Friday, May 13, 2016

Twitter Q and A shows Double-Bind in Enforcement and Engineering

Scorching is still a problem sometimes,
but biking on the sidewalk per se is not illegal today.
(May 3rd, 1903)
Yesterday the Salem Police held a Q&A on twitter. Mostly these things are a nice, low-pressure environment in which to educate and be educated.

But as we think about "Traffic Safety Week," and "Bike Month" it's important that we're on the same page.

One of the answers yesterday didn't quite look right. There might not be enough information to make a definitive right-or-wrong ruling, but at the very least it is an over-simplification that in some instances could be misleading.

They asked:
True of false: You can ride your bike on the sidewalk even if a bike lane is available.
And said:
FALSE, you must use the bike lane when available.
I believe this is at least partially wrong.

While Oregon does have a mandatory sidepath law that requires you use the bike lane when you are on the street, there is no such requirement if you are on the sidewalk.

The Oregon Bicyclists Manual published by ODOT and the DMV frames it up this way, saying that riding on the sidewalk is "not recommended." "Not recommended" is very different from illegal!

In general, you shouldn’t ride a bicycle on sidewalks. Many crashes between bikes and cars occur on sidewalks, especially when bicyclists ride against the flow of car traffic. If you do ride on a sidewalk, try to ride in the same direction as traffic next to you...
There are many instances on wide busy roads with bike lanes like Commercial, Lancaster, or Wallace when it might actually be necessary to ride on the sidewalk. Sidewalk riding is too often necessary after you have crossed to the other side of the road using in a crosswalk and then need to maneuver further to reach your destination, or in order to reach a signalized crosswalk in the first place. Stroads seemingly require it at times. One-way streets also sometimes require a length of sidewalk biking. And children regularly bike on the sidewalk when no parent would ever say "use the bike lane."

Would you send your child to Wallace Park
using the bike lane or the sidewalk?
Note two people on bike in the crosswalk!
(Looking down Glen Creek towards Wallace Park)
The DMV guides aren't the law, of course, so here's the language from the relevant statute (ORS 814.420):
a person commits the offense of failure to use a bicycle lane or path if the person operates a bicycle on any portion of a roadway that is not a bicycle lane or bicycle path when a bicycle lane or bicycle path is adjacent to or near the roadway.
Here's the definition of "roadway," and note that since the sidewalk is not ordinarily used for vehicular travel, as I read this the sidewalk is not considered a formal part of the roadway:
"Roadway" means the portion of a highway that is improved, designed or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the shoulder.
In his legal guide on bicycling and the law, Pedal Power, attorney Ray Thomas says:
if you ride your bicycle on the sidewalk – and that is your right anywhere in the state where doing so is not prohibited by ordinance – you need to know and obey the laws... (p.119)
It is not interesting or important to try to "litigate" this here, and it may not be possible to say with 100% certainty that the answer by the Salem Police is wrong, but even with the constraints of twitter it's still probably not the "best answer." There are many situations in which it is reasonable to bike on the sidewalk even when a bike lane is adjacent and available. The sidepath requirement is primarily to keep people biking from slowing auto traffic, not to get people biking out of the way of people on foot.

Kids on Center Street at Cottage violating the law
But where should they be instead?
Now in downtown it happens there is a local ordinance and "pedestrian safety area" in which it is illegal to bike on the sidewalk, and where, with crowded sidewalks in the core, the wholly reasonable intent is to get people biking out of the way of people of foot, to make a pleasant walking experience - but of course there are also hardly any bike lanes downtown, either. If kids want to get to Riverfront Park or to the skate/bmx bowl in Marion Square Park, how are they to get there? (The current answer is unrealistic: walk your bike the whole way through downtown.)

And when the open house for the new bike lanes on High and Church was announced, you may remember the inset photo, which shows a person biking against traffic. (This is at Winter and Chemeketa, looking at the State Library building. The person on bike is going east on Chemeketa in the west-bound lane, using the angled curb parking zone on the north edge of the street.)

Even on Chemeketa Street here with sharrows it remains uncomfortable for many.

Some people who ride against traffic may be doing so out of a true rebellious or lawless spirit, but for many is it a cautious, defensive gesture, not a middle finger to the law or to civility.

What is most interesting here is not saying that the Police are right or wrong. What is most interesting is that the answer by the Police here expresses the great double-bind for people biking that is pretty systematic in Enforcement and in Engineering currently: We don't really want you on the road, we don't want you on the sidewalk - we don't want you anywhere at all, in fact!

The focus is on a punitive approach to people bicycling and not instead on an approach that makes the virtuous choice the easy choice. Too often our current system makes the virtuous and lawful choice the most difficult or dangerous or unattractive one. Why not make the virtuous and lawful choice the most attractive and pleasant one?

This from 1937 remains our ideal - via NYRB
We have a road system optimized for car travel, and so it is easy to censure and cite someone for driving the wrong way. They might kill someone. But our road system is not at all optimized for bike travel, and it is much easier to understand why a person might bike upstream in a bike lane or prefer a sidewalk, especially when we routinely accept a baseline level of speeding and other minor infractions on our roads.

4245 people/day speed more than 10mph over limit here
Salem Presentation Slides, Dec2014
If we don't want bikes on the sidewalk, we should give people safe and comfortable bike lanes on the roadway; but if we don't want to make a full network of safe and comfortable bike lanes, then we should not be so angry when people bike calmly on the sidewalk.

Biking rudely - too fast or recklessly - is still sometimes a problem, and we should have an enforcement framework and cultural norms that curb scorching. But biking at a reasonable pace on the sidewalk, and properly yielding to people on foot, can be a prudent and necessary tool even for the most skillful and experienced of cyclists, and it is not helpful to say that biking on the sidewalk is always prohibited in the presence of a bike lane.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I agree that here are many unsafe streets for biking and I would be unsettled knowing that my young children are biking in these streets.

However,I frequently see adult, able bicyclists biking on the sidewalk on streets that are plenty safe to bike on. Unless we demand our space on streets how will bicyclists expect to get safe space? When I bike i control MY space. That means I don't bike up against the sidewalk when that is the on-street parking space. Even if there are no cars parked there. Otherwise cars assume that I am supposed to be all the way over towards the sidewalk and the 14+ foot space is their entire lane.