Rules of the Road

If there is no sidewalk on one side of a road, do you need to cross to the other side?

There is no sidewalk along the eastbound lane of Bakerview Road on the bridge over Interstate 5. Is it legal to walk along that lane as you cross the bridge heading toward Costco or Fred Meyer?
There is no sidewalk along the eastbound lane of Bakerview Road on the bridge over Interstate 5. Is it legal to walk along that lane as you cross the bridge heading toward Costco or Fred Meyer? Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: Is it legal to walk on the eastbound side of the Bakerview Road Interstate 5 overpass? Also that side has no extra guard rail above the concrete barrier. Isn’t that dangerous for motorcycles and bicycles? Couldn’t they potentially get hit and go flying onto the freeway?

Answer: Have you ever visited a college campus and seen footpaths through grassy fields created by students who chose the shortest route to their next class, even if that means disregarding the available paved paths?

There is a (likely apocryphal) story about Dwight Eisenhower who, while president of Columbia University, had a solution to this problem. He recommended that rather than pour sidewalks when new buildings were built, the school should just plant grass and after the students have worn trails in the grass, put the sidewalks there.

Many people claim that this story belongs not to Columbia, but to the university they attended, proving that this wasn’t a problem limited to one school; it is a universal human behavior. Whether we give Eisenhower credit for the story or consider it an urban legend, the premise is real; humans will, given the option, take the shortest route to their destination.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Bakerview I-5 overpass, it has a sidewalk and heightened railing adjacent to the westbound lanes of travel (north side of the road), but on the eastbound side there is no sidewalk; just a very narrow shoulder and a concrete barrier that rises up to maybe the height of a full-grown St. Bernard.

It might seem obvious that given the choice between walking on the narrow shoulder of a busy road and walking on a sidewalk, you’d pick the sidewalk every time, but some people don’t. Why? I’ll make a guess.

But first I’ll start with an assumption about why a pedestrian would need to cross that bridge: getting groceries. Most anyone with a home on the west side of I-5 near the overpass lives south of Bakerview Road. And the closest grocery store (if you don’t have a Costco membership) is just east of I-5 on the south side of Bakerview Road.

If we were to think about the overpass like the Columbia University campus, we’d see that the shortest route from home to the grocery store is on the south side of the overpass. But in this case there’s no room to put a sidewalk.

That’s my guess as to one reason why someone might walk on the side of the overpass with no sidewalk, but is it legal? The Revised Code of Washington states, “Where sidewalks are provided it is unlawful for any pedestrian to walk or otherwise move along and upon an adjacent roadway.”

Does that mean if you don’t have a sidewalk on your side of the street you have to cross the street to use the one on the other side?

I’m going to suggest that to abide by the law the answer is yes. Here’s why: The term “roadway” is defined in the law as the portion of the highway used for vehicle travel. Both directions of the roadway are considered the “roadway” unless they’re completely separated (as in a divided highway). On this overpass, and any other similarly designed street, the sidewalk is adjacent to the roadway, even if only on one side.

This is one of those situations where as drivers it’s good to know the law, but it’s also good to be aware of your circumstances.

Sometimes we as pedestrians, motivated by our drive for efficiency (or laziness), might choose the shortest path, even if it’s not the safest, or even legal, path.

As drivers, we should learn to recognize when those scenarios are more likely. I’m not suggesting that we should be able to predict every possible illegal act from other road users, but when we encounter engineering and road design that tempts a person to make a poor choice, let’s make an effort to be prepared to avoid the potential resulting conflict.

And to answer your question about the short guardrail, yes, it’s more dangerous. I’m not aware of any cyclists or motorcycle riders that have been knocked off that overpass, but there have been crashes across the country where that has happened.

That’s one more good reason to always be alert to our surroundings as we drive, ride or walk.

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David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.