Should Boulder Prohibit Bicycling on Sidewalks?


By Dom Nozzi

August 16, 2014

Boulder Colorado is well known for providing an impressive range of bicycling facilities. However, the City prohibits bicycling on several sections of commercialized streets.

I have serious concerns about this prohibition. I should state first that I am very well aware of how poorly bicyclists mix with pedestrians on sidewalks – particularly sidewalks that are heavily used. An important reason for the incompatibility is that bicyclists and pedestrians have a very large speed differential, and pedestrians often move from side to side unpredictably. For these reasons, I typically tend to oppose bicyclists on sidewalks. I was a bicycle commuter in Florida for about 25 years, and I made it a point to almost never ride my bike on a sidewalk, and would strongly prefer it if I (and other bicyclists) NEVER had to be on a sidewalk. Professionally, I have spent much of my career strongly advocating that bicyclists not be allowed on sidewalks, and often argue with friends and others when I frequently hear the claim that bicyclists are safer (and belong) on sidewalks. I have always taken the position that bicyclists don’t belong on sidewalks.

It is therefore highly ironic that here in Boulder, where bicycle facilities are extremely high-quality and abundant, I suddenly find myself riding on sidewalks almost every day I ride. Not because I prefer it, but because I feel forced to do so.

There are two main reasons why, for the first time in my life, I am often riding on sidewalks. First, Boulder has a number of extremely important streets (streets that most all travelers understandably want to travel on frequently – that includes bicyclists) that are nearly impossible for a bicyclist to ride on – including for highly experienced, skilled bicyclists (I include myself in that category). These car-only, large_SMBIKE 1 MCNISHhigh-speed highways are exceptionally hostile to bicyclists. The main offenders are Broadway (particularly in the town center), Canyon, and 28th Street. Second, Boulder has a made what I believe is the very bad decision to convert a number of two-way streets to one-way operation in the town center. A growing number of cities are converting their one-ways back to two-way operation after discovering how toxic they have become to a healthy city and street. With one-way streets, bicyclists are presented with three extremely undesirable choices: (1) opt for a very inconvenient, out-of-the-way route that adds significant distance to the bicycle trip; (2) ride in the street against traffic (which is extremely dangerous); or (3) ride on the sidewalk. I typically opt for #3, even though I am well aware of the incompatibility-with-pedestrians problem.

Given all of the above, I believe it is extremely problematic for Boulder to not allow bicycling on commercial streets such as town center Canyon and Broadway (or on one-way streets).

By doing so, Boulder is taking the position that bicyclists are not allowed to bicycle on some of the most desirable, heavily used routes in the city. Only pedestrians and cars are allowed on those streets. While the regulation is a significant inconvenience for someone such as myself, it is much more inconvenient (and extremely discouraging) for the “interested but concerned” bicyclist that Boulder is now seeking to put special efforts into encouraging.

Again, I tend to be strongly opposed to allowing bicyclists to ride on sidewalks. But when the Colorado Department of Transportation (and the City of Boulder?) opted to design town center Broadway and Canyon to be hostile, car-only superhighways (and opted to convert certain two-way streets to one-way), an unavoidable consequence (in my opinion) was to force the City of Boulder to take what is normally a very undesirable position (in some ways, a Faustian Bargain): allow bicyclists to ride on sidewalks on those exceptionally hostile streets. Building car-only Broadway and Canyon in the town center (as well as creating one-ways) makes such a policy nearly unavoidable, unless the City of Boulder wishes to significantly handicap or inconvenience bicyclists by not allowing them to ride along Broadway or Canyon in the town center.

In sum, I believe that the regulation discriminates against bicyclists. I should add that I recommend allowing bicyclists on sidewalks with deep regret (for the reasons I mention above), which to me adds urgency to the need to, say, road diet Canyon and Broadway in the town center to make them Complete Streets, because in general, bicyclists do not belong on sidewalks. But until that day of reform for Canyon, Broadway, and the one-way streets comes, bicyclists should be allowed on the sidewalks of those streets.



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