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I am fairly new to riding, in a city where it is legal to ride in the road or on the sidewalk. In the areas where I need to ride, the roads are busy but the sidewalks are virtually deserted.

I keep hearing that it is safer to ride in the road, but is it really? Are there studies that show (or contradict) this?

It seems like the hazards of riding on the sidewalk are things that are under my control (don't zoom through crosswalks, watch out for cars coming in/out of driveways), while the hazards of riding in the road (people texting while driving, cars passing too close, road rage) I have to rely on other people being careful.

So it seems to me that I am better off riding on the sidewalk where my safety is in my own hands than in the road where my safety is in the hands of all of the drivers around me. But I am new, so I acknowledge there may be other aspects of this that I haven't thought about... so is it really still better for me to ride in the road, and if so, why?

Edit to add: This is a small city in the midwerstern United States. The sidewalks I am talking about are on stretches of road where it's mostly businesses with large parking lots, so there won't be any kids playing or anyone backing out into the road (but still will be people turning from the driveway to the road or the road to the driveway). With the exception of right by a bus stop, you almost never see pedestrians on the sidewalks, it mostly seems to be bicyclists. As an alternative to riding on the sidewalk of this road, I could take a more indirect/winding path through some neighborhoods where it wouldn't feel quite as scary riding in the road and ride in the road there - but is that really any safer than riding on the sidewalk near the busier roads?

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    Things to weight up - many will vary from place to place. Driveways -- people come out surprisingly fast, when they do that backwards they can't see you. Also crossings -- drivers approach them at considerable speed but have practice at repsonding to pedestrians. It's not just your safety -- in most places the road is the legal place to ride to protect pedestrians. Rules of the road also mean you don't have an equivalent of the corridor dance when you meet an oncoming cyclist/pedestrian – Chris H May 30 '17 at 9:04
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    At least in the UK, there's no way on most shared use cyclepath / pavements that you can respond to cars coming out of driveways - there are typically hedges / walls / whatever else in the way which mean the driver won't be able to see you. Can't instantly find a study to support this, but it's why I won't use a shared use cyclepath in anything which approximates a built-up area. – Philip Kendall May 30 '17 at 11:35
  • Yes, as Philip says, a relatively common form of car-bike accident occurs when a car pulls out of a driveway or side street, crossing the sidewalk. – Daniel R Hicks May 30 '17 at 11:54
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    Riding on the sidewalk is always a bad idea. But sometimes riding on the road is a worse idea. You have to decide based on individual circumstances. Also, David Richerby makes a very good point regarding safety for the pedestrians. – Mike Baranczak May 30 '17 at 14:08
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    I think a big part of it is what type of "road" riding you will be doing, a lot, if not most of people who road cycle on the actual road in america are pretty serious and don't want to have to stop or slow at every intersection or driveway and they are generally travelling quite fast, but if you're taking a more leisurely approach and are willing to cycle safely then the side walk is generally usable in areas like you describe. You would just have to use your head and keep safety first for both you and those around you. – Nate W May 30 '17 at 18:55
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Safer for whom?

Cycling on the sidewalk transfers risk from you to pedestrians without their consent. If you feel that the roads are too dangerous to cycle on, you have the option of getting off and walking. If a pedestrian feels that the sidewalks are too dangerous to walk on because of all the cyclists, what are they supposed to do?

If a child runs out of a garden right into your path, what are you going to do? How is that risk under your control? The sidewalk is supposed to be safe for them but I guarantee that, if you cycle into a small child, they'll come off much worse than you.

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    There's a big difference between cycling at walking pace (even then you still can't stop as fast as a pedestrian) and cycling at what most of us would consider a sensible speed for the road. +1 – Chris H May 30 '17 at 11:18
  • Thank you for your reply. I have added some details to my post to clarify the situation - these are roads where there are lots of businesses with large parking lots, so there should not be anybody backing into the road (the road is too busy for that anyway!) and there won't be any children playing. There are rarely pedestrians on these sidewalks except for at bus stops - there seem to be more cyclists than pedestrians. – Tapeworm May 30 '17 at 18:31
  • @Tapeworm do a Yehuda Moon and paint bicycles on the footpath one night. Instant shared walkcycleway ! – Criggie May 30 '17 at 23:33
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In most scenarios, it is not safer for you to ride on the sidewalk. This has been demonstrated numerous times in numerous studies. I won't attempt to site individual studies here, but I will sum up the reasons.

One is that you create more potential points of impact. When you exit the sidewalk to go through an intersection, driveway, or parking lot entrance/exit you are in danger from the cross traffic as well as parallel traffic making turns. The latter danger is greatly reduced if you ride in the street simply because you are in the same lane as those drivers.

Furthermore, drivers simply aren't watching for cyclists on the sidewalk. Cyclists typically move much more quickly than pedestrians and drivers aren't prepared for that. Cyclists seem to "come out of nowhere" as compared to slow moving pedestrians. Pedestrians are also able to stop much more quickly if a driver doesn't see them.

All that said, there are some situations where cycling on the sidewalk is safer. Personally, if the speed limit is under 40 mph, I typically ride in the street. If it's over 50 mph, I typically ride on the sidewalk. If it's between 40 and 50 mph, I judge the road based on how many entrances and exits there are, how wide the shoulder is, how much traffic there is, etc.

Mike Baranczak said it beautifully in his comment, "Riding on the sidewalk is always a bad idea. But sometimes riding on the road is a worse idea. You have to decide based on individual circumstances."

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Ride defensively. As a former army-trained driver, I know that it is important to cycle in a prominent position in the road. Do not cycle right next to the kerb as this will encourage motorists to pass you too closely. If you stay at least 1 meter from the roads edge, cars will be unable to overtake you too closely. The UK Highway Code actually instructs cyclists to ride in the middle of the lane on narrow roads.

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    This is the strategy to use in the city, as car drivers will treat you and your rights to sufficient safety distances as non-existent if you get too much to the right. Sadly, they will take to honking instead when they have to follow you for as much as a hundred meters... You must be prepared for this, and not yield a single centimeter when they honk! – cmaster Aug 13 '18 at 21:44
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_law_in_the_United_States says

"The law on sidewalks and crosswalks is not always well-developed, since other vehicles are not allowed there. Some states and municipalities forbid bicycle riding on sidewalks unless otherwise marked. Others allow it unless otherwise marked. Some require that riders use only the sidewalk on the right or left side of the roadway (whichever is the normal direction of travel on the roadway). A few laws may prohibit riding in crosswalks."

So you have to check your city/county by-laws.

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I also live in a Midwestern city, Chicago, and if you are riding on the sidewalk - i.e. moving at any moderate pace with legs slung over the top tube - you are in the wrong 99.99% of the time, unless you are under 12 years old. God forbid you actually hit someone on the sidewalk. I get chewed out in the hundred meters it takes to make it from the street, onto the sidewalk, and into my front door.

To your question: Is it safer?

Well that depends. It sounds like it's legal riding and fairly unoccupied on the sidewalks by you. In that case it may be safer.

I think the bigger concern is your riding habits in general. You can't take your sidewalk riding habits with you anywhere, be it safe or not. So what happens when you realize you love to do long road rides and all you know is how to maneuver on the sidewalk? There aren't any interesting sidewalk rides I know of in the Midwest. Better to learn how to navigate in real traffic patterns on trafficked streets. That is the least common denominator in the real world - streets with traffic. You will have to get on them and in the mix at some point. It's part of riding.

So, I think it will behoove you to start riding on the road as much as you can, even if it's busy. When it comes time for you to do a long group ride, it definitely wont be on the sidewalk, and you will be better prepared. In my humble opinion, those who regularly ride the streets are safer riders in general - they are better bike handlers, have better reactions, are more intimate with traffic patterns, and some (many) are even safer drivers because of it.

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Even tought there are many great answers I want to weight in, with my very personal perspective on the matter, also I'm from Chile were traffic laws are somewhat questionable for cyclist.

In first place, over anything else it all comes down to your cycling experience. I've been a rider since 3 years old, now 31 and have never stopped. Been riding BMX, Downhill, CrossCountry, Freeride, Street and Road. Why this matters you ask? Well is all about reflexes and habits.

People is not really well educated about traffic, driving test are a joke(I drive a truck, motorcycle and bicycles), so most of the drivers will put everyone in dangerous situations without thinking. Furthermore people can park on the right side of the road, so you have to watch right and left when going on your bike.

So in my opinion this should be the way to cycle around a city:

  • You should always prefer routes that have cycling paths. Even if they end a little bit away from where you are going, it's the most secure.

  • If the street has mellow traffic and good visibility, by all means just cycle on the road.

  • If you think you could get hit by a car, or a bus, because of heavy traffic is ok to go over the sidewalk. You just have to ponder other stuff like kids, dogs, angry old poeple, etc. Also you have to go slower, and be very aware that people won't be specting you on the sidewalk. (About heavy traffic, just a couple of days ago I saw a cyclist made into pudding by one big lory that the driver didn't see the kid near the truck)

Finally, just try to avoid routes that are flooded by cars and people. Bikes are excellent for using alternative routes, as you can make use cycling paths, roads and sidewalk, when you plan properlly.

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You need to document yourself from the local newspaper, on the ocurrence of transit accidents. I bet, that all of them happen in the road and rarely in the sidewalk. That answer your first concern. It is safe?

Take in account also, that is a risk on vehicles getting in or out park space and also when you cross the street on a zebra pass.

In my city I prefer the sidewalk when possible, but not always works, because many sidewalks are damaged by trees roots, by garage ramps or other obstructions.

Remember also, that the sidewalk can be invaded by cars and is used by people and some of them, are unpredictable. Here you should be more careful than in the street.

Don't believe the theory that if a car see you on the road, will avoid you. Thats not true. They will pass you at very high speed and very near of you. And if they hit you, you will probably be dead and unable to say the truth "I was pedaling legally and slowly ..."

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    Newspaper statistics won't help much. Obviously, most cyclists who get hit by cars are hit on the road, because that's where the cars are. However, riding on the footway also means that you now need to cross every side street instead of just riding past them, which introduces a new source of danger. At least in the UK, it's relatively unusual for cars to hit cyclists from behind. Most accidents happen at junctions and riding on the footway means you give up the right of way at every junction you come to. (As well as being illegal.) – David Richerby Apr 16 '18 at 12:36
  • @DavidRicherby Totally agree - We have a rabid anti-cycling newspaper locally and on reading the stories/comments one might assume cyclists rank down there with unrepentant thieves, wearers of mixed fabric and insurance reps. Almost every story about cycle lanes focuses on the lost parking or the inconvenience to road users. – Criggie Apr 16 '18 at 22:53
  • From Aultman and Adams, 1998 (Sidewalk Bicycling Safety Issues): "Among all collisions reported in both cities, fifteen (4.2% of all collisions) in Ottawa and seventeen (7.0% of all collisions) in Toronto occurred on the sidewalk. Four of the collisions in each city were reported to have occurred at intersections. In Ottawa, 37 (9.9%) of the total falls reported occurred on the sidewalk while the Toronto total stands at 45 (9.3%)". Driving on the sidewalk is less dangerous that driving in the road. To fall vs being hit, are different thigs. – djnavas Apr 17 '18 at 1:40
  • @djnavas Reporting of collisions on the road is mandatory, but a collision on the footway may well go unreported. Further, claiming that cycling on the footway is safer is considering only one side of the equation. it may well be safer for the cyclist but it is certainly more dangerous for the pedestrians, and there's basically nothing that pedestrians can do to avoid that risk. So you're nonconsensually transfering danger from you to somebody who doesn't even have an alternative. You, on the other hand, do have an alternative: if the road is too dangerous, you could get off and walk. – David Richerby Apr 17 '18 at 12:47
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    @djnavas The difference is in the fatal accidents: The typical pattern is, truck turns right, does not watch out for bikes, bike crashes into its side, rear wheels of the truck do the rest. And that kind of accident happens anywhere where bikes ride parallel to the street, obscured by parking cars, and crossing side streets from time to time. It does not happen when the truck driver sees a bike riding in front of him in the middle of his lane. He may not be happy to have to reduce his speed, but he'll have a really hard time overlooking the obstacle. – cmaster Aug 13 '18 at 22:01

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