Chris Hoeber/Special to the Town Crier
This sign in downtown Mountain View warns people not to ride bicycles on the sidewalk.

I have been asked several times if it is legal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in California. Everyone I talked with thought they knew the answer, and everyone’s answer was different.

The short answer is yes, it is legal, but it depends where you are. There is no statewide law prohibiting it, but California Vehicle Code Section 21206 allows local governments to regulate operation of bicycles on public sidewalks. There are no restrictions against it in Los Altos. In the surrounding jurisdictions, Mountain View, Palo Alto and unincorporated Santa Clara County define restrictions, but Los Altos Hills does not.

Palo Alto prohibits bicycles in business districts and has specific regulations for some Alma Street undercrossings. Mountain View prohibits anyone over age 10 from riding “in those locations designated by resolution of the city council and where signs are posted,” and the county prohibits anyone from riding in front of a “business or commercial establishment.”

I looked for signs in downtown Mountain View, and sure enough, there are signs at the intersection of El Camino Real and Castro Street, but I walked for blocks after that without seeing a sign, so it looks like enforcement is not a priority.

So how is anyone supposed to remember all that? My advice is not to ride on the sidewalk (see below for exceptions) so that you don’t have to worry about it, because it is dangerous and usually discourteous as well.

Every local jurisdiction that does allow riding on the sidewalk has a provision along the lines of “When operating a bicycle, electric bicycle, roller skates or skateboard upon a sidewalk, a person shall exercise due care under the circumstances and conditions … (and) shall yield the right-of-way to persons not operating such devices” (Mountain View). What’s the definition of “due care”? Everyone is going to have their own definition, but most of us know it when we see it, and the burden of proof in the event of a disagreement or accident is going to be on the cyclist.

Most pedestrian traffic on sidewalks is traveling no more than 3 mph, and people are on the lookout for others going about that same speed. It isn’t hard to ride 15 mph on a flat sidewalk, but it is pretty obvious that 3 mph and 15 mph traffic don’t mix well.

Dodging danger

So if you do find yourself having to ride on the sidewalk, please recognize that you are a danger to others and think about whether you can stop fast enough to avoid hitting pedestrians. There is no good reason to scare or inconvenience others.

By far the most dangerous sidewalk-riding situations I have seen involve people riding against traffic and riding through intersections at high speeds in crosswalks.

It is dangerous to ride the wrong way, even at modest speeds, because people coming in or out of driveways or making turns are looking for traffic coming from the other direction. They have no reason to look specifically for anyone or anything coming at more than 3 mph from the other direction.

Riding through the intersection in a crosswalk may not be illegal per se, but again, people are looking where they expect to see cars, and if you emerge from the shadows at 15 or 20 mph, you are going to surprise anyone. An incident that occurred several years ago still sticks in my mind. A young man tore through the intersection at Charleston Road and El Camino Real in Palo Alto in the crosswalk, nearly T-boning a car that was cautiously making a right turn. The rider screamed obscenities at me for “not sticking up for cyclists’ rights” (that would be kind of funny to anyone who knows me well) when I told him that he was at fault.

If it is this complicated, why don’t we just make riding on the sidewalk illegal? My opinion is that there are cases where it is prudent to ride on the sidewalk, and the California Vehicle Code can’t anticipate every local variation. Here are a couple of examples:

• You are going downtown with little kids just learning to ride. You don’t want them to mix it up with traffic, but you do want them to follow your good example on the sidewalk.

• I have ridden on a sidewalk occasionally when I have had a destination on a busy thoroughfare – for example, to pick up my car that was being serviced at the dealer on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale at rush hour. Every individual has his/her own skill level, and there is no reason to turn around to go home and get your car if a little common sense and a short detour on the sidewalk can get you where you need to go.

Chris Hoeber is a local resident, avid cyclist and founder of a cycling club. Email questions and comments to chris@cfhengineering.com.