At the outset, let’s be clear – there is no law against riding on the sidewalk in Arlington.
This is good, as the sidewalk is certainly where some riders belong – say, small children still unsteady on their bike.
And there are others. There’s one rider often seen along Wilson Boulevard who has a remarkable ability to ride a fully loaded bike at what can’t be more than 3 mph. Tops. She’s probably best being on the sidewalk, too.
Most riders, however, should not – from a practical perspective – ride on the sidewalks.
First, there’s usually a significant speed differential between bike traffic and pedestrian traffic. This means that a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian is likely cause more injury to the pedestrian. Just as cyclists (rightly) expect motorists to exercise more care given the car’s ability to do more damage, pedestrians should be able to expect the same effort from cyclists.
From a more selfish perspective, cyclists also put themselves in greater danger at intersections when riding on a sidewalk.
Fairly or not, motorists simply aren’t looking for cyclists coming from the sidewalk at intersections – see the spate of recent car-bike collisions along the Custis Trail, essentially a sidewalk where the crashes happened. Even where a motorist might have seen the cyclist on the sidewalk, motorists are generally poor judges of cyclists’ speed and will not correctly time a turn.
Are there times where it is reasonable to use a sidewalk? Sure. The featured photograph with this piece shows one. The cyclist had just left the street and is on his way to park at the Ballston Metro bike racks. There’s plenty of space on the sidewalk, and he was riding slowly.
Finally, there are some riders who will never be comfortable riding in the street and will always prefer the sidewalk.
In those cases, they simply need to recognize that choosing to ride on the sidewalk means that they should always ride slowly, yield to pedestrians, and be extremely careful at driveways and intersections.
Riding on the sidewalk is legal anywhere in Virginia unless a locality has prohibited it and conspicuously posted signs informing cyclists of that fact. See the relevant section of state law here. Virginia law does not require cyclists to dismount in crosswalks.
Riding on the sidewalk in Washington is also legal, except in the downtown business district and portions of the National Mall.
Tips for those who insist on riding on sidewalks here.
Want to get more comfortable with your street cycling skills? There’s still one more Confident City Cycling class being offered by Arlington. Sign up now for the Sept. 17 class. There are also more comprehensive Traffic Skills 101 classes offered through Arlington Adult Education in October. Click here for details about both.
Mark Blacknell is chair of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.