Ensley: Roads are scary for bikes; sidewalks are scarier

So I'll be out there driving my car on a busy highway such as Thomasville Road, Tharpe Street or Tennessee Street. And I'll see a bicyclist pumping along in the bike lane as cars zoom perilously close. And I'll be thinking, "Why don't you get over on the sidewalk, Mr. Daredevil?"

Published January 8, 2008 by  Tallahassee Democrat
By Gerald Ensley

So I'll be out there driving my car on a busy highway such as Thomasville Road, Tharpe Street or Tennessee Street. And I'll see a bicyclist pumping along in the bike lane as cars zoom perilously close. And I'll be thinking, "Why don't you get over on the sidewalk, Mr. Daredevil?"

Yes, I know sidewalks were built for pedestrians, not bicycles. But I ride my bike on the sidewalk all the time. Along most busy highways, nobody is walking on them. Even with occasional pedestrians, sidewalks seem safer for cyclists than mixing it up on the highway with semis, SUVs and teenagers who think it's hilarious to lean out the window and scream as they pass.

But I'm wrong (mark THAT down). Chris Sands says riding a bike on a sidewalk is more dangerous.

"When you look at the statistics, you are more likely to be in a crash riding on the sidewalk than in the road," he said. "The mantra is that bicyclists fare best when they obey the rules of the road and operate like other vehicles."

Sands is co-founder of the two-year-old BikeWalk Network. That's a group of local experts and enthusiasts — including all four people who held the now-defunct position of city bicycle-pedestrian coordinator — who lobby local government on bicycle and pedestrian issues.

The organization offered key suggestions last year when Call Street, a popular bike route to Florida State, was converted from a one-way street to a two-way. It's working to create a citywide map of bike lanes, bike trails, sidewalks and bus stops. And it hopes to get involved with bicycle/pedestrian education at Leon County public schools and the two universities.

"We're working for anyone who is trying to get around without a car," Sands said. "We're making some progress."

Florida law actually allows bicycle riding in either direction on a sidewalk, "where not prohibited by local ordinance." Tallahassee prohibits riding bicycles on the sidewalk only in the downtown area bounded by Gaines, Bronough, Virginia and Gadsden streets because of the congestion.

"People are coming in and out of offices and stores," said Tallahassee Police Department spokesman David McCranie. "Obviously, we don't go around (ticketing) folks. The biking community is generally a well-behaved community."

The only caveats Florida law puts on a bicyclist on the sidewalk are: A) Bicyclists must yield to pedestrians on the sidewalk; and B) Bicyclists must cross a signalized intersection with the lighted "walk" sign.

But the issue, said Sands, isn't the legality of riding on the sidewalks (though it's good news to those of us who thought we were outlaws). He said a bicyclist is asking for trouble by riding there.

To be sure, it's inviting. Every new road project includes sidewalks as well as bike lanes. Curb cut-ins (which Tallahassee is feverishly adding to existing as well as new sidewalks) provide a smooth transition from sidewalk to intersection and back to sidewalk. Bicyclists can sail along for miles on a sidewalk.

But on a sidewalk, the cyclist is in danger from cars exiting from side streets and driveways and from cars turning off the highway. Sands said more cyclists are hit by cars coming from the side than coming from behind in traffic.

You'd think drivers would see a bicyclist on the sidewalk. But many don't, Sands said, because the road is a driver's "arc of attention."

"You don't turn 360 degrees looking for danger; you look in a small arc," he said. "Drivers are not looking outside the roadway. They're looking for those big things, like cars and trucks driving in the road, that can crush them. They're not looking on the sidewalk."

Sands said the safest place for a bicyclist is in the flow of traffic, properly attired in visible clothing, lights and reflectors at night, observing the rules of highway safety. When you're in the flow of traffic, he said, you're part of traffic — which makes it easier for cars to respect your space. In the road, a cyclist is presumed to be going straight until he uses a hand signal to indicate otherwise. In the road, drivers can see his face and read his intentions. In the road, he's in the driver's "arc of attention."

"You're more visible, more predictable and more understandable when you're in the road," Sands said. "In the road, you're treated like a car, and that leads to a safer environment."

  • Contact Senior Writer Gerald Ensley at (850) 599-2310 or gensley@tallahassee.com.