From Alan Wachtel, CABO Government Relations Director
Dear Governor Newsom:
I was a member of the California Bicycle Advisory Committee, which advised Caltrans on bicycle issues, for 27 years and its chair for 15 years. I’m also the government relations director of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations, one of California’s two statewide bicycle advocacy groups. Based on my years of knowledge and experience as a bicyclist, advocate, and expert witness, I must respectfully ask you to veto AB 825 (Bryan) (bicycling on sidewalks).
While my organization and I appreciate the author’s intent to improve bicycle safety, this bill would instead have exactly the opposite effect. It would encourage dangerous bicycling habits, and it would constitute a huge step backward in the goal of routinely accommodating bicycle travel everywhere in the transportation network. Unfortunately, the author’s office has repeatedly declined to meet with us even to discuss these issues.
Under existing Vehicle Code §21650(g) (which I helped to draft), bicyclists may already ride on sidewalks everywhere, unless prohibited by the code or local ordinance. AB 825 would eliminate that local power unless the adjacent roadway includes a designated bicycle facility, except for last-minute amendments that provide complicated exceptions meant to protect pedestrians (but that are inadequate to do so).
But AB 825, despite being promoted as a bicycle safety bill, would, on the contrary, also be more dangerous for bicyclists. It relies on and actively perpetuates the misconception that the only safe places for bicycles are designated facilities and sidewalks.
Though it may sound surprising, sidewalks are, most of the time, actually much more dangerous for bicycles than streets. The legislative analyses cite a review of 23 studies that estimates the risk of being hit by a car on the sidewalk at 1.8 to 16 times that of the adjacent road. (I’ve published similar research myself, with comparable findings.) As the analyses explain, “According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, . . . [s]idewalks are not designed for high speed travel, and the travel speed of a bicycle can often result in a decrease in visibility for cyclists by cars, potentially placing them in danger at intersections or driveways.”
The California standard for bicycle facility design, the Caltrans Highway Design Manual, in a section on “Sidewalk as Bikeway,” states that “Bicyclists should not be encouraged . . . to ride their bicycles on facilities that are not designed to accommodate bicycle travel” (Index 3003.2), and discusses this point at some length. The corresponding national standard, the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, includes a similar caution (§3.4.2), and identifies sidewalk riding as a contributing cause of bicycle-motor vehicle collisions (§3.4.3). Sidewalk bicycling also tends to promote wrong-way riding, which is an especially dangerous behavior with a high rate of collisions, because it puts bicyclists in a position where motorists do not expect or look for them at driveways and intersections.
In fact, busy streets where it might be uncomfortable to bicycle are also the ones with the highest rate of sidewalk collisions. Sidewalk bicycling on these streets should therefore not be encouraged. Yet expanding sidewalk bicycling is given as an argument in favor of AB 825.
The widespread enthusiasm for AB 825 as a bicycle safety measure, ironically, only emphasizes one reason that sidewalks are so hazardous. Uncritical confidence in imagined separation from motor vehicle traffic (which fails at driveways and intersections) only renders bicyclists more vulnerable to these unexpected conflicts.
The CHP safety study that AB 825 mandates, while welcome, will unfortunately tell us nothing about the effect of this bill on safety. That requires an analysis, street by street, of collisions in locations where bicycling on sidewalks is newly authorized, before and after the change, plus information about the number of bicyclists riding on the roadway and on the sidewalk, also before and after. That data will simply not be available.
Furthermore, while discouraging selective or discriminatory traffic stops is a laudable objective, AB 825 does not even accomplish this purpose. It merely substitutes different pretexts. The author’s goal would be better served by prohibiting these stops as a primary offense.
There is a better approach to bicycle safety. According to the Highway Design Manual (Topic 1002.1(1)), “Most bicycle travel in the State now occurs on streets and highways without bikeway designations and this may continue to be true in the future as well. In some instances, entire street systems may be fully adequate for safe and efficient bicycle travel, where signing and pavement marking for bicycle use may be unnecessary. In other cases, prior to designation as a bikeway, routes may need improvements for bicycle travel.” This is where the state and cities should be concentrating their efforts, not on shunting bicycle travel onto sidewalks.
AB 825 does contain ideas that genuinely merit further consideration, such as speed limits for bicycling on sidewalks and requirements to operate at a reasonable speed that does not endanger the safety of persons or property, to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, and to yield when entering a roadway or driveway from a sidewalk. But it leaves these as local options, when they would more appropriately be enacted statewide.
Sidewalk bicycling remains and should remain lawful in most places. But cities that have decided otherwise on the basis of local conditions should retain that option. Meanwhile, we would be happy to meet with the author’s office on measures, such as those discussed above, to improve bicycling access and safety on both roads and sidewalks—if only that office were willing to meet with us. We must therefore request that you veto this measure as submitted, and encourage the au thor to work with all stakeholders to develop a revised bill.