Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Sidewalk Riding. . . It's Complicated

Courtesy Blogging LA
Riding on sidewalks in Chicago is a "thing".  It is an illegal thing if you are 12 or older.  But it is a thing that most avid adult city cyclists will do on occasion, if just to access a bike rack or quickly escape a dangerous situation. It is perhaps a class thing too.  And this, mind you, is an uncomfortable thing to talk about.  Riders of bicycles that seem to spend much of their pedaling time on the sidewalk are the window washers, new residents on department store bikes, poor people with plastic shopping bags hanging from their handlebars.  It is also an age thing.  Sidewalks offer comfort and relative safety to the very young and very old bicyclist.

Riding on the sidewalk in the city is a. . . complicated thing.  It is something I have often dismissed as something that is plain reckless and illegal.  It posses a danger to pedestrians, particularly children, the elderly, the disabled and just should not be done, excepting those brief few feet between the street and the nearest bike rack.  Perhaps two months ago I was riding north on the new Elston Avenue buffered bicycle lane between Milwaukee Avenue and North Avenue.  It was one of the first times I had taken advantage of this new bit of bike specific infrastructure and it felt awesome.  Ahh, I could get used to this, I remember thinking as cars traveled past me far, far to my left.  Then I saw something unexpected yards in front of me, to my right, approaching the Morton Salt building:  A guy -- perhaps in his twenties or thirties -- riding his bicycle on the sidewalk right next to the gorgeous new bicycle lane.  I was really surprised.  So many have fought and begged to get this new infrastructure built.  The City has spent so much money trying to accommodate bicyclists.  How could his guy spit in the face of all of that, and break the law, by riding on the damn sidewalk?

I do not know why that particular man was riding on the sidewalk that day.  But what I have come to understand is that sidewalk riding in general is, like I said, complicated.  It is complicated for bicyclists, pedestrians and urban planners and engineers.  A recent essay by British sociologist David Horton on his Thinking About Cycling blog, does an excellent job of thoughtfully considering these complexities. He does not just speculate about why people ride on sidewalks, like I have done.  He talks to folks in an effort to understand.  Suddenly, to me anyway, sidewalk cycling does not always seem so ill considered.  A sidewalk cyclist is just a guy/gal trying to make his or her way.  It is an article I strongly recommend to all those interested in riding in the city.


  1. ≖ Horton's case studies are okay as far as they go, but determining "a class thing" is going to require another level of sociology.

  2. Fair enough, but it is good to get the conversation started.

  3. Maybe the guy hadn't noticed the new bike lane yet, you did mention 'new' in reference to the bike lane. I think it takes a bit of confidence to ride on the roadways with cars, people often comment to me they could 'never do what [I] do' citing safety as their primary concern. Sidewalks in those cases seem much safer to ride on.


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