Sidewalk Cycling; More Risk than it is Worth

It isn’t unusual to see people cycling on the sidewalk in College Park. And most drivers think they prefer them there but cycling on the sidewalk is more dangerous than most people believe. Sidewalks are designed for pedestrians that travel at extremely slow speeds. As a result it is extremely dangerous for cyclists who often travel between 8 and 20 miles per hour. You may not have time to maneuver around the pedestrian that pops into a blind spot.

Accidents with motor vehicles increase on the sidewalk as well. Moreover, not all crossing areas have ramps, causing cyclists to make extreme changes in speed and dawdle in the roadway. Furthermore, the speed with which cyclists switch from sidewalks to crosswalks without stopping for the stop sign is an accident waiting to happen as drivers aren’t given enough time to react. Even more dangerous is the biker’s tendency to ride against traffic. On a sidewalk, this can be deadly. A motorist waiting at a stop sign to make a right turn looks to her left for traffic. When there is none, she will proceed to turn right—directly into the path of a wrong-way bicyclist approaching from the right. Bicycling against traffic increases accident risk by 360%. Bicycling on the sidewalk increases accident risk by 180%, and bicycling the wrong way on the sidewalk increases accident risk by 430% (Wachtel and Lewiston 1994). Between one quarter and one third of all bicycle-car crashes occur when the cyclist is riding against traffic (Hunter et al. 1996; Plotkin and Kormornick 1984).

In an area, like campus, with few interior roads the debate about the proper place of bicycles is yet to be decided. One thing that is certain is that students continue to bike on the sidewalks. With that in mind I recommend that riders keep the following rules and tips in mind.

  • It’s illegal – The law in Maryland requires bicycles to follow the same rules of the road as other motor vehicles.
  • It’s dangerous – Riding on the sidewalk gives you a false sense of security. Hitting pedestrians, getting clipped by cars coming out of driveways and having to duck low hanging branches are just some of the risks that can lead to injury. And more accidents occur from bicycles entering the roadway from sidewalks than from those already in the roadway.

I do realize that there are areas, like McKeldin Mall, that don’t offer easy access by the roadways and that some roads, like those in front of Stamp are very difficult to navigate. I am not encouraging you to break the law or put yourself in danger, but if you do decide to ride on the sidewalk here are a few ways to avoid injury to yourself and others.

GO SLOW – For all the reasons listed above, riding faster than you can jog creates problems for vehicles and pedestrians. The sidewalks are designed for people going slow speeds, many walkers won’t know to look for you and have no conventions for which way to dodge if you ring a bell or call out your presence. Riding slow is the best way to preserve maneuverability.

YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS– Again, sidewalks are for pedestrians. They are not looking out for you. You must look out for them. Some may be brand new to campus and some may have limited mobility. Be polite.

CHECK DRIVEWAYS – Again, cars aren’t looking for fast moving vehicles on sidewalks. They pull all the way to the street before they look both ways. This is a prime time for a collision and you would be at fault.

CROSS AT CROSSWALKS – Drivers aren’t looking out for bikes coming out of driveways unexpectedly because they have the right of way, even with other cars. They also aren’t looking for bikes popping across the street after traveling against traffic on the sidewalk. Cross at sidewalks and come to a complete stop to look both ways before you cross. Again, you do not have pedestrian right of way as long as you are astride your bike.

WALK YOUR BIKE – If you just can’t make yourself ride in the street, consider walking your bike at congested times like class changes. When there is heavy pedestrian traffic the best thing to do is become one of them and walk your bike.

BE VISIBLE AND AUDIBLE – If you have the occasion to right at dusk or after dark, use a light to make sure you are visible. Consider getting extra reflective gear like ankle bands, hats and backpacks with reflective tape. Use a bell.

The key to riding safely in the street is predictability.

Many people fear riding in the street because they fear being hit from behind. This is why so many people ride against traffic. However, the majority of bike and car accidents that occur are the result of cyclists either not following the rules of the road or failing to be predictable. Imagine if cars had no brake lights or turn signals. Luckily there is a system of signals available to cyclists to help communicate with the cars around them.





When cyclists use these signals it greatly reduces the number of accidents that occur at intersections, one of the highest risk areas. On our campus, the roundabouts create traffic patterns that many cyclists are unfamiliar with. When cycling through a roundabout follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Ride counter-clockwise
  2. Don’t cut across the center of the circle or go against the flow of traffic
  3. When passing someone in the circle, pass on the left





How dangerous is it really?

Much of the fear of riding in the street is evolved from urban myths. Certainly you are more like to suffer a serious injury from colliding with a car if you are on a bike versus in a car but bicycle accidents tend to occur at much slower speeds and cyclists have greater mobility to avoid an accident. In particular, the speed limit all across campus is just 20 miles per hour. So the risk of serious injury is pretty low if you stay alert and make your movements predictable. Even off campus the risk of death in a bicycle crash is comparable to the risk in an SUV or a Van.

Odds of Death vs. Injury in Crashes by Vehicle








1 in 1000

Car, Station Wagon



1 in 108

Pickup, SUV, Van



1 in 75




1 in 71

Large Truck



1 in 43

Motorcycle, Motorbike



1 in 26

On Foot



1 in 15

Data From NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts 1997

Similar studies indicate that you are at much greater risk of getting hit by a car when you are walking than when you are cycling. Per mile traveled, according to Pucher and Dijkstra, more than three times as many pedestrians die from auto collisions as do cyclists.


The health and environment benefits of biking outweigh the injury risks.

As an alternative to driving, biking offers many personal and social benefits. The low-impact, moderate exercise that most people experience when riding a bike 5 to 15 miles an hour improves overall fitness and lowers stress levels. The following table shows the benefits in terms of gas saved, CO2 saved and calories burned from one roundtrip commute a day for a month. Furthermore, the more cyclists that are present, the more automobile drivers know to look out for them which in turn increases safety on the roads.


Hunter, William W., Jane C. Stutts, Wayne E. Pein, and Chante L. Cox. 1996. Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Types of the Early 1990s. U.S. Department of Transportation. FHWA-RD-95-163.

Plotkin, Wendy and Anthony Komornick, Jr. 1984. Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Accidents in the Boston Metropolitan Region. A Study of Reported Accidents Occurring within Route 128 in 1979 and 1980. Boston, MA: Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

Wachtel, Alan, and Diana Lewiston. 1994. Risk Factors for Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Collisions at Intersections. ITE Journal. September. pp. 30-35.

Schimek, Paul, 1999. The Dilemmas of Bicycle Planning.

Pucher, John and Lewis Dijikstra, 2003. Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to

Improve Public Health: Lessons from The Netherlands and Germany. American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 93, No. 9, Sept.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sidewalk Cycling; More Risk than it is Worth

  1. StopNonsense says:

    Bicycle Related Definitions and Laws Subtitle 11. Miscellaneous Rules. 21-1103 (2)
    Where permitted by local ordinance, a person may ride a bicycle, play vehicle, or unicycle on a sidewalk or sidewalk area. Montgomery County allows bicycles. Mopeds, no.

  2. DazedAndConfused says:

    Hello Sir,

    In this blog, you say that it is illegal to bike on sidewalks on campus. Why is this? The following would seem into indicate that this is not the case.

    SHA: “When riding on a sidewalk, where such riding is permitted, a bicyclist made ride in a crosswalk to continue on their route. Motorists are required to yield right of way to a bicyclist operating lawfully in a crosswalk at a signalized intersection.”

    UMD: Rules and regulations do not mention riding on sidewalks as being prohibited.

    Can you shed some light?


    • bikeumd says:

      Dear Dazed,

      The State of Maryland prohibits riding on the sidewalk except where a jurisdiction has made an exception. That guidance from the SHA is for the areas “where such riding is permitted” such as in jurisdictions where they have made an exception. I believe Montgomery County has made an exception on at least some of their sidewalks. Prince Georges County has not. The state is currently looking at legislation that would give cyclists rights in crosswalks if the crosswalk begins and ends in a bike trail. But currently the state law is that bikes do not have right of way in sidewalks or crosswalks.

      The UMD DOTS regulations do not mention riding on sidewalks as being prohibited because it is rarely enforced.

      So what does this mean in a practical sense? This means in pretty much any accident that occurs on a sidewalk, the cyclist is at fault. I hope this helps.

    • bikeumd says:

      Also note the other comment that mentions the annotated law…

  3. Dazed says:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s