Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why Whitehorse Needs to Allow Bicycles on Sidewalks (with conditions)

With the proposed Bicycle Bylaw re-write, I have been an advocate for allowing riding bicycles on sidewalks.

What? The horror, right! Bike terrorists knocking over little old ladies! No, that is not what I mean, but I do mean a bit of a shift in our 1960’s vintage thinking that Whitehorse residents are trapped in. (I know, we are a bit off the beaten path and get left a bit behind the times).

In fact, the reason we need to allow bicycles to be ridden, with limits, on sidewalks is actually so little old ladies CAN take up cycling as a viable transportation option.

Here’s what I mean, but first, the conditions:  
  1. Use of a sidewalk for cycling should only be in a controlled, slow speed manner.
  2. the cyclists yield to pedestrians,
  3. give audible warning when overtaking pedestrians (must equipped with bell)
  4. no riding bikes on Main Street sidewalks (that just makes sense for a pedestrian dominated environment). 
Allowing bicycles on sidewalks is a matter of equity and community inclusiveness. There are two reasons why we need to change our thinking and allow bicycles on sidewalks:

  1. Reduce Barriers to Cycling: It opens up opportunities for people to start riding bikes and recognize that cycling, even year-round, is a viable transportation option for them. A majority of Whitehorse residents would likely use cycling as a primarily means of transportation, but are intimidated or concerned about riding on motorways. Whitehorse’s roads are designed for automobiles, and are hostile, intimidating places for cyclists--this is a barrier to cycling. Only the enthused and confident cyclists ride on the road, especially year-round.  However, if Whitehorse’s citizens were allowed to use the sidewalk, when not comfortable or feeling safe on the roadway, then this would act as a “gateway” to cycling and open up cycling to them. Over time as they become more confident and recognize cycling as a viable transportation option.  Then they would likely become more comfortable riding on the roadway. Plus, the roadway is much quicker, so any “commuter” cyclist, moving quickly, will graduate to the roadway. Allowing cycling on sidewalks reduces barriers to cycling for Whitehorse‘s citizens. 
  2. Personal Transportation Equity and Accessibility. Not all people in our community have the skills and capacity to operate a bicycle in an automobile environment. This maybe a child, a senior or someone with mobility or other physical impairments. Many of these members of our community may not even have the privilege of operating an automobile. For these folks, it becomes a matter of transportation equality in allowing them a personal transportation option. By permitting riding of bicycles on sidewalks, it allows these members of the community to travel independently in a safer, low speed environment. Again, it just open up transportation independence to a broader cross-section of our community.
And Whitehorse has yet another compelling reason to allow cycling on sidewalks: WINTER. Winter is a reality for us; but it is not a barrier. During the winter, SNOW sometimes accumulates on the shoulders of the road. This forces cyclist to either operate unsafely in the debris, or move further left into the travel lane – which both endangers the cyclist and enrages privileged motorists. Ideally, the City would have super-duper snow clearing and all of the snow would be removed from the entire travel-way shortly after falling. However, our economic reality is we can’t afford to have unlimited snow removal (and I thing that would not be fiscally responsible anyway). I do believe snow clearing of bike routes should be improved, but I also recognize the financial and physical realities of the City. This is why we should give cyclists the ability to use the sidewalk when they do not feel safe or comfortable using a snow/debris obstructed (or icy) roadway.

So, now we agree that kids, seniors, people with disabilities and newbies should be able to operate bicycles on sidewalks as a matter of equity, personal independence, and safety. We also all agree that when the roadway is unsafe during our never-ending winter, that cyclist should be able to use the sidewalk to travel safely (and nobody wants to run-over a cyclist). Oh, and cyclists do need to access the sidewalk at traffic-light controlled intersections to activate the light because there are no bike-triggered loops in the roadways. So, at this point we have a whole bunch of really, really good reasons for bicycle operation, with conditions, on sidewalk. So, why don’t we just take the plunge and do the right thing.

Now, this is not a radical notion. In fact, many, many cities allow use of bicycles on sidewalks. Reportedly this is quite common in European cities. The example I am well familiar with is Portland, Oregon. There, they allow bicycles on sidewalks outside of their urban downtown, and it works very well. In fact, operating bikes on sidewalks is permitted in under the State of Oregon’s Motor Vehicle Act. If we want to incorporate the legal language into our Bicycle Bylaw, here is what they have in Oregon:

Unsafe operation of bicycle on sidewalk; penalty.
(1) A person commits the offense of unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk if the person does any of the following:

(a) Operates the bicycle so as to suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and move into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.
(b) Operates a bicycle upon a sidewalk and does not give an audible warning before overtaking and passing a pedestrian and does not yield the right of way to all pedestrians on the sidewalk.
(c) Operates a bicycle on a sidewalk in a careless manner that endangers or would be likely to endanger any person or property.
(d) Operates the bicycle at a speed greater than an ordinary walk when approaching or entering a crosswalk, approaching or crossing a driveway or crossing a curb cut or pedestrian ramp and a motor vehicle is approaching the crosswalk, driveway, curb cut or pedestrian ramp. This paragraph does not require reduced speeds for bicycles at places on sidewalks or other pedestrian ways other than places where the path for pedestrians or bicycle traffic approaches or crosses that for motor vehicle traffic.
(e) Operates an electric assisted bicycle on a sidewalk.

(2) Except as otherwise specifically provided by law, a bicyclist on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk has the same rights and duties as a pedestrian on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk.

That’s pretty easy eh? The key point is we need to change our head space. Recognize that bikes CAN be operated on sidewalks, but that they need to be done so in a manner compatible with pedestrians. This does work. Whitehorse residents are not too stupid to figure this out. We are smart enough, we just need to make the paradigm shift and move beyond of the “happy motoring” age.