In Denver, as in many cities across the country, bicycling on the sidewalk is illegal. But this law is largely ignored, as any Denverite can attest. It is extremely common to see cyclists on the sidewalk—versus the road—and citations for breaking this law are rarely handed out. (The Denver Police Department issued 39 citations in 2017 for riding bicycles on sidewalks, and has so far issued 13 citations in 2018.)
When I asked Tony (who declined to give his last name), a uniformed, on-duty bike cop I saw riding on a downtown sidewalk last month, he confirmed that riding a bike on the sidewalk is illegal in Denver. But he does it anyway—and not only because officers are exempted from this law.
“I’m not going to get hit,” he says. He also admits that he has never ticketed anyone for this offense. He says Denver’s roads are too narrow, and it’s a hazard for bikes to be in the streets in many parts of the city because “cars can’t see them.” According to the Denver Municipal Code, the only exceptions to the law prohibiting cycling on the sidewalk are when the rider is within one block of preparing to dismount his or her bike or if the sidewalk is part of a designated bike route. Police officers who ride bikes as part of their official duties, other uniformed city, state and federal employees, and newspaper delivery workers are the only people to whom this law does not apply.
Jill Locantore, Executive Director of the nonprofit advocacy group WalkDenver, says Tony’s perception of the problem is spot-on. While she acknowledges that bicyclists riding on sidewalks is “definitely something pedestrians are experiencing and frustrated with,” she cautions against making the situation a bikes-versus-pedestrians issue. The real issue? “So much of our public rights of way are dedicated to cars that everybody else is pushed to the fringes and we’re fighting for scraps at the edge of the roadway,” Locantore says.
In man-on-the-street interviews conducted mostly in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, many cyclists confirmed that they will ride on the sidewalks when they feel unsafe—which is often—and many reported having been hit by a moving vehicle. One man riding on the sidewalk said five of his ribs were cracked when a car hit him from behind. The car took off. This cyclist estimated he rides on the road 80 percent of the time and on the sidewalk 20 percent. Another cyclist said he will ride on the sidewalk when it feels safer, but he tries not to. When asked if he knew whether it was illegal to bike on the sidewalk, he replied, “I don’t know the law.” This cyclist said he was only ticketed by a police officer once but it had nothing to do with riding on the sidewalk—it was when he sped through a red light while riding in the street.
The city of Denver is aware of the issue. In 2011, Denver Public Works adopted Denver Moves, a plan to create “a biking and walking network where every household is within a quarter-mile” of a non-motorized transportation system—i.e. a comprehensive bike and pedestrian system that could effectively and safely transport people across Denver. The vision was updated in 2016 to “plan for enhanced on-street bicycle facilities in the downtown area and throughout Denver.” Furthermore, since 2016, after every fatal crash in Denver involving a pedestrian, bicyclist, or motorcyclist, a Rapid Response Team of police officers, public works employees, and community members visits the site of the crash to investigate and make recommendations for how to make the area safer.
Investigations by the Rapid Response Team have led to some positive changes, such as replacing burned-out city street lights and trimming back tree branches that made it hard for cars to see pedestrians and cyclists in certain areas. As a result of the Denver Moves plan, some bike infrastructure has been built out as well, such as the protected bike lane on 14th Street and the bike bridge at Colorado Boulevard.
According to Locantore, however, the work is far from over. “[The city] is around one-quarter of the way done with building out the bicycle network. Mostly what they’ve done is the easy-to-implement projects,” she says. “The city needs to dramatically pick up the pace for us to see any meaningful change.”