Ask BikeNerd: Sidewalk Riding, Bike Rack Etiquette, and the Right to Confront

By Josh Cohen July 23, 2010

Another week and another installment of Ask BikeNerd.

Whitney asks: Is it legal to ride on the sidewalk in Seattle?

The answer is right there in the handy (and free) 2010 Seattle Bicycling Guide, along with several other pertinent Seattle bike laws. According to the bike guide, "It's legal in Seattle for a cyclist to ride on the sidewalk." The guide also offers some useful recommendations to "keep it that way by always yielding the right-of-way to pedestrians, taking it slow and using a bell or your voice before overtaking or passing any pedestrian." If you really want to get specific, the law is defined in Seattle Municipal Code 11.44.120.

That said, I think it's an exceedingly bad idea to ride on the sidewalk. Though it might feel safer than riding on a busy street, it is often more dangerous. First, there are the obvious conflicts with pedestrians. As anyone who's ridden the Burke-Gilman knows, pedestrians can be unpredictable and will step in your path without looking. Put a fast bike (the slowest biker is still faster than a pedestrian) on the sidewalk and you're just asking for a collision.

Riding a bike on the sidewalk also increases your chance of getting hit by a driver making a turn into a driveway, alley, or onto another street. A driver looking for slow pedestrians before turning or pulling out of a driveway probably isn't looking for a fast-moving bike. When the driver makes their turn, the bike they didn't see in the distance is suddenly in the car's path.

My boss, Josh Feit, asked me to cover the basics of bike rack etiquette. It's important to note that he and Erica are particularly bitter about rack etiquette because some fool left two bikes locked to the rack outside the 'Cola offices for more than a month without moving them, taking up a wholly unreasonable amount of rack space.

That is a prime example of shitty rack etiquette.

Though SDOT continues to install bike parking as part of the Bike Master Plan, rack space is limited in the city. It is poor form to leave your bike on the same rack for an extended period (let's say more than a night or two) if you're not actually using your bike in that time span. Leaving your bike locked on the same rack for a long time also increases the chance it will be stolen. We're not anything like New York City, but bikes get stolen enough in Seattle that it's worth thinking about.

Beyond that, basic etiquette dictates that you should use as little rack space as possible. Use as much of the rack as you need to safely lock your bike, but if you're only going to put a u-lock through your frame on one of the good "staple" racks (like the one pictured above), you don't need to have your bike taking up one entire side of the rack. Space conscious bike lockers could fit four bikes on the staple rack without having to "double park" or compromise their lock job.

Finally, John asks: Now that driving while texting, hands-on talking, web surfing and emailing is against the law, is it OK for me to hassle drivers I see doing any of those things? Politely, I mean. I always try to obey the law and assume drivers will be careless and prepare for it. But smart phone-addicted drivers continue to make me very nervous.

First, I'd like to say that I agree with John that distracted driving is a problem that puts bicyclists (and pedestrians, and other drivers) at undue risk. And despite the new law making it a primary offense to talk or text while driving, I see people doing it every day.

His question is tough, however. In my experience, confrontations on the road don't usually go well. Even if you're trying to be as polite as can be, it's difficult to not come off as a holier-than-thou know-it-all when you're telling someone they're in the wrong (even if they are!). Tempers flare easily on the road, people get very defensive about their driving (and their bike riding), and it can lead to violent confrontation.

Though I lose my temper and yell at drivers on the road frequently enough, I try my best to live and let live. I doubt you're going to find too many drivers who are going to stop using their cell phone while driving after getting a stoplight legal lesson from a cyclist.

I think the most positive thing you could do is report the distracted driver to the police, particularly if they cut you off, or swerved towards you, or buzzed past you way too close while driving distracted. Beyond that, personal confrontations with drivers seem like they cause more problems than they solve in the long run.

But, I'm curious, so I'll pose the question to the 'Cola readers: have you ever had a successful confrontation with a driver on the road? (Smug satisfaction---good as it feels---doesn't qualify as success).

That's all the questions for this week. As always, send your biking questions to [email protected]
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