Sidewalk Riders: Accept the Risk
I turn onto Maguire Blvd. from Woodcock or Lawton on a daily basis. Both intersections have obstructed sight lines such that you can’t see the much of the sidewalk or road from behind the stop bar. I’ve learned to stop first where I can see the sidewalk and look for cyclists before pulling forward to where I can see the road. This is self-preservation more than anything. I don’t want to be injured by a sidewalk cyclist blowing into the crosswalk. I’ve had enough close calls with sidewalk cyclists at both intersections that I’m sure I would have hit one already if it wasn’t for my vigilance.
Most people do not stop twice at a stop sign. They drive until the point they can see the road and stop there. Crosswalks and stop bars have become visual noise, many drivers don’t even see them. Part of that is general lack of driver education and awareness, but it’s also a natural response to ubiquitous sight line obstructions.
If you’re not accustomed to stopping at stop bars, take a ride around the city and make a conscious point of doing so at every stop sign. Notice how much mental energy it takes to deliberately stop ten or more feet from where you can actually see the cross street traffic. Also, take note of how often you have to block the crosswalk (or unmarked extension of the sidewalk) in order to see far enough down the street, and how far you have to pull into some crosswalks just to see down the sidewalk (you don’t need to look way down the sidewalk for a pedestrian, but you do for an insouciant bicyclist).
This morning I rode down to Target. The traffic light at Maguire and Woodcock was in blinky mode, so it was technically a stop sign. The SUV driver in front of me (who had passed me courteously) was turning right.
He rolled through the stop bar and stopped just ahead of the crosswalk, where he was able to see southbound traffic on Maguire. As I pulled up to the stop bar, a sidewalk cyclist (on a road bike, with her hands on the drops) rode into view and crossed behind the SUV. She looked at the vehicle, with its rear bumper protruding into the crosswalk, and muttered, “jerk.”
Since she only became visible to me as she was a few feet from the crosswalk, I don’t know how fast she had been going or if she had to slow down as the SUV crossed. The photo on the right shows the view I had of the sidewalk as I approached the stop bar. I was at this point when she became visible to me. The SUV had arrived a few seconds before and was already across the crosswalk. Because he was making a right, he was focused on the southbound lanes and may not have looked to the right at all. There was also a car waiting to turn left out of the mall.
The middle photo on the right is a northbound sidewalk rider’s view of the intersection. The bottom one is a driver’s view (or lack thereof) of the Maguire southbound lanes from the stop bar on Woodcock.
The grumbling sidewalk rider wasn’t unique. I’ve heard many a sidewalk rider complain bitterly about how oblivious motorists are and how they’re always pulling through the crosswalk or turning in front of them. Yet they’ll aggressively argue for their use of the sidewalk vs the road.
The complaint about motorists ignoring crosswalks is legitimate. It’s a problem. But it’s a more legitimate complaint for pedestrians to make than sidewalk bicyclists. Pedestrians are usually standing on the curb waiting to cross, while bicyclists are approaching the crosswalk at many times the speed of a pedestrian. It takes only a little bit of mindfulness to detect and yield to a pedestrian. It takes a conscious effort to search for and assess the speed of a sidewalk cyclist.
To follow the letter of the law, we should all stop at the stop bar and look both ways before inching forward to where we can see. I try to do it when driving my car and my bike and I find it takes quite a bit of mindfulness (a state that is easier to maintain on the bike than in the car). Do you do that at every intersection when you drive a car? Do you on a bicycle?
Part of coexisting on the roadway is understanding the physical and perceptual limitations of other drivers. Motorists are unlikely to give you comfortable passing clearance if you hug the curb and invite them to squeeze past in a narrow lane. And they’re unlikely to stop and look for you approaching on the sidewalk at ten times the speed of a pedestrian. Especially if you’re northbound on a southbound sidewalk and their focus area is the southbound travel lanes. Choosing to ride in a way that significantly increases risk and conflict by making yourself invisible or irrelevant and then getting mad at motorists is a like banging your head against a concrete wall and getting mad at the wall. If you’re going to ride on the sidewalk, know how the limitations of other drivers affect your safety and accept the risk.
Please don’t interpret this as an admonition against ever using the sidewalk. I will use a sidewalk once in a while if circumstances make it significantly more convenient. I accept the risk when I do it. I ride slowly, give way to any peds and approach driveways and intersections with extreme caution, prepared to stop (if I need to use a sidewalk downtown, I walk the bike). This isn’t a convenient way to travel significant distances, but it’s sometimes more convenient for a block or two than, say, turning left onto a busy multi-lane road and then left again off it 1,000 feet later. Especially if one or both left turns is lacking a traffic signal to facilitate the turn.