cycling the wrong way on sidewalks increases risks by 430%.[i]These increased risks are due to several factors:
  1. Pedestrians: Pedestrians are not as predictable as cars. They may stop, move to the side, or change direction without warning, increasing the likelihood of a collision with a cyclist.
  2. Obstacles: In a 1997 study of emergency room visits for cyclists, 70% of injuries were found to not involve a motor vehicle.[ii] Potential dangers such as uneven surfaces, narrow widths and physical obstacles including lampposts, benches, and trashcans are all more common on sidewalks than on streets.
  3. Driveways: Motorists pulling onto roadways are not necessarily looking for, or expecting, cyclists. After scanning for pedestrians, a motorist may pull out as a cyclist approaches, leaving little time to react. The danger is greater for cyclists riding against traffic, as motorists are not looking in their direction.
  4. Intersections: Motorists turning at intersections primarily look for vehicles traveling with traffic and slow moving pedestrians. Turning vehicles may not be looking for cyclists on the sidewalk, especially if they are travelling against traffic.

Bicycling on sidewalks

Are there times when it is advisable to bike on the sidewalk?

There are scenarios where cycling on the sidewalk may be safer and more convenient for cyclists, preferable for motorists and non-disruptive for pedestrians. Here are a few:

  1. High-speed roadways with low bicycle level of service: On a high speed road, staying to the far right of the travel lane increases the likelihood that vehicular traffic will attempt to squeeze past whether or not sufficient room exists. “Taking the lane” discourages this, but may surprise motorists approaching at high speeds, especially around curves. Cycling on such roads should be avoided, with sidewalks, where present, being a safer alternative.
  2. Safe sidewalks: Low pedestrian volume, increased visibility of approaching pedestrians, businesses and homes set further back from the street, and wider, better maintained sidewalks are among the factors that can decrease the likelihood that conflicts between cyclists and vehicles or pedestrians will occur.
  3. Roadways with blind corners: Motorists on curvy roads may approach cyclists from behind at unsafe speeds. Where roads are curvy and visibility is low, sidewalks, where present, are a safer alternative.
  4. Traveling uphill: Moving uphill, cyclists tend to travel at significantly slower speeds. This increases the difference in speed between motorists and cyclists causing increased danger to cyclists and disruption to motorists. On steep uphill routes, sidewalks are a safer alternative.
  5. Young and inexperienced: Children and inexperienced cyclists often lack the skills and abilities to safely share the road with motorists and, therefore, should travel on the sidewalk.

The decision to ride on the sidewalk is a combination of the conditions of the particular road and sidewalk. Where road danger exists and sidewalk conditions permit, the sidewalk may be the best option for safe cycling.

Cycling safely on sidewalks

When on the sidewalk, cyclists should abide by the following rules.

  1. Bike Slowly! This is the most important rule. Even if the sidewalk looks clear, pedestrians can quickly and suddenly appear on the sidewalk. Cyclists should be prepared to make a sudden stop at any moment.
  2. Yield to Pedestrians! Pedestrians have the right of way on the sidewalk and cyclists must respect this. When passing pedestrians, politely notify them and wait until they are aware of your presence before slowly passing. If there are many pedestrians on the sidewalk and your ability to cycle safely is restricted, you probably shouldn’t be on the sidewalk.
  3. Check every crosswalk and driveway! Motorists are not expecting cyclists to be on sidewalks.  Assume that cars in driveways will pull all the way to the street. Assume that cars at intersections will turn onto the street you are crossing. Slow down or stop, and make sure they acknowledge your presence before crossing any driveway or intersection.
  4. Walk your bike if needed! If you have determined that the road is unsafe, but the sidewalks are highly congested you should walk your bike rather than risking injury to yourself and those around you.
  5. Do not randomly enter the street! When crossing the street, follow the same protocol as pedestrians, looking both ways and using crosswalks. When leaving the sidewalk to re-enter street traffic, wait for a safe opening.