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Please don't be a jerk on a bike on sidewalks and ramps

Now that I have a baby, I've been pushing a stroller around DC sidewalks quite a lot. Our neighborhoods are great for walking and give our baby plenty to look at and experience. The only drawbacks are too-narrow sidewalks in some places (I'm looking at you, 17th Street in Dupont) and the occasional impolite operator of some kind of vehicle.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

A few drivers come a little too close for comfort, though most take a little extra care when they see the baby carriage. Likewise, most people on bicycles give us plenty of room, except for a small minority who think that squeezing right next to a parent and baby at high speed is a totally peachy idea.

Most likely, if you are reading this, you are not one of those people, but just in case: knock it off. There are times when cyclists need to be on the sidewalk, and if you pay attention, everyone can get where they're going safely.

This comes up most often on curb ramps, which you need to get something with wheels on and off the sidewalk. Those of us pushing strollers need them, and it's annoying when, sometimes, whoever built a street put the ramps awkwardly off to the side. (I'm looking at you, New Hampshire Avenue.)

If someone is riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, they will also use the ramps. And that's okay by me. Sometimes people need to ride on the sidewalk because they're about to dismount or the street is one-way and there's no other good alternative. Some people just feel too uncomfortable riding in the street, and while I hope they will gain confidence, DC also needs to do more to make the street bike-friendly. Sometimes there just seems to be no good reason and it's probably not a smart idea.

We shouldn't ban sidewalk riding. There are too many reasonable times to be riding, and there's no way to craft a good rule that distinguishes the okay times and the not-okay ones. But just as drivers need to drive with courtesy and care toward more vulnerable road users, so must people riding bikes give the same deference to walkers, whether with babies or not.

I still like the "zombie rule":

Ride on the sidewalk if you don't feel comfortable on the street, or if it's one-way the wrong way, but NOT if the sidewalk is crowded.

If you do ride on the sidewalk, assume that all pedestrians are inviolate. It's their sidewalk, not yours; you are a guest. You can use it as long as you don't get in their way.

Treat them like they are...say...zombies. Pedestrians move slowly, and you can't make them change direction, but you absolutely don't want to touch them.

Anyone on a bike knows that sometimes you suddenly have to swerve a bit. Coming within inches of a pedestrian, adult or baby, means that in that unlikely chance, you'll hit them. That's never okay, and especially not okay for babies.

So if you're riding on the sidewalk, come close enough to a person that they could reach out and touch you or your bike, and are moving faster than a slow walking pace at the time, you're being a jerk or, worse, putting someone in danger. If you brush by someone other than me, you might well contribute to the stream of silly letters to people like Dr. Gridlock saying things like "we shouldn't build a bike lane anywhere until every cyclist obeys every traffic law all the time."

You also give ammunition to those who want to ban sidewalk cycling. They have a valid point that sidewalks should be primarily for people walking and strollering. They point out very real bad behavior by a small number of cyclists.

I disagree with their proposed solution, but that doesn't mean there's no problem. So please help keep sidewalks safe and sidewalk cycling legal at the same time. Give me, my baby, and every other person on the sidewalk a wide berth, or go slow, or ride in the road.

If you aren't that comfortable riding in the road, consider taking one of WABA's Confident City Cycling classes or the Bike League's online module, and join WABA so they can more effectively push to make the roads safe for everyone.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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How does the zombie rule apply to large groups of people standing (not walking) in a sidewalk - this happens in certain parts of NoVa where the sidewalk is routinely used as an open air day labor market. (I ride the sidewalk there because the configuration of crosswalks would give me the option of either making a vehicular crossing of a 5 lane traffic sewer where folks speed up going to an interstate, and where theres an awkward service lane to boot - or salmoning on the side of the road that has a crosswalk) I don't feel an obligation to dismount to enable their behavior - and they almost always do move out the way. Note they obstruct pedestrians as well and they would have to move even were I dismounted.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 7, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

What I would probably do is just slow to a walking pace. I feel sort of okay biking past a pedestrian if I'm going really slow. The zombie rule maybe needs a little updating, and the better rule is more like what I say later: ride at a slow walk unless you are so far from anyone that they couldn't reach out and touch you.

by David Alpert on Nov 7, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

Speaking of Dr. G, his blog just posted something about using public transit when you have a baby:

by JDC Esq on Nov 7, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

Proposed solution 1: Wider curb ramps.

Proposed solution 2: Keep babies out of cities, they're a nuisance

by JJJJ on Nov 7, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

Agreed! And a related rule: Please keep your jogging strollers out of the bike lanes! A single runner can generally hug the doorzone and not cause any issues, but a stroller is too wide and puts us in the position of having to buzz past your baby or dart into traffic.

by Ryan on Nov 7, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

I think part of this is that a lot of cyclists feel really high and mighty about it. I ride my bike to work frequently (Takoma Park to Rosslyn) without incident because I just ride safely and use my eyes and ears to see.

On the other hand, I frequently see people who are basically going in looking for a conflict or something. Yesterday, I saw one of the annoying "I'm going to keep a whistle in my mouth my whole bike ride" people. I've commuted to work around 80 times since February this year, and I've only ever needed to use my voice or some form of sound to alert people to my presence twice in that time.

On sidewalks, I keep to a maximum of 3 mph (5 if it's a wide sidewalk with low traffic).

by Aaron Z. on Nov 7, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

Well, I would definitely cut a zombie's head off with a machete, so that may not be a great rule. But yes, people should be nice and not selfish.

by David C on Nov 7, 2013 2:14 pm • linkreport

I don't know why people would bike on sidewalks except for the first/last few yards of their trip.

Perhaps equally as annoying are all of the people who fill up our sidewalks with Segways.

by 202_cyclist on Nov 7, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

I've biked on the sidewalk downtown (the sidewalks are generally wider anyway) when I've realized the place I need to get too is on the the wrong end of a one way street and I don't want to salmon/go around the block. That may fit in your definition of "first/last few yards though".

I liked it once when someone said "pedestrian pace/pedestrian pace" but I can see how people who don't like cyclists in the road could quickly turn that one around.

by drumz on Nov 7, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

Bikes on sidewalks are annoying, but so are people who manage to take up the entire width of a sidewalk with their leashed dog, gigantic stroller, etc. I think everyone needs to share the proverbial road.

by MJ on Nov 7, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport


perhaps in DC, which seems to be DAs main concern

There are places in suburbia where the only place to ride is a multi lane traffic sewer with no convenient parallel routes, that make even the bold and fearless 1% nervous. There are places where crossing such a traffic sewer vehicle style is similarly daunting, but theres a crosswalk on only one side of the road - and you need to go in the opposite direction. There are roads that are fairly narrow, and where there are steep upgrades - taking the road is only viable if you are willing to take the lane (and have several dozen cars following you as you trudge uphill slowly) or you are willing to go to the right while cars pass all too closely at 40MPH or more.

Granted, most of these are places with few pedestrians so DA's issues don't come up. But by no means all are.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 7, 2013 2:36 pm • linkreport

New rule for people: Don't be a jerk. Period.

by BTA on Nov 7, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

Well said, David.

by James on Nov 7, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

I was on the W&OD Wednesday mid-day. While I realize it's a multi-use trail, and I should be benevolent and kind to those who use it at a slower pace than I do, I was really annoyed with the woman with the double stroller who was talking on the phone as she blocked the entire lane of the trail. Or the three women walking on the trail, filling two lanes and halfway into the opposite lane -- and who despite my ringing and calling out, didn't move. Or the runner who was running the center line and didn't move at all. In some senses, I am the car and they are the cyclist, and I need to wait 20 seconds or so until they get into a better position -- I get that. But a little situational awareness and consideration would protect everyone! As would people wearing light colored clothing and reflectives as the light starts to fade. Ninjas are not my friends.

by KBikeVA on Nov 7, 2013 4:42 pm • linkreport

I totally agree bikers need to be more cautious on sidewalks. I have seen some crazy risks being taken with pedestrians of all ages. I bike a lot and use sidewalks outside of the business district.

I gotta take a slight issue with the flippant suggestion of taking a confident biking course to solve your problems. I have been hit a couple times and had a few near misses. You can be confident all you want but drivers are human and one glance the wrong direction and you can be toast. Not to mention the dangers of kids riding the bike in the street.

Until we get an extensive network of cycle tracks, etc. sidewalks are a necessary part of bike travel infrastructure.

by leeindc on Nov 7, 2013 5:19 pm • linkreport

Yeah, no. When I am pushin' da stroller and bikes wiz by too close, I am annoyed. When a car almost hits us (like a car coming out of the McDonald's drive thru on Benning this Saturday, not looking) I am legitimately frightened and my son could've been killed. No comparison whatsoever.

by h st ll on Nov 7, 2013 6:05 pm • linkreport

Proposed solution 2: Keep babies out of cities, they're a nuisance

Did you mean actual babies or self-entitled jerks who act like babies?

by Falls Church on Nov 7, 2013 6:19 pm • linkreport

If I'm unable to use a section of road I walk my bike on the sidewalk,unless there are no pedestrians in the vicinity. As a pedestrian,I don't feel I should have to be vigilant on the sidewalk. Mixed use trails are different-I am responsible for awareness of bicycles,just as they are responsible for passing me in a safe manner. In either case, civility is in order-stay to the right and don't be a roadblock.

by Robert Lohman on Nov 7, 2013 7:17 pm • linkreport

My six year old is strong enough to bike up to 3.5 miles in one stretch. However, it will be a while before he can ride on any road that is not a quiet suburban street (some of this has to do with distractibility/decision making).

Whenever possible we use trails but, if I want to (say) bike with him from South Silver Spring to Takoma Park we are going to be spending at least some time on sidewalks. I have been doing my best to train him how to yield to, well, everyone when we are on sidewalks. If the sidewalk is narrow, has poor visibility, or has many walkers, I have been teaching him to get off the bike and walk.

When I ride similar routes on my own I remain in the street when no trail is available.

I think the earlier/younger riders (like my son) learn etiquette in mixed environments, the better.

by gooch on Nov 7, 2013 9:41 pm • linkreport

@drumz: "pedestrian pace in a pedestrian space" is what I came up with for">my hometown, where the majority of cyclists are in rolling pedestrian mode, on the boardwalk, in crosswalks and on sidewalks. There are plenty of conflicts, mostly when cyclists zoom along as if they expect pedestrians to stay out of their way. But isn't this what we cyclists complain about, that motorists keep doing to us?

BTW I agree about wider curb cuts.

by mattotoole on Nov 7, 2013 10:51 pm • linkreport

Wider curb cuts/ramps at Dupont Circle - and hey-pedestrians can step up and down on/off sidewalks instead of using the ramp when a wheeled thing is present (baby buggy, bike, wheel chair).

by Tina on Nov 8, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

Hey, cyclists, just remember this simple mantra: "pedestrian space, pedestrian pace".

by daveb59 on Nov 8, 2013 4:35 pm • linkreport

Given that the sidewalks are tight, I hope parents are considerate enough to leave their mega-strollers at home. A kid should not be taking up more space than the person pushing him or her, or a grocery cart.

Here are what I think are some good rules for cyclists: The sidewalk is really for--the last few meters of your trip, on roads where the speed limit is greater than 35, or you are absolutely hopeless on a bicycle. It's not a particularly huge effort to keep pace with DC traffic on a bicycle, but if can't do that, please consider taking to the sidewalk at a leisurely pace. This is for your own safety, to be a good sport about sharing the roads, and so you don't gum up the works for other cyclists.

If you have clip in pedals/shoes, try to avoid being on the sidewalk. Please.

All of my biking accidents have taken place on sidewalk crosswalks because drivers are bad enough at understanding right of way rules on roads, but are flipping clueless when it comes to crosswalks.

by Joe on Nov 11, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

new parent = ultimate nanny state advocate. I don't mean state like city-state -- I mean someone who locks their toilets and bubble wraps all of their hard edged furniture. But it's really not about your new child's safety (mazel tov, btw) -- it's an excuse to project your nanny state of mind on the world. I went through it with #1. I'd get ingigant if I had to stand on Metro while others occupied seats, or when people did stupid @*! like not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalk (and God forbid pedestrians pushing strollers!). But not so much by #2. Stuff happens and people are who they are. No one's every gotten hurt from any of those perceived threats. Many people are polite, kind and gracious, and at worst indifferent -- definitely more than the outright negligent or jerks. If you're careful those perceived threats will be realized less frequently than you think, or most likely not at all. The rest of the world is generally indifferent about your state of mind. You may think you've got the solution for all the unwritten rules, but no one will ever agree to them, at least not on your terms.

by anon_1 on Nov 11, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

@KBikeVA - "W&OD" - why can't people just write WOD instead? It's also easier to say "wad" instead of "w and o d."

Sorry for being off-topic at all, but I've been wanting to say this. OK, back on topic now :-)

by DaveG on Nov 11, 2013 8:05 pm • linkreport

@Drumz - Why are you even riding on the sidewalk downtown where it's prohibited?

by DaveG on Nov 11, 2013 8:09 pm • linkreport

There are lots of one way streets downtown and sometimes my destination would require a round the block trip. I'm ok with riding (slowly) on the sidewalk then. I've thought the downtown prohibition was always peculiar anyway since that's where the sidewalks are widest.

by Drumz on Nov 11, 2013 9:48 pm • linkreport

I suppose the theory behind downtown sidewalk bicycling bans in general is that there is far too much foot traffic there (and pedestrian congestion) to easily share with bicycle riding on those sidewalks. Perhaps there could be places and times in that zone where this restriction could be eased?

by DaveG on Nov 12, 2013 10:07 am • linkreport

I suppose the theory behind downtown sidewalk bicycling bans in general is that there is far too much foot traffic there (and pedestrian congestion) to easily share with bicycle riding on those sidewalks. Perhaps there could be places and times in that zone where this restriction could be eased?

Or cyclists and the cops can just use their judgement as they do now. It works pretty well - are people being hit by reckless sidewalk cyclists frequently? I don't think so. Changing the restricted hours isn't going to magically make jerks not be jerks.

I agree with the pedestrian space/pedestrian pace idea - if you're going to walk on the sidewalk, take into consideration how crowded it is and ride slowly. If you want to go more than 8mph consistently, you should probably be on a street unless the sidewalk is very open.

by MLD on Nov 12, 2013 10:20 am • linkreport

Whoops, should be: "if you're going to RIDE on the sidewalk, take into consideration..."

by MLD on Nov 12, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

What MLD said

There are really three levels of sidewalk crowding

1. Virtually no pedestrians. Not uncommon on suburban arterials in between major activity centers, where the general travel lanes are extremely difficult to ride. There riding at well above a ped pace is fine (though of course these are not generally designed for biking, so don't ride 20 MPH - but 8 MPH is probably fine. See BikeSnobNYCs latest

2. Enough peds you need to be careful, but enough room so its possible to ride at a pace that makes riding safe and worthwhile - say 3 to 5 MPH

3. really crowded sidewalks. On those I dismount and walk the bike, if there is no alternative route.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 12, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

are people being hit by reckless sidewalk cyclists frequently?

Exactly. Does anyone have any idea how serious a problem this is? The only fact I know of is that pedestrians frequently complain of near misses. But there have been no fatal bike-ped crashes on the sidewalks in the DC area that I know of. How many crashes are there?

We should actually define the problem before we start looking for a solution.

by David C on Nov 12, 2013 11:23 am • linkreport

I live on Connecticut Ave just south of Cathedral. Fast moving bikes on the sidewalks are a safety issue in this area. I don't appreciate being buzzed or nearly hit by people going fast on their bikes. Part of the issue is the downgrade on Connecticut and people pick up speed.

In any event, my concern is fast moving bikes on sidewalks and the potential for fatal crashes. I don't need a body count to say this issue is problematic and to ask to get bikes off the sidewalks now. A proper bike lane on Connecticut would do the trick but when is that going to happen?

by Oscar on Nov 12, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

"But there have been no fatal bike-ped crashes on the sidewalks in the DC area that I know of."

I don't think we should wait till a problem rises to the level of a fatality before we address it.

As a cyclist (and the father of a newborn), I agree with David on the zombie rule, but even more conservatively add an additional zombie caveat: try not to come close enough to the zombie pedestrian for it to reach out and grab you (i.e. give pedestrians 3-5 feet of space as you pass them, if possible; if not, pass at a coasting speed. If sidewalks are so crowded that you must come within one foot of multiple pedestrians, it's probably better that you just dismount and walk your bike rather than risk crashing into someone who (a) suddenly changes walking direction (due to an impulse decision to turn into a destination to their right) or (b) walks erratically in general (texters frequently do this).

by Alan P on Nov 12, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

It's ironic that sidewalk riding is banned on downtown's wide sidewalks, yet is legal everywhere else in DC, including on sidewalks that are clearly too narrow (4' with a light post in the middle in some cases) to be shared with bikes. Although with sidewalk cafes one can get that same narrow situation.

by DaveG on Nov 12, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

I don't think we should wait till a problem rises to the level of a fatality before we address it.

Me neither, but we should at least be sure it's a problem. Fatalities is one metric. So are crashes. But, if all we have are a bunch of near-misses, then we have a scary situation, not a dangerous one.

by David C on Nov 12, 2013 4:16 pm • linkreport

Local fatality of pedestrian, caused by interaction with cyclist:

Not common, but it's already happened.

by NewsReader on Nov 14, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

Yes. The cyclist stayed, the police investigated and found the cyclist not at fault. The poor woman turned and walked directly into his path after he gave the warning required by local trail rules. Though he was not going at an excessive rate of speed, per witnesses, the collision caused her to fall and hit her head.


by Crickey7 on Nov 14, 2013 1:23 pm • linkreport

Also, that didn't happen on a sidewalk. We're talking about sidewalks here and trails are very different from sidewalks.

by David C on Nov 14, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

The fact that its so rare is key. I can only think of one other example of a cyclist killing a pedestrian (in SF a couple years ago)and that cyclists was charged with a crime and had to go to court (justifiably, he ran a red light and killed someone).

There may be a few more but as an avid reader of bike news those are the only two I can recall. Also we had a big discussion about the 4 mile run trail incident as well.

by drumz on Nov 14, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

The only other ped fatality from a bike crash that I can think of is the hit-and-run that happened in 2010 near the convention center.

by MLD on Nov 14, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

There was that one - that happened in an alley - and there was one in 2007 on New Hampshire Ave near 2nd, which took place in the street where a pedestrian walked out between parked cars. And then I know of three others in 1979, 1983 and 1998, but not of any details about them.

But none of them, that I know of, were on the sidewalk. Fact is, while walking on the sidewalk, you're still more likely to be killed by a car than a bike. On the sidewalk, not in the crosswalk. Think about that.

by David C on Nov 14, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

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