Advocates for a law against bicycling on sidewalks talk about safety. But with so few injuries or fatalities that involve sidewalk cycling, is this more about perception than reality? Maybe it’s like roller coasters, which are designed to be scary but not dangerous.

Photo by hounddiggity on Flickr.

Washingtonian’s Emma Foehringer Merchant looked at the pros and cons of a sidewalk cycling law in Washingtonian. She wrote,

[Councilmember Jim] Graham argues allowing bikes onto sidewalks only transfers the hazards bikers face to pedestrians. “It doesn’t make sense to me, and I’ve got too many people who have fear of injury,” Graham says. The council member said he believes the bill will encourage more bike lanes, as pedestrians lobby for their construction to protect walking space.

Graham is trying to protect people from the fear of injury — not actual injury. Some of this is legitimate. People should not have to live with fear or be constantly startled. But some of this is what I call the Roller Coaster Paradox.

I usually refer to this when people ask “isn’t biking dangerous?” It can be scary some time, scarier than driving, but it’s not significantly more dangerous — if it is at all. I’ve become convinced that we really don’t know. People drive to the amusement park and then they ride roller coasters. They find the first part to be nothing of concern (maybe they even sleep on the way) but the roller coasters are quite terrifying, by design. But in reality the drive is far more dangerous. The fatality rate for travel by car in 2000 was 0.86 deaths per 100 million miles of travel, but for roller coasters it was only 0.70. And the drive is far longer than a roller coaster ride. So the roller coaster is scarier, but not as dangerous.

Part of the concern about sidewalk cycling stems from this: it can be scary for pedestrians, but not that dangerous. Pedestrians have a legitimate right to ask to not be scared, but so do cyclists who are choosing the sidewalk over the road. What we really need is for the police to enforce laws against unsafe sidewalk cycling and perhaps for the council to define some rules (a sidewalk speed limit, perhaps lower when pedestrians are present? A no passing rule, perhaps tied to sidewalk width? A strict “hitting a pedestrian on the sidewalk creates a presumption of guilt” rule?) Graham also claims that this law will encourage more bike lanes due to pedestrians lobbying for them. This is a very unlikely outcome. AllWalksDC already supports more bike lanes, as does the Pedestrian Advisory Council. In addition, since cycletracks have already been shown to reduce sidewalk cycling in DC, people opposed to that behavior already have reason to support them. Yet I have not seen any interest in that from the people pushing for this law. If Graham wants more bike lanes and cycletracks, he’s had ample opportunity to engage with DDOT to make that happen. This is not “Force 10 From Navarone” where the easiest way to destroy the bridge is to blow up the dam. The easiest way to install more bike lanes… is to install more bike lanes. A version of this post was originally published at The WashCycle.