New Signage Discourages Sidewalk Riding In Santa Monica, But It’s An Issue That Defies Simple Resolution
This past week I first noticed signage and stenciling in Santa Monica telling cyclists not to ride on the sidewalk. This new stencil signage is at present only on 2nd St near Arizona, and is inconsistently implemented with one intersection with a walk your bike icon (2nd & Arizona), and another with a bike crossed out (2nd & Wilshire, as well as at one mid-block point). If we are to going to have such markings, I prefer the “walk your bike symbol”. “Walk your bike” frames the issue in the positive, and makes it more clear the riding a bike on the sidewalk is the issue, not simply a message of “no bikes”. For simplicity sake, “walk bike” would be shorter and communicate the same message.
Although the city has a straight forward blanket municipal ban on sidewalk cycling citywide (SMMC 3.12.540), the issues that revolve around sidewalk cycling are anything but straight forward.
I’ve been in meetings with impassioned seniors describing near misses with bicycle riders passing by too quickly, who feel their safe space has been encroached upon. I have also talked to many people who depend on their bike as a primary mode of transportation terrified at the road conditions to reach certain destinations in Santa Monica, and feel the sidewalk is their only to avoid speeding vehicles or driver harassment. Many have never heard that it was illegal in the city. As advocates for more sustainable cities and active transportation, we need to be sensitive to concerns on both sides, and at times I think some of us in the bike community have done a poor job at both.
I admit guilt on my own part on both fronts in the past and my views have evolved over recent years as I took in new information and listened to broader perspectives. Just because some of us can point to safety data that contradicts certain overblown fears, doesn’t matter if others don’t know it, and don’t feel it. This applies to the senior community that is especially fearful of bikes whizzing by, and bicyclists who we may feel ought to claim space in the roadway, aren’t willing to take that leap, but want or need to bicycle anyways.
A recent article I’ve seen getting shared around from Vancouver Canada, “Sidewalk Cycling and the Democratization of our Streets”, touches home quite well on many of the feelings and complexities. Sidewalk cycling is symptomatic of deeper issues in the design and allocation of space in our streets. I recommend giving it a look. Iy is unfortunate we have people on foot pitted against people riding bikes, when the root problem here is really the bullying dominance of automobiles over our public space.
As for Santa Monica, we are long overdo for a deeper debate on this issue. While ultimately I believe we should strive for a street grid people feel they can navigate by bike without ever relying on the sidewalk as a goal, the reality just isn’t there yet. I see this manifested in awkward scenarios like a parent who is riding on the street next to their child cycling on the sidewalk who they not comfortable allowing on the street. When I’ve watched kids getting to area schools by bike, I’ve seen some use stretches of sidewalks in their route. Should they really be criminalized?
Santa Monica’s blanket ban is too far reaching, and too punitive. Major gaps remain in the bike network, and destinations exist without comfortable bikeway connections. It’s also inconsistent with our giant neighbor, Los Angeles, which we share many street connections with. L.A. allows bicycling on the sidewalk when done so reasonably and with regard to others.
This results in cycling from Venice (where sidewalk riding is legal) to Santa Monica along the sidewalk to suddenly become guilty of a crime. At the very least if such visual indicators as we now see on 2nd were more prevalent, it would be somewhat less ambiguous for intra-municipal cyclists. The Santa Monica city municipal code specifies sidewalk riding can be given a misdemeanor with jail time as a possible outcome (although in practice it is to my understanding nearly always given as an infraction). For the record, California state laws for driving a car or motor scooter on the sidewalk (CVC 21663 & 21235 respectively) are simply infractions on the CA DMV index of traffic violations. I’m not a legal expert, but something seems out of place here.
It is often cited by many bike advocates that more people have collisions with cars riding on sidewalks due to intersection conflicts and poor visibility. The story is not truly a black and white one. Not all sidewalks are the same, some without driveways or barely any pedestrian usage, present neither much hazard to those on foot or the bicyclist themself if taking care at intersections and traveling a more leisurely pace. I have become more skeptical of blanket prohibitions or sweeping statements that ignore the diversity of contexts.
I’ll be honest in admitting that as much as I am a bicyclist who assertively exercises my right to the roadway, under certain circumstances I will ride for short stints on the sidewalk at a slower pace. Such as reaching destinations in between the long gaps between signalized intersections on Olympic Blvd. Which functions more like a freeway lite than a street. The traffic islands and mega blocks also limit route and turn selection options. When there are aggressive drivers rushing by at 45-50mph, and intersections lacking at some dead end blocks that would require a roundabout routing to go with the proper flow of vehicular traffic, it seems entirely illogical to not take a little short cut rolling slow on an empty sidewalk for a block or two. Yes, sometimes I am a briefly a criminal.
This doesn’t mean I think bicyclists should get a free pass for sidewalk riding. As someone who walks around Santa Monica a lot, I have had my share of close calls from reckless sidewalk riders. Startling folks walking around does us no favors in public support. However having a blanket ban in place is not necessary to enforce sidewalk riding that truly endangers others. Other codes exist that could easily encompass behavior that would startle or endanger a pedestrian, such as “reckless cycling” (SMMC 3.12.570), which has similar language to the qualifiers on the sidewalk ordiance in Los Angeles.
We could also adopt a more flexible sidewalk ordinance that was contextually based, such as the code in West Hollywood which only fully prohibits sidewalk riding only on streets that which include bike lanes (WHMC 15.53.010). There are in incredible number of variants and precedents for regulating the issue, which is also a source of a lot of confusion. Christopher Kidd of Alta Planning and formally the LADOT Bike Blog, has compiled a valuable list of literally hundreds of municipal sidewalk ordinances in the state of California. The states allows local jurisdictions to regulate sidewalk riding, but offers little specific statewide policy guidance of it’s own, which results in a diversity of codes even among regional neighbors.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t going to be unraveled completely until we have broad coverage of high quality bike routes, either by taming and calming, or greater on-street separation. When I visited Coronado in San Diego County, bicycling was a fairly popular way to get around the space constrained city. The main shopping district street of Orange Ave. had lots of bikes parked everywhere. It was also a street with wide fast vehicle lanes, but also fairly wide sidewalks, which happened to have no bicycling or skateboarding signs and stenciling everywhere to the extent of being garish. The build up of signage seemed to have little to no effect on behavior as I witnessed many ride on the sidewalk to reach a destination anyways.
There is more to be said and discussed on this matter, as there are concerned stakeholders on all sides, and not always a clear consensus among bicycling advocates either. With cues that the city is moving forward with efforts to increase visibility and awareness of the prohibition on sidewalk riding, and law enforcement giving increased scrutiny to bicycling in December, this is a debate that shouldn’t be put off.