Bike buzz

| |

Recently, the local police decided to start enforcing the ordinance against bicycle riding on the sidewalks in business districts. As a daily pedestrian in said districts, I'm pretty happy with this - the sidewalks are too narrow and cluttered to allow cyclists to zip down them without threatening pedestrians. Those of us on foot have frequent near misses with cyclists as we step out of doors, come around corners, or are crossing the street and have bicycles go for the curb ramp with no regard for how close it takes them to other people.

I also bike to said business districts on a regular basis, and have to say that biking on the street just isn't that bad. No, not even on Michigan Avenue - traffic is well-behaved enough downtown, especially with the lights breaking up flow, that I'm fairly comfortable in traffic, and I'm far from a hardcore, spandex-and-scary-calves, veteran cyclist.

Not everyone is so sanguine about enforcement of this rule, however. has extensive discussion, with many suggesting this is a bad idea; Mark indicates it will keep otherwise law-abiding citizens from visiting downtown stores. The News plays up the drama with the headline, Bicyclists, beware in Ypsilanti, playing up the "OMG, they want to force children to play in the street!" angle before quoting both representatives of the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition and the local bike shop owner as agreeing that, no, bikes on the sidewalk are not a great idea.

Serendipitously, I had the opportunity this week to attend a workshop on the design of bicycle facilities, put on by MDOT. The instructor was John LaPlante, head author of the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities and the architect of Chicago's bike route system. He stated that sidewalks are only appropriate for "children and very timid cyclists, but the goal is to get those cyclists off the sidewalk and onto the road. Above 4-6mph, fast walking to jogging speed, sidewalk cycling is unsafe for both cyclists and pedestrians. At this point, I asked about sidewalk speed limits; LaPlante noted he didn't know of any that were effective, because bikes don't typically have speedometers, nor are police equipped to check bikes' speed.

During the on-road, "site visit" portion of the workshop, which involved taking 25 people, many of dubious cycling abilities, onto some of the busiest streets in Ann Arbor (State, Division, Hill, Glen, Washtenaw) to show current conditions, existing bike amenities, and suggest additional measures, I explained to LaPlante the recent flap about sidewalk biking in Ypsilanti, and asked for advice. "I would absolutely not want to see bicycles on the sidewalk in downtown Ypsilanti - it's just not safe for anybody," he stated, and said further that he thought Michigan Avenue was probably just fine for biking on. (He admitted not having been through Ypsi recently, but had just been on Michigan Ave in Dearborn a few days previous, which has 150% as much traffic as Ypsi's segment, and was basing his estimate on that.) He did suggest monkeying with lane widths and putting down "sharrows" to make very clear that the pavement is the right place for bikes.

I came away from the workshop envious of Ann Arbor - which apparently has a budget of $120,000 this fall just for paint and signs for bike routes, and with the feeling that Ypsi needs a non-motorized transportation master plan. (A2's got five - one city wide, and one for each "planning area".) Not that I didn't already think so, but now I have even more concrete ideas for what should be in it.

Fortunately, it seems we've got some volunteer bodies for such an effort - some cyclists in town have decided that, rather than an opportunity to bash the police, the enforcement of (sensible) safety laws is an opportunity to examine the local cycling environment (both physical and psychological), and pursue further changes to make Ypsi a better place to bike. Considering that my entree to urban planning was a 5th grade project advocating for a bike path shared-use path connecting Chelsea's schools, hospitals, and downtown, I'm pretty happy with this particular turn of events.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

I got a ticket in Brooklyn

I got a ticket in Brooklyn for riding on the sidewalk (an empty sidewalk with shuttered stores after repairing my bike chain, even). Pissed me off enough to not ride for a couple of days and I still have to appear in court in October. In general, in slow-moving urban traffic (say any street with a speed limit 35mph or less) riding in the street really is better than the sidewalk. I'd be fine with no-sidewalk laws so long as they're enforced more like jaywalking is in most cities -- nobody gets a jaywalking ticket unless they're crossing the street like a total asshole. Same goes for bike-on-sidewalk. If you're on the sidewalk and presenting any threat to peds, cops would be justified in writing a ticket. But if the sidewalk is empty and the rider is proceeding safely, then issuing tickets has bad consequences (discouraging bicycling, etc.).


I agree with you on the application of enforcement. A $120 ticket is a pretty severe hit for riding on the sidewalk, and should really only be used when people are riding totally recklessly. (Were the ticket lower - say, $25 - a much lower threshold would be reasonable.) As with all laws, there is (should be) some room for appropriate discretion on the part of the ticketing officer - sounds like they discressed poorly in your case.

Danger! Danger! Will Robinson ...

I wrote to Chief Matt Harshberger to congratulate him for the idea. I am also in favor of licensing bikes to help make stolen ones more traceable. I suggested to him that Ypsilanti might lower the speed limits in as many places as possible to make the streets more safe for everyone and to help encourage cyclists to use the streets.

General-equilibrium effects

LaPlante doubtless knows this, but sharrows have another use: they remind cars that bikes will be in their lane. Even though the word itself is totally gay.

The Boston City Council frequently bruits an ordinance that would require cyclists and cars to follow the same traffic laws and that would direct police to cite accordingly. It's basically a meta-statement about the current traffic law, which treats bikes like vehicles.

In such cases I realize that cyclists are more likely to get ticketed than motorists. This is because cyclists break the law more often, and more egregiously, than motorists do. Thus for example it's rare to catch a motorist turning right without using her signal and without looking for a bike next to her (as someone did to me last night), because the moment is fleeting. It's far easier to spot a cyclist running a red light, going the wrong way down a one-way street, riding on the sidewalk or some such.

Yet that's just the point. Currently, cyclists adjust to the default motorist behavior of not thinking about bikes by breaking the traffic laws whenever convenient. They avoid motorists--by running lights, going the wrong way, etc. If cyclists don't have those options--if they face serious threat of fine and punishment for breaking the law--then they have to deal with motorists directly. In so doing, motorists have to adjust their behaviors. I think that the annoyance in transition is worth it.

Bicycle Rules

In Boulder, this is exactly what happens. Bicycles are moving vehicles and have to follow all the same rules (and have the same rights). So no blowing through red lights or stop signs, no speeding, no riding without a fixed light on the bike after dark, no riding on the sidewalks in the business districts, no illegal turns. Bicyclists know what cars are going to do, cars know what bicycles are going to do and there is a far less contentious relationship between the two than we have here. But fair and consistent enforcement is the key. In Boulder, you *will* get a ticket if you break the law on a bike. They publicize the laws and they enforce them equally. That actually makes it easier for everyone.


I really like the idea of equal enforcement. I ride my bike, but I drive far more frequently and (like many), I have seen some stupid, stupid behavior. I know that when I am riding my bike, I am on a two wheel apparatus that I can pick up with both hands. I am "up against" a multi-ton (right?) car. Who is going to come out on top if we crash into each other? With that cheery thought, I am always looking over my shoulder and to my right and left to the point of paranoia. I try to stop at stop signs, and get some weird looks from drivers because I don't think they expect me to do this. Again, if they run into me, who will "win"? It's just common sense, my peeps.

stop signs on a bike

That's what always demonstrates to me how little drivers understand bikes. (And, by extension, how badly bikes behave.) I come to a 4-way stop with a car already stopped, I slow, wait for them to go, slow, slow...And eventually have to put a foot down, and, frequently, wave at them to say, yes, really, you should go first. Much to their credit, I find drivers around Ypsi pretty careful around bikes, but I really wish they weren't quite so fearful.

Just as it helps drivers for cyclists to act predictably, it helps cyclists for drivers to act predictably - it's easier to stay safe when you know what they're going to do.

default motorist behavior

I should have noted that I do think the "sharrows" are more for uninformed motorists' benefit than instruction for cyclists - too often drivers think bikes should be on the sidewalk, or that bikes should only be on the street when there's a bike lane. The sharrow is a pretty redundant marking, since bikes are of course allowed in the travel lane, but there's an educational component for both types of travelers there.

I accept some amount of leniency for cyclists in traffic laws - rolling stops at stop signs, for example, but definitely I feel that stricter enforcement of traffic laws on cyclists would make cyclists safer. When cyclists behave more predictably, motorists will become more accustomed to sharing the road with them - not to mention that the publicity from treating bicyclists more seriously will itself help communicate to drivers to expect bikes in the street.

yay for enforcing no bikes

yay for enforcing no bikes on sidewalks laws. I don't think you have to be scarily clad in spandex to comfortably ride in streets, though, I think that's a common misconception. Perhaps the problem is just that people don't really have formal training about riding a bike in the street, like we do with cars. For awhile I've been thinking that riding a bike in the street should be a portion of driver's ed. Usually when drivers are jerkwads to bikes I think it's because they don't really have a concept of when they're, say, too close to a cyclist. Or how loud their horn is when they blast it behind someone who is basically standing right in front of their bumper. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes and all.