Survey: Americans Prefer To Bike On The Sidewalk

The Urban Phoenix has begun a series of small “initial” single-question surveys through Google Surveys in an effort to gain and share knowledge with regard to how people perceive our cities today.  Note that the sample size of this study is relatively small (200 respondents), but the the results of this survey are “statistically significant.”

If you want to be an urbanist and get an army of other urbanists to hate you, suggest biking on the sidewalk.  This is a conversation that I’ve dipped my toe in, only to get it nearly ripped off.

Legally, the place for bicycles is in the road with traffic.  Many if not most municipalities allow cycling on the sidewalks, but for the most part the law is very clear, bikes should basically be considered “slow cars” with the rights and responsibilities of that title on the road.  While the law may see bikes this way, drivers, unfortunately, often do not.  This lack of knowledge, respect and appreciation for cycling often has deadly consequences.  For most cyclists, the question is not if they will be hit by a car, it’s when.

Furthermore, our streets and roads have become places designed exclusively for cars, with multiple wide lanes, moving traffic as quickly as possible.  Cyclists are an afterthought in road design, and subsequently an afterthought in the minds of drivers as well.

Commuter cyclists like myself ride in the road in the hopes of promoting equity in our streets… a sort of reminder to drivers that “we’re here, and we have the right to be.”  Still, most of the country is filled with people that just want to ride bikes for comfort, not advocacy.  For the committed cyclist, the mindset of road riding is exercising a right.

I, however, have done a lot of thinking about the average American with a Huffy in their garage. The average American that just wants to ramble at 10mph down the street without the fear hearing of a 3000 pound, 40mph vehicle coming up behind them.

I conducted a single-question, statistically significant survey with respondents from across the United States asking “Where Would You Rather Ride Your Bicycle?” Not surprisingly, 62.5% of respondents preferred to bike on the sidewalk, with just 37.5% of people preferring the road.

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The truly shocking number is that 76% of people ages 25-44 responded that they would rather ride on the sidewalk. In a time of life when people are thinking about raising children, road riding is almost out of the question. We have to be mindful of the negative generational effect that this construct may have on cycling culture if we don’t change the conversation quickly.

While cycling advocates and committed riders are firm in their belief that road riding is the only way, my concern lies in the fact that we have been sending a message which directly conflicts with the national “comfort level” with regard to biking. While trying to promote equity on our roadways, have cycling advocates simply done more damage by “sidewalk-shaming” the casual rider? In other words, has our insistence upon road cycling done more damage to the majority of casual cyclists, who want nothing more than to feel safe on a bike at slow speeds for a weekend stroll?

There’s several schools of thought here. The first is that bike riders on the sidewalk are actually not necessarily safer than they are in the road. A large percentage of cycling accidents occur when a driver makes a left or right turn and t-bones a cyclist crossing a crosswalk. This happens because drivers don’t typically look out for anything faster than a pedestrian on the sidewalk coming up behind their field of view before making a turn. As someone who admittedly rides on the sidewalk on occasion, I have to be extremely aware of potential scenarios like this where cars aren’t looking for a bike crossing in the crosswalk.

Secondly, road cycling advocates will claim that biking on the sidewalk puts pedestrians at risk for injury, or simply creates a feeling of uneasiness as bikes fly by at speeds that are several times the average walking pace. Personally I would counter that the speed, weight and frequency of car traffic far outweighs any risk a cyclist on a 20-30 pound bike at 10-15mph might pose to a pedestrian.

Of course I would never suggest that ALL cyclists belong on the sidewalk, rather that since bikes are a mode of transit that is, for the most part, “stuck in the middle,” perhaps we need to welcome Americans to make whatever choice is comfortable for them. More than that, perhaps campaigns, and even sidewalk signage might be created that actually remind riders that the sidewalk is available for slow and responsible use with all bikes yielding to pedestrians.

Cycling advocates might counter that this is “giving in” to the automobile, and that the important thing is that we continue to create infrastructure that is works to move everyone, not just cars. And they’re correct. But perhaps we can approach the issue a different way, by welcoming cycling everywhere, thus appealing to a myriad of different rider skill and comfort levels. More cyclists means more demand for appropriate bike infrastructure like protected bike lanes.

Obviously the areas that welcome sidewalk riding would be selective… Bikes on the streets on Manhattan is a terrible idea, as it is in most dense urban centers. But many of our less dense urban outskirts that have been constructed around the car have places like these in which pedestrian volume is extremely low and road traffic is very high…

Looking at the images above, I would question how we can continue to ask the casual rider to choose the road over the sidewalk in many places in our communities. These areas abound in and around our cities, where traffic is high and sidewalks are almost completely underutilized.

Once again, as a cycling advocate, I cannot actively push for sidewalk biking exclusively. I would remind everyone, however, that we have a population that wants no part in creating equity on our roadways… they simply want to be welcome to ride their bike comfortably. If these are the folks we have to appeal to in order to strengthen the ranks of cyclists across the country for generations to come, we have to listen to what they want and, at least in part, adapt our message to meet their comfort level. After all, most people in our county don’t want to change the world with their Cannondale, they just want to stroll safely and simply on their Huffy.