The Murky Truth Behind Sidewalk Bicycle Laws

by Christopher Kidd, former Planner at Alta Planning + Design

Why is there so much confusion about riding bicycles on the sidewalk? As someone who’s spent time as a bicycle planner in the public sector, in the advocacy world, and as a consultant with Alta, I’ve seen the full spectrum of opinions on the matter. I’ve seen drivers adamantly assert that bicycles belong on the sidewalk; I’ve seen pedestrians characterize sidewalk-riding bicyclists as terrorists. In most cases, people think their opinions are backed up by law. How can there be so much uncertainty on where bicyclists belong*? And why does everyone think their opinion is the right one?

The surprising and murky truth in California: everyone is (partially) right. Bikes can be on the sidewalk. And bikes can’t be on the sidewalk. And sometimes both. And sometimes only kids on bikes. And sometimes there are no rules at all. The California Vehicle Code (CVC) specifically delegates local control to cities and counties for the operation of bicycles on the sidewalk.

I first came upon this state of affairs in grad school while working as editor of the LADOT Bike Blog. At the prompting of Joe Linton, godfather of the LACBC and prominent writer for LA Streetsblog, I tracked down the particulars of riding a bicycle on the sidewalk for every city in LA County. The results came out thusly:

(courtesy of LADOT Bike Blog)

Sidewalk Riding Results Across the State

After slogging through the wacky results of the 77 cities in LA County, I was hooked. Over the next year, I compiled the rules for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk for every city and county in California (537 jurisdictions in all) in both spreadsheet and word doc form. When analyzing the results, laws for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk in California’s cities & counties fall into seven categories:

  • 8% — Bicyclists allowed on all sidewalks
  • 11% — Bicyclists not allowed on sidewalks in business districts, with “business district” defined by the city in their municipal code
  • 11% — Bicyclists not allowed on sidewalk in business districts, with “business district” defined by CVC 235 and CVC 240 — written broadly enough that a street made up entirely of apartment buildings can qualify as a “business district”
  • 2% — Only minors allowed on the sidewalks (“minors” subject to varying definitions)
  • 6% — Only minors allowed on the sidewalks, but not in business districts
  • 19% — A ban on all sidewalk bicycling
  • 41% — Instances where a city’s municipal code doesn’t say one way or the other

The regional results for sidewalk riding, however, can vary greatly: 20% of Bay Area cities have laws allowing only minors to ride on the sidewalk while in the LA Metro region only 2% of cities have similar laws. The Bay Area strongly demonstrates the jigsaw-puzzle results of such laws:

Jigsaw Approach, Jigsaw Results

The sad reality of California’s approach is that no one knows what laws apply where. Crossing a city limit subjects bicyclists to entirely new rules, and there is almost never any signage alerting bicyclists to changing legal requirements. Even when sidewalk riding is banned in the business districts of contiguous cities, they may have wildly different definitions of where that law applies. Sidewalk riding restrictions for minors can vary both by the age of the rider or the size of the bicycle.

California’s predicament is emblematic of the short shrift bicycles have received from transportation officials in previous decades, and how that lack of consideration hurts bicycling as a viable form of transportation to this day. Imagine if each city was given control over “no right turn on red” for drivers (currently permitted in California), but no signage to alert drivers to which law applied. It would be chaos on the streets.

Until a uniform approach is taken to bicycling on the sidewalk, we can expect confusion to reign amongst bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians alike.

*from a planning and engineering perspective, it’s long been acknowledged that riding a bicycle on the street is much safer than riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. You’re more visible to drivers and you’re less subject to conflicts at driveways and intersections when you ride a bicycle in the street.