Recently, there was a bit of media kerfluffle about bicyclists! In San Francisco! Riding on the sidewalk! Which is illegal! Except that it turns out that it’s not necessarily illegal. In San Francisco, riding on the sidewalk is actually mostly illegal, but not completely. It’s worth knowing the rules.
I have ridden on the sidewalk in other cities, where it is legal to do so anywhere, and I will admit: when the roads are unsafe, which is often, it is a huge relief to be able to decide, “To heck with this. I’m taking the sidewalk.” I can’t think of a single US city that has a bike network that is complete enough that no one would ever feel endangered while riding on the existing bike “infrastructure.” In contrast, even five year olds feel safe riding bikes in Copenhagen. Ours did.
I get why San Francisco looks askance at bicycles on the sidewalk. There are a lot of people on foot in San Francisco, and the sidewalks can get crowded. What that really means is that the sidewalks should be wider, and there should be protected bike lanes, so there’s room for everyone to move safely, but this is not the world we live in yet. That said, since I was hit by a car, there are times and places when I look at the road, then look at the sidewalk, and decide it’s not worth the risk of being technically legal. So for example, on the half-block of California Street between Presidio and the driveway to my office, I often ride on the sidewalk. That’s because California Street is basically an urban freeway and there is not even a painted bike lane. I also feel completely justified riding on the sidewalk to get to a bike rack, because duh. If cars can cross the sidewalk to get into a garage then I can cross it to get to a designated bicycle parking spot.
There are a lot of places in San Francisco, however, where you don’t have to decide whether it’s safer to break the law, because there are times and places where it is perfectly legal to ride on the sidewalk. Here are the ones I know about.
- You are a child. It is always legal to ride on the sidewalk if you are a little kid. I have heard conflicting reports about whether it is legal for a parent to accompany a child riding on the sidewalk. It is sort of a pointless exception if it’s only legal for unaccompanied kids to ride on the sidewalk, and parents are supposed to ride on the street, but I’ve long since given up expecting laws that relate to bicycles to make sense.
- You are riding along the perimeter of the city (mostly). Starting along the Embarcadero at the eastern edge of the city, up north from there through Fishermans’ Wharf and Fort Mason, west along Marina Boulevard and into the Presidio through Crissy Field: it is legal to ride a bicycle along the sidewalk at the water’s edge anywhere here. These are designated bike routes and sometimes even marked (for example, a bike lane is marked on the pavement on the Crissy Field path, although the markings are usually covered with sand from the beach). West of there is a shared bicycle-pedestrian path all down the western edge of the city along the Great Highway. There are some parts of the city’s perimeter that I don’t know about. At the southeastern edge of the city in Bayview/Hunters Point we’ve never found an obvious path along the waterfront, and based on our experiences around India Basin, which seems to be blanketed in broken glass with cars parked blithely in the street and on the sidewalk, it wouldn’t be the most fun place to ride. On the other end of the income spectrum, there’s a little gap between the Presidio and the Great Highway at Sea Cliff. I doubt that it matters. The few times we’ve ridden around that neighborhood I felt perfectly safe riding on the street, as it seemed probable that the ample private security forces up there would immediately surround any car moving at more than about 15mph.
- You are riding east-west through Golden Gate Park. Although there is now a parking-protected bike lane along part of JFK Drive, there are still metal plates set into the sidewalk all along JFK Drive indicating that it is a shared bicycle/pedestrian path. The same plates mark Kezar Drive and various points where bicycle/pedestrian paths enter the park from Fulton on the north side and Lincoln on the south side. The Panhandle, which stretches east of the park from Stanyan to Baker, also has a shared bicycle/pedestrian sidewalk on the north path.
- You are riding along Mission Creek. I have never actually seen this marked anywhere, but local bike shops swore that it was a shared path.
I have heard that there are other places where it is demonstrably legal to ride on the sidewalk, such as a crossing under 101 where bicycles are instructed to take the sidewalk, but I have no personal experience. I know it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in the places listed above because I’ve ridden them, but I’ve hardly ridden everywhere in this city. Any other places where it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in San Francisco?