Bicycle, Sidewalks and the Law
by Ray Thomas
Ray Thomas is a Portland bike lawyer.
As I bicycle in the Portland area, I often see bicyclists riding on the sidewalks. Sometimes bicyclists appear to be doing this to avoid traveling the wrong way on a one-way street. Other times they ride on the sidewalk because the road is particularly inhospitable to cyclists due to traffic patterns, the road surface or the lack of a suitable shoulder. Do we cyclists have the right to ride on the sidewalk? What are the rules? How are the police reacting to bicyclists who to choose to use the sidewalk? This article will answer your questions about bicyclists and sidewalks.
Oregon Revised Statute 811.050 makes it a Class B traffic infraction for a motorist to fail to yield to the right of way to a bicyclist on a sidewalk, unless the bicyclist is in violation of another statute, ORS 814.410, which provides that a person commits the offense of “unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk” if the person:
- Suddenly leaves the curb or other place of safety and moves into the path of a vehicle, causing an immediate hazard.
- Fails to give an audible warning before passing a pedestrian while riding on the sidewalk.
- Fails to yield to all pedestrians on the sidewalk.
- Rides carelessly or in a manner that endangers others or endangers property.
- Rides at a speed greater than an ordinary walk when approaching or entering a crosswalk, driveway, curb cut or pedestrian ramp if a motor vehicle is approaching.
One of the attorneys in my office recently had the opportunity to put Oregon’s bicycle-sidewalk statute to the test. Her client was riding his bike on a sidewalk in Sellwood when he collided with a motorist who was making a “blind” exit from a parking lot. The motorist and cyclist probably could not see each other until it was too late to avoid a collision. The motorist sued the bicyclist for the damage to her car. An arbitrator found for the cyclist, deciding that he was not responsible for the damage to the car.
It was apparent that the motorist was thinking more about making a safe entrance into the lane of traffic than she was about sidewalk users. She seemed to expect anyone using the sidewalk to stop for her, rather than taking responsibility for stopping for sidewalk traffic. The primary lesson to be learned from this case is that by and large, motorists do not do a very good job of looking out for bicyclists or for anticipating what they are going to do. That is why it is important for bicyclists to be prepared for the inattentive motorist, and to be prepared to stop quickly when using the sidewalk, even though by law the motorist is supposed to yield to the bicycle.
Violation of ORS 814.410 is a class D traffic infraction for which the uniform bail is $78.00. In Portland’s “core,” as well as in Gresham, Corvallis and Eugene, and other cities in Oregon, the rules are different. Gresham’s City Code prohibits bicyclists from riding on any city sidewalk. Portland Ordinance 16.70.320E prohibits bicyclists from riding on sidewalks in the property bounded by and including S.W. Jefferson St., Front Avenue, N.W. Hoyt Street and 13th Avenue, unless “to avoid a traffic hazard in the immediate area.” The uniform bail for a violation of Portland’s sidewalk prohibition is a whopping $296.00!
Recently, the Portland police have “cracked down” on bicyclists who ride on sidewalks in downtown Portland. The crackdown apparently began after a crackdown in southeast Portland in late 1997, which was in response to business owners’ concerns that bicyclists were disrupting pedestrian traffic and making sidewalks unsafe for pedestrians. The downtown police precinct appears to have followed suit. The police say that they are not just cracking down on bicyclists, but are also citing people who violate other “livability” ordinances, such as those that regulate noise, driving on the bus mall and blocking driveways.
Anecdotally, the police seem to agree that the fine in Portland is too high, and have at least in several instances suggested to bicyclists that they ask the traffic court judge to reduce the fine. I know of one case where that has been successful and the fine lowered to $40.00. It probably will do you no good to argue with the police officer and, in fact, may hurt another bicyclist’s chances of avoiding a ticket for the same behavior. However, DO tell the police officer that you were not aware of the ordinance.
If you are cited for riding on the sidewalk, consider appearing in court or writing a letter to the court explaining, if you have a good reason, why you were on the sidewalk in the first place. If you are cited in a city where the ordinance is not posted, impress on the court that, unlike Corvallis, where bicyclists are warned of the prohibition with signs, this city is not even warning bicyclists that riding on the sidewalk might result in what is to you, an extraordinarily large fine. Even if you were riding illegally on the sidewalk when cited, if you appear in traffic court and explain why it is that you felt you had no safe alternative but to ride on the sidewalk, the judge may reduce your fine.
The City Bicycle Program’s Office is aware of the discrepancy between the state law and Portland’s Code, and is trying to negotiate a compromise ordinance or a bail reduction. Until that is accomplished they are advocating that the police warn bicyclists rather than cite, except in the most egregious situations, and, where they do cite a bicyclist for violation of the sidewalk prohibition, that they cite under the state law rather than under the City Ordinance. For now, if you ride your bicycle on the sidewalk — and that is your right anywhere in the state where doing so is not prohibited by ordinance — you need to know and obey the laws, and, if cited, be ready to pay the fine or argue in traffic court why you were riding on the sidewalk, and why your choice was reasonable or legal.