Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Can a bike ride on the sidewalk? Ignore the bike lane?

A bicyclist rides on a sidewalk along Chestnut Street on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in downtown Bellingham. While it’s legal to ride a bicycle on most Bellingham sidewalks, it’s illegal to do so in the Central Business District.
A bicyclist rides on a sidewalk along Chestnut Street on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in downtown Bellingham. While it’s legal to ride a bicycle on most Bellingham sidewalks, it’s illegal to do so in the Central Business District.

It’s time for bicycle question roundup, part two. You’ve been asking a lot of questions about where bikes should ride: bike lane, sidewalk or roadway. Let’s take a look at what’s legal and what’s smart.

1. Is it legal to ride a bike on the sidewalk, and if so, who has the right of way? How about switching between the street and the sidewalk?

Riding a bike on the sidewalk is usually legal, and for a few cyclists it might be the right choice. When riding on the sidewalk, a cyclist is required to yield the right of way to pedestrians. For young cyclists who don’t have the confidence or experience to ride in a bike lane or on the street, riding on a sidewalk makes sense. It’s safer, and really, a 5-year-old who’s just learned to ride doesn’t travel much faster than a pedestrian.

I also can think of a couple situations when experienced cyclists might choose a sidewalk over a road. When traffic conditions are dangerous, the sidewalk might be the safest choice, and on a steep hill without a bike lane, a cyclist riding at a slow pace might move to the sidewalk for safety, and also to open up the roadway for traffic.

I began this response by saying that riding on the sidewalk is usually legal, so you’re probably waiting for the exception. Here it is: Municipalities can, and Bellingham does, prohibit riding on the sidewalk in the central business district. To those cyclists who are riding on the sidewalks downtown, I can with confidence tell you that your fellow citizens want you to stop. Not to be overly dramatic, but I’ve heard the stories of pedestrians in fear for their lives while cyclists weave through them like an impromptu sidewalk slalom course.

Now let’s address the cyclist who switches between the sidewalk and the street. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with drivers about switch-it-up cyclists. It seems the motivation is usually to circumvent traffic signals. While technically legal, it’s also technically stupid. Being predictable is a cycling survival skill; switching back and forth between the road and the sidewalk is not a survival skill. ’Nuff said.

2. When a road has a bike lane, can a cyclist still ride in the roadway? How about the sidewalk?

The presence of a bike lane does not create a requirement for cyclists to use it. I already can hear some drivers growling as I write this. Here’s a quote from the Department of Transportation to back me up: “Cyclists may choose to ride on the path, bike lane, shoulder or travel lane as suits their safety needs.” They support it with a reference to RCW 46.61.770.

3. I see lots of cyclists riding two or three abreast. Is that legal?

Riding two abreast in the roadway is legal; three is not. However, in the same section of the law it states that cyclists traveling at a slower speed than the normal flow of traffic shall ride as far to the right as is safe. Here’s how this could play out: Two cyclists are riding side by side in the roadway. They check their mirrors for traffic and see a car approaching from behind. One of the cyclists calls, “Car back!” The cyclist on the right speeds up a bit so that the other cyclist can pull in behind and make room for the car.

Having said that, there are situations where remaining two abreast or, in the case of a single cyclist, remaining in the center of the lane may be the safer choice. When a cyclist moves to the right, it’s a sort of signal to an approaching driver to go ahead and pass. The lanes on many roads are not wide enough for same-lane passing of a cyclist. By remaining in the center of the lane the cyclist communicates that it is unsafe to pass in the same lane. Annoying for the driver? Possibly. Legal and safe for the cyclist? Yep. Also, when approaching intersections cyclists make themselves more visible to cars by being in the center of the lane.

The cycling questions keep coming in, so stay tuned for bicycle question roundup, part three. And no matter how many wheels you ride on, be wise on the road.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. Ask a question.