Confusing laws and confusing situations do not encourage more bicycle riders. In Denver it is technically illegal to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk. You are supposed to ride your bicycle on a bike path or on the streets. Laws in different municipalities are quite different — Portland has a completely different situation.
In general, staying off sidewalks is a very good idea. Pedestrians need to have some protection, and because of driveways, riding a bicycle on a sidewalk is often much more dangerous than riding in the street. Some urge the idea of riding a bicycle on a sidewalk as quite logical, but there are actually some bicyclists who point out safety issues for cyclists in riding on sidewalks. I avoid sidewalks about 99% of the time.
But it seems to me that there are occasions when riding on the sidewalks is actually a good idea. Mostly this is on the really busy streets, like South Colorado Boulevard — six lanes of traffic and very busy all the time. While it’s legal for bikes to be in the street there, and amazingly I do occasionally see this happening, basically you’d be crazy to ride on the street. Cars are going fast and they aren’t looking for bicycles. There is one place in my commute to and from Jazzercise when I am faced with exactly this dilemma: I could either be on the sidewalk for about 50 feet, or be on South Colorado Boulevard for 50 feet. The sidewalk seems a lot safer. Given a choice between something that is safe, and something that is legal, doesn’t it make sense to go with “safe?”
My concern is deeper than just figuring out what I, personally, should do on Colorado Boulevard. Sure, I know that the chances of getting a ticket for this is only slightly greater than that of getting hit by lightning. But we need to encourage clear and easy “rules of the road” if we have any hope of promoting bicycling.
There are actually important laws which bicyclists should obey but sometimes don’t — not running red traffic lights comes to mind. If bicyclists break the law in this way, it just encourages a backlash of car drivers against bicyclists. How can we encourage people to ride bicycles, if there are no clear laws and easy-to-understand “rules of the road” enabling you to get safely from point A to point B?
Bicycling should be for everyone, not just a fairly narrow group of bicycle nuts and eco-saints. There is safety in numbers. The more bicyclists there are out there, the safer things will be for all bicyclists.
(slightly modified January 20)