A proud sidewalk cyclist
A proud sidewalk cyclist (Photo: frank mckenna/Unsplash)
Bike Snob

True Confessions of a Sidewalk Cyclist

It’s true. I am a bicycle scofflaw. Sue me.

A proud sidewalk cyclist

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I may not be the most intrepid person in the world—a coddled urbaninte, I cherish my creature comforts, and the only time I sleep outside is when I fall asleep at the beach—but when it comes to riding a bike in the city, I don’t scare easy. Long before the Department of Transportation began striping the streets with verdant bike lanes, I was out there mixing it up with the taxis and the box trucks with Kevin Baconesque insouciance. And while I appreciate our new bike infrastructure, should some bike-hostile mayoral administration take over and tear it all out again, I’m more than prepared to continue undaunted.

So it should come as no surprise that, as a battle-hardened city cyclist, I never felt the need to ride on the sidewalk*. Not only is it illegal, but if you’re a certain type of cyclist, it’s also sort of humiliating. The streets belong to us, however hostile they may be, and taking to the sidewalk rather than asserting your rightful place in traffic is an act of supplication akin to allowing the airline to choose your seat for you.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to do the unthinkable and pilot my bike on the sidewalk on a regular basis. I only do so under a certain set of very limited circumstances. Specifically, after years of schlepping my children through the busiest and most car-ravaged section of the neighborhood in order to get them to school, I finally decided to ride my younger son to school as the crow flies (or more accurately, as the pedestrian flies) and adopt a much more direct and much less fraught route that does, unfortunately, require one or two prolonged sections of sidewalk cycling.

People everywhere often complain about sidewalk cycling. Rightly so. Safe pedestrian space is a precious commodity in a city and country subsumed by automobiles and to violate that space, even with a velocipede, is to rob people of their most vital refuge. At the same time, these are hardly the crowded sidewalks of Midtown I’m riding on here. There are no commercial strips and only the occasional residential building flanking the paths I ride, which means foot traffic is light enough that sometimes I won’t encounter any pedestrians at all.

Nevertheless, I was quite apprehensive when I first steered my bike up the curb cut and tasted the forbidden fruit of the sidewalk. How would people react? Would they scowl and glare? Would they attempt to beat me with their canes and walkers? Would they ghostride their shopping carts into me, take shelter behind a parked Kia as I struggled to extricate myself from beneath all those grocery bags, and call the authorities?  

Nevertheless, I was quite apprehensive when I first steered my bike up the curb cut and tasted the forbidden fruit of the sidewalk.

Hardly. If anything, my presence tends to elicit either smiles or apologies. Yes, apologies. This could be because drivers have conditioned pedestrians into thinking of themselves as impositions and obstacles (the I’m walking here! New Yorker is largely extinct and most people just automatically yield to drivers even when they shouldn’t). But no doubt it’s also because I’ve got a small child on my bike and they see me not as one of those menacing cyclists but as a dopey dad deep in the throes of child-rearing. (People tend to give fathers with young children extra latitude, since they just assume we got stuck with the kids for the day and we have no idea what we’re doing.) In this sense I suppose you could accuse me of using my child as sort of a human shield in order to deflect criticism for my sidewalk riding, which in a way is kind of true, but what’s the point of having children if you can’t take advantage of them once in awhile?

I will also occasionally ride on the sidewalk with my older son, who rides his own bike, but is only just learning the rudiments of riding in traffic. The law in New York City is that children may ride on the sidewalk if they are younger than 12 years old and on a bicycle with wheels less than 26 inches in diameter. There is no exception for an accompanying adult. Therefore, to be in full compliance with the law, you’d need to shadow them from the street with a row of parked cars in between you, which is virtually impossible, and a great way to get doored. In our neighborhood, taking to the sidewalk together when necessary isn’t a major problem for the reasons I cited above, but there are vast swaths of the city in which riding with a child is virtually impossible beyond letting them ride around in circles in front of their apartment buildings.

For the most part I’ve grown comfortable with (or at least resigned to) riding with my kids on the sidewalk, and while my sidewalk riding may be inconsiderate, it’s nowhere near as antisocial as getting in the car and contributing to the clusterfuck that is the school drop-off. I also know there will come a time when both my kids are old enough that it will no longer be necessary to do what I’m doing. In the meantime, I’m courteous to a fault, and I dismount and walk my bike at the slightest sign of a potential conflict.

Yet I also deeply resent having to ride my bike on the sidewalk, because as I do, I can see how easy it would be for the city to simply install a bike lane along my route instead. Really, all they’d have to do is slap some paint on the street and (gasp!) remove some parking, and then riding a bike would be an easy and obvious choice for many, many more people.

Cities all over the country continue to install bike lanes, and they do make cyclists (and drivers!) measurably safer. But at a certain point the only meaningful measure of a bike network is whether or not it makes it possible for everbody—especially children—to get where they’re going on a bicycle without having to ride on the sidewalk. Any city even remotely serious about improving traffic flow, safety, and quality of life should be making it possible for everybody, from the crusty urban cyclist to the 10-year-old on the 24-inch wheele bike, to travel within their neighborhoods without even briefly considering either the car or the sidewalk.

And if your city is plagued by those pesky sidewalk cyclists, it doesn’t mean cyclists are bad. It means your city’s bike infrastructure totally sucks. That’s the real problem.

*Please note I’m specifically referring to cities here. If trapped deep in suburban sprawl where it’s nothing but cars I’ll ride anywhere I have to in order to survive and that includes through your backyard. Deal with it.