Bicyclists can ride on any sidewalk in Seattle as long as they do so in a "careful and prudent manner." In Bellevue, bicyclists can ride on the sidewalk unless doing so would “unreasonably inconvenience pedestrians,” city code says.

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With the growth of bicycle-share programs and an increase in the number of people working and walking in the downtown area, more pedestrians and bicyclists are coming into contact.

Bicycles, and shared-bicycle programs in particular, provide an accessible form of transportation, but some view them as a hindrance and potential hazard when walking downtown — prompting one reader to ask about the legality and practicality of bike-riding on sidewalks.

“Why are bicyclists allowed to ride on sidewalks?” Mary O’Loughlin, of Ballard, wrote to Traffic Lab. “I’ve dodged a few bikes while walking downtown and it doesn’t make sense to me.”

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company, Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

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For this week’s column, we explain the rules about where bikes are allowed.

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First, let’s be clear: Bicyclists can ride on any sidewalk in Seattle as long as they do so in a “careful and prudent manner.”

According to Seattle Municipal Code, bicyclists are expected to take into account the “amount and character” of pedestrian traffic and yield the right of way to any pedestrian, just as drivers are supposed to yield to pedestrians and bicyclists.

In Bellevue, bicyclists can ride on the sidewalk unless doing so would “unreasonably inconvenience pedestrians,” city code says.

State law, however, says individual municipalities can create their own provisions regarding sidewalk use.

Bellingham, for example, does not allow bicyclists to ride on sidewalks within the business district except for law-enforcement officers on duty.

With increased pedestrian traffic in the center city, why are bicyclists allowed on sidewalks?

Usually, people aren’t riding on sidewalks by preference.

“Virtually all bicyclists, when asked, will tell you that they prefer riding on roadways,” said Scott Waller, the program manager for bicycle safety at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “But it’s not always safe to do so.”

Some Seattle streets have dedicated spaces for riding, such as protected bike lanes. But on other streets, bicyclists share lanes with cars and trucks.

“In some stretches of roadway, bicyclists simply cannot get from Point A to Point B safely without using a sidewalk or a stretch of road may be impassable to bicyclists,” Waller said, “such as areas where the roadway is damaged or in construction areas.”

In general, though, “bicyclists are not safer on the sidewalk because they become almost invisible to the motorist,”  according to a paper funded by the New York governor’s Traffic Safety Committee.

Drivers turning left or right, the paper says, “are simply not looking for, or expecting to encounter,” a bicyclist. Even if they see a bicyclist, they may underestimate the speed a rider is traveling, which is likely faster than someone walking.

Also, because of the uneven riding surface on sidewalks, bicyclists can more easily hit an obstacle, slide on gravel or leaves, or lose control, the paper says.

A separate analysis from University of Kentucky researchers researchers found that bicyclists on sidewalks have higher rates of collisions than those riding on the street.

Do other cities allow bicycles on downtown sidewalks?

Some states don’t have regulations that specifically authorize or prohibit bicycle riding on sidewalks. Most states that do generally have bicycle laws that give those riding on a sidewalk the same rights as pedestrians, but require them to yield the right of way to people walking. In many instances, states allow local jurisdictions to enact additional rules on bicycling on sidewalks.

Here are a few cities that did:

  • Portland: Bicyclists are not allowed to ride on a sidewalk within the urban core “unless avoiding a traffic hazard in the immediate area” or using sidewalks specifically designated as bike lanes or paths. Outside of that, a bicyclist has the same “rights and duties” as a pedestrian on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk. However, a 2016-2017 Oregon Bicycle Manual advises that, in general, “you shouldn’t ride a bicycle on sidewalks.”
  • Washington, D.C.: Riding a bike on the sidewalk is permitted outside of the central business district. Cyclists are required to yield to pedestrians on sidewalks.
  • New York: The New York City Department of Transportation is clear — “ride in the street, not on the sidewalks.” The exception is for riders age 12 or younger who operate bikes with wheels less than 26 inches in diameter. The city encourages riders to use marked bike lanes or paths when available.
  • Vancouver, B.C.: Not only does Vancouver ban bicycles from sidewalks, it also prohibits skateboards, rollerblading, motorized scooters, Segways and hoverboards. The city’s 2015 Cycling Safety Study found that about 6 percent of reported cycling collisions happened when bicyclists were riding on the sidewalk before entering an intersection. As a result, the city began enforcement to decrease bike riding on sidewalks.

What about those recently introduced electric bikes?

A new state law says some electric-assisted bikes are allowed on sidewalks while others aren’t.

Lawmakers classified electric bicycles into three categories, based largely on the speed each could achieve:

  • Class 1: The motor provides assistance when a rider is pedaling and stops assisting when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 mph.
  • Class 2: The motor can propel the bicycle but does not assist when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 mph.
  • Class 3: The motor assists when the rider is pedaling and stops assisting when the bicycle reaches a speed of 28 mph. The bike also has a speedometer.

The law signed this month by Gov. Jay Inslee says Class 3 bikes are not permitted on a shared-use path, like a sidewalk, unless a local jurisdiction specifically allows it.

Class 1 and Class 2 electric-assisted bicycles can operate on a “shared-use path or any part of a highway designated for the use of bicycles,” according to the law. Local jurisdictions and state agencies may impose their own additional limitations.

The law also restricts a bicycle’s motor output to no more than 750 watts.

The bike-share company LimeBike added electric-assisted bicycles to its Seattle fleet earlier this year. Those bikes have a 250-watt motor that achieves a top motor-powered speed of about 15 mph.

Got a question?

Do you have a question about transportation for Traffic Lab? We’d like to try to answer it. Send your questions to trafficlab@seattletimes.com, and we may feature them in an upcoming column.