3 Feet, Sidewalks, and the Crazy Things People Say

Last week, a new law too effect in California requiring drivers to give cyclists three feet of space when passing. For all the complaints from drivers, there is nothing really new about the law. The Vehicle Code already only allowed passing when safe to do so and only permitted passing in a safe and reasonable manner and at a safe distance. The DMV, among others, have long recommended three feet. Few seem to understand what it means to drive responsibly.

Nonetheless, one of the biggest recurring themes was criticizing people on bikes – blaming them for blowing stop signs and red lights, hogging the road, and swerving across the street. The behavior of cyclists, however, is irrelevant. Drivers need to focus on what they need to do to drive responsibly and follow the law.

This does not, however, excuse cyclists. Having been in an accident with a car, one of the strongest protections a cyclist has is following the law. Drivers can predict what a cyclist will likely do, such as  taking the lane if the road narrows. Furthermore, if a cyclist is hit by a car, the cyclist will have a much better chance of holding the driver fully accountable for injuries and property damage if the cyclist was following the law. If the cyclist was not following the law, the driver could claim contributory negligence or contributory fault (depending on the jurisdiction) to reduce or wholly eliminate any recovery the cyclist gets.

Given the importance for cyclists to follow the law, it is equally important to construct facilities that make it easy to follow the law and do not discourage doing so. Bike routes need to be safe, convenient, clearly marked, and easy to follow. Shared lanes (a.k.a. Class II bike lanes) on busy streets with high traffic volume and road hazards such as light rail tracks encourage sidewalk riding. Many still view streets with bike lanes as unsafe for bicycling, especially steers with high traffic volumes and and a large amount of street parking and opt for the sidewalk. One-way streets encourage riding against traffic if a safer street in the desired direction of travel is not easily accessible.

Coincident with the new 3-foot passing law, Sacramento’s local media also had a lot of passionate discussion about the hazard that people riding bikes on sidewalks pose to pedestrians and argued strongly for stronger traffic enforcement against cyclists (Dan Walters: If bicyclists want respect and safety, they should act like they deserve it; Conversation: On a mission to get bikes off sidewalks; Cyclist and Pedestrian Safety). Admittedly, some people ride like maniacs, just like a lot of people drive like maniacs. The difference is that a driver is far more likely to kill someone or cause significant property damage. Many other cyclists lack education in safe riding and, like many drivers, believe bikes belong on sidewalks or that riding against traffic is safer, because they can see oncoming traffic.

The patchwork of local ordinances also create confusion. The Vehicle Code permits municipalities to regulate sidewalk riding through local ordinances. Much of the Los Angeles area permits riding on the sidewalk, but my home town of Walnut Creek, generally prohibits anyone over the age of 16 from riding on the sidewalk unless posted signs specifically authorize sidewalk riding. In Walnut Creek, Ygnacio Valley Road and Treat Blvd are two streets where bicycles may use the sidewalks. Both of these streets are main arterials with a lot of high-speed traffic, but no bicycles facilities (such as bike lanes or protected bike lanes) of any sort. Sacramento prohibits sidewalk riding in commercial areas, but allows sidewalk riding in residential areas. This creates confusion in mixed-use areas, particularly those in Midtown where bicycling is most popular. It causes additional confusion, because the State allows bicycling on the sidewalk around the Capital (it considers this area a “park”). Since the area around the State Capital has some of the heaviest pedestrian traffic in the downtown area, Capital Park is, ironically, one of the least safe places in Sacramento to ride a bike.

Education will help (for both drivers and cyclists), but many cyclists still ride on sidewalks or on the wrong side of the street, despite knowing the laws and the rules, because they feel safer. No amount of education will convince people to ride a certain way if they believe that that way is unsafe. Some commentators have argued for stronger local ordinances and for strong law enforcement action. However, requiring people to ride in the street is not reasonable if the streets are unsafe.

An urban bicycle culture starts with good land use planning and necessary facilities. At a neighborhood meeting this week, neighborhood residents had complained about the parking impacts of local businesses on Folsom Blvd. As a result, the City wanted to discuss the potential of adding street parking, but adding street parking would require eliminating the bike lane on that part of Folsom Blvd, which is becoming more and more of a destination. East Sacramento is also one of the area’s most bikeable and walkable neighborhoods and, as a result, has a large number of people who choose to use a bike for transportation Many at the meeting said they would not and did not ride a bike on Folsom Blvd, despot the bike lane, because it was too busy and too dangerous. It is unlikely the City will choose to remove the bike lane (it is telling that Councilman Cohn said that the City has never removed a bike lane to add street parking). However, it would seem a better solution would be improved bicycle safety on Folsom Blvd, which would encourage more people to bike to patronize Folsom Blvd’s businesses and reduce the need for more parking. It would also reduce incidences of sidewalk riding.

If a City wants to its citizens to use alternative modes of transportation, such as biking and walking (and most do), it must start with proper land use planning and street design. Laws can dictate how people must ride (such as riding to the right or riding in the street, as opposed to the sidewalk), but land use planning and street design will influence how people will ride, regardless of the laws. As the recent neighborhood meeting on Folsom Blvd demonstrates, a City cannot simply put a bike lane on a busy street and expect people to ride there, because many will choose the sidewalk and create conflicts with pedestrians. Until City governments and motorists are will to accept these realities, allocate sufficient street space for proper bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and build such facilities, we can car, bike, and pedestrian conflicts to continue and for bicyclists to choose what seems like the safer path of travel, even if it is not the legal path of travel.

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