HOW TO CREATE FIVE MILLION MILES OF NEW BIKE PATHS…THAT DON’T COST A CENT

© David Drum

We can instantly create more than five million miles of safe, easy-to-use bike paths in the United States and it won’t cost taxpayers a cent. All that’s necessary is to pass a federal law that makes it legal to ride a bike on the sidewalk.

All right, it’s not easy to pass a law. But in this country, we do have millions of miles of empty sidewalks and they’re all empty most of the time.

I live in Los Angeles, where such a law already exists. We once had a mayor who was a bicycle enthusiast. Now, it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk so long as you don’t interfere with pedestrians or other sidewalk users. It’s an easy, practical solution to cycling in an increasingly perilous world of clogged streets and irritable drivers. When road conditions are dangerous, I can switch to the sidewalk.

Every city and town in the United States has them. New York City has 12,000 miles of sidewalks. San Diego, California, has more than 5,000 miles. Even little Sugar Land, Texas has an estimated 846 miles of existing sidewalks.

The National League of Cities says there are 5.7 million miles of urban and rural local roads in the United States, and most roads have sidewalks on both sides of the street. If even half these roads have usable sidewalks, that adds up to more than five million miles of empty sidewalks that could be used at least some of the time as bike paths.

Creating more safe, inexpensive bike paths could be quite popular. Compared with driving and many other ways of getting around, cycling is not only one of the wisest transportation choices for the environment, it’s good for your health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that Americans get 150 minutes per week of aerobic activity. Cycling is aerobic exercise, and it fits the bill. It’s estimated that 12 percent of Americans already ride bicycles on a regular basis, and given its popularity in other parts of the world, cycling is likely to gain popularity.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans already cycle to work, weather permitting. In 2015, according to the website governing.com, an estimated 777,000 Americans used bicycles as their primary transportation to work. The LA Bicycle Coalition estimates that in Los Angeles County some 98,000 Angelenos bike to work every day.

Cycling to work could be made immensely safer if American cyclists took to the sidewalks, and minimized riding on our hazardous streets.

DANGEROUS STREETS

Anyone who has ridden a bicycle in rush hour traffic knows how dangerous riding a bicycle with a stream of cars and trucks whizzing past can feel. Helmets offer some protection, but cyclists really have little protection against big, heavy cars, which move lots faster than bikes. Unfortunately, drivers don’t always look out for cyclists.

According to the National Safety Council, 1,089 American bicyclists were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2019. This was a more than 6% increase over 2018. Many cyclists are injured every year, often very seriously. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates more than 400,000 bicycle and bicycle-accessory related injuries were logged into emergency rooms in 2019.

Motorists can injure cyclists by turning vehicles into them, rear-ending them, backing into them, or by cutting them off at intersections and cross streets. Parked drivers sometimes fling open doors without looking. Colliding with these suddenly-opened doors, which cyclists call “being doored,” is sometimes impossible to avoid and can result in serious injuries.

On city streets, cycling is hazardous in other ways. Potholes which are easily navigated by cars and trucks can throw unwary cyclists. Riders on city streets must deal with hazards such as oil slicks after a rain, patches of broken glass from car accidents, and other dangerous debris.

DEDICATED BIKE PATHS

Some cities have created dedicated bike paths which are separated from the street, and these are by far the safest alternative to commuting or riding in traffic. Dedicated bike paths exist for recreational cyclists in many tourist areas, and bike lanes or bike paths are being developed in several progressive towns and cities.

Dedicated bike paths are quite expensive to build. According to a study prepared for the Federal Highways Administration, so-called separated bikeway projects can cost between $536,664 and $4,293,320 per mile to construct.

Even creating bicycle lanes by simply painting lanes on existing streets can be expensive, as considerable planning time is involved. Estimates begin at $5,000 per mile for these and go much higher. Bicycle lanes are helpful, but as they are not separated from traffic they are less safe than dedicated bike paths. Motorists sometimes veer or back into bicycle lanes, causing accidents and sometimes deaths.

When new bicycle lanes for existing streets are proposed by city planners, citizens can object. Marking off bicycle lanes on both sides of the street can cause existing streets to lose a traffic lane, or lose parking. The prospect of increasing traffic congestion can infuriate local businesses and drivers.

When compared to constructing new bike lanes or bike paths on existing streets, sidewalks are an impressive bargain. It would cost absolutely nothing to construct these “ready-made” bike paths, because millions of miles of sidewalks are already built. Admittedly, some stretches of sidewalk are in ill repair, but fixing sidewalks which are broken is easier than finding, funding and constructing all-new bike paths.

Most sidewalks are at least five feet wide, approximately the size of a bike lane. This is wide enough for a bicycle to safely pass a pedestrian, using a bell to alert them if necessary. It is also wide enough for two bicycles to safely pass going opposite directions.

Miles of existing sidewalks are not used much at all by pedestrians, especially in suburban areas. Indeed, most of America’s newer cities were built around the idea of accommodating people in cars.

Allowing cyclists to use existing sidewalks would have the great advantage of keeping bicycle riders safe. Sidewalks are already separated from the street by curbs or road verges in most locations, and this drastically reduces the danger of cyclists being hit by a car.

CONFLICTING LAWS

At present, no federal law governs the use of sidewalks by bicyclists but many states and cities have laws or ordinances governing their use. Existing state laws are often conflicting or contradictory, and some states or cities have no laws that deals with this at all.

States like Michigan, Tennessee, and Hawaii allow riding on the sidewalk with certain restrictions. Other states including Alabama, New Hampshire, and Maryland absolutely prohibit riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. In still other states like Indiana, Arkansas, and New York there is no statute that either authorizes or prohibits riding a bicycle on the sidewalk at all.

Many states require that cyclists using any roadway ride as far to the right as is practical, and to use bike lanes when bike lanes are present. Some require that cyclists ride a maximum of one or two abreast, and a few state laws prohibit cyclists from impeding traffic by going too slow.

Some state highways and roads are already flanked by dedicated bike paths. Eleven states permit cycling on Interstate highways, typically states like Alaska and Wyoming which have a lot of open spaces and not much population. Five states including California, Florida, and Colorado permit cycling only on Interstate highways that are designated for bikes. The League of American Bicyclists website provides links to laws regarding cycling in all 50 states.

Several larger cities have their own laws or ordinances which take precedence over state laws.

New York City has many on-street bike routes, but it prohibits cyclists from riding on sidewalks. Seattle allows bicycle riders to use sidewalks as long as they yield to pedestrians and bike safely. Minneapolis permits cycling on sidewalks except in business districts where pedestrian traffic is often heaviest, and where people may be carrying packages or trying to manage children. San Francisco allows only children under the age of 13 to ride on sidewalks.

Pedestrians are the intended users of sidewalks, of course, and when encountered, they must be avoided by cyclists. In cities where cycling on the sidewalk is permitted, laws require riders to not interfere with pedestrians, to obey traffic signals, and to make an audible signal before passing others. Of course, it’s important to maintain a safe speed and to be considerate of others.

Cycling is one of the greenest alternatives to driving, and many cities are busily working bike paths and bike lanes into their plans, or at least thinking about it. In the future, bicycle ridership for commuting and other practical purposes is likely to increase.

Across the sea, Amsterdam has more bicycles in the city than people. An estimated 68 percent of all traffic to and from work and school is done on bicycles. No city in the U.S. is anywhere close to that, but many American cities are encouraging cycling. According to People for Bikes, America’s ten most bike-friendly cities are Boulder, Colorado; Fort Collins, Colorado; Eugene, Oregon; Manhattan, New York; Arlington, Virginia; Lawrence, Kansas; Brooklyn, New York; Portland, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

An ambitious cycling project called the Great American Rail-Trail is projected to span the United States from Washington, DC, to Washington state with a dedicated 4,000-mile bike trail. The project aims to link many existing bike trails and create new ones, and if completed will surely stimulate additional interest in recreational cycling.

As it stands, in many neighborhoods around the United States, millions of miles of sidewalks stand empty almost all the time, empty monuments to our car crazy, gas-guzzling culture. Making empty sidewalks available for use by cyclists is a common sense solution, and it could be accomplished by federal law.

David Drum is a Los Angeles-based writer and cyclist. He is the author of several nonfiction books in the health area as well as the historical novel Heathcliff: The Lost Years, the story of Heathcliff’s adventures after he left Wuthering Heights.

David Drum has worked as a newspaper reporter, ranch foreman, a funeral director, and more. MFA from the University of Iowa, author of several books.