Every year, as the weather warms and more people get out and about on their bikes, inevitably the “cycling on the sidewalk” debate flares up. Is cycling on the sidewalk a viable option for adults?

Let’s be clear, in Manitoba, cycling on the sidewalk is illegal according to the Highway Traffic Act, s. 145 (8). But is it not a safer option for people on bikes to move off of a busy roadway and onto the sidewalk?

The answer, as hard as it may be to believe, is no. People riding on the sidewalk, according to Manitoba Public Insurance, “face a far greater collision risk than cyclists on the roadway.” The risk is tied to uncontrolled intersections, like back lanes, driveways and strip mall entrances and exits. Here, cars aren’t required to come to a complete stop, and their view is obstructed. Plus, they aren’t expecting fast-moving cyclists, so when collisions happen the driver often comments that the cyclist “came out of nowhere.” People riding bikes on the sidewalk also face increased risk at intersections, as they are not in a good position to be visible to drivers turning left or right. In the summer of 2016, a woman was killed riding on the sidewalk in Winnipeg by a turning vehicle.  

Visibility, predictability and communication are key to the safety of people on bikes. This means sometimes “taking the lane” when cycling on roadways is necessary, as you don’t want to encourage cars to squeeze past you. Avoid weaving in and out of parked cars – if cars are parked consistently in the right-hand lane, stay a minimum of 1.5 meters to the left, out of the door zone. If cars want to pass you, they must do so at a safe distance. Always use signals to communicate when moving to the left, right and when stopping. Check out the full list of responsibilities for road users from MPI.

Yet it’s easy to understand why people sometimes ride on the sidewalk – they don’t feel safe mixed in with motorized traffic. Winnipeg, like most cities in North America, has designed its road infrastructure around automobiles. Because of this car-centric environment, almost 80% of Winnipeggers drive alone in a personal vehicle. Compare that to Denver, Colorado (another four-season, sprawling city), where the drive-alone rate is 70.4% (still high, but far lower than Winnipeg). Further compare this to other four-season cities like Copenhagen, with a cycling mode share of 45%. In cities that have invested in their cycling infrastructure the past 30 years, as opposed to simply building more roads and bridges for even more cars, have dramatically decreased the number of people driving and increased the number of people cycling.

In Winnipeg, we have heard that a lack of safe infrastructure is the key to Winnipeg’s lagging cycling mode share. In a CBC report, 47% of Winnipeggers said they would cycle more often if the city built more protected bike laes, which physically separated bicycles from motorized vehicles. Perception of safety is incredibly important to the average commuter in our city. It is not our winter that differentiates us, it is our built environment.

So, what is a person to do when they want to bike to school or work and they have a route that is suitable … except for one stretch where the infrastructure does not connect. Winnipeg is at a stage where we do not yet have a complete network of routes providing the necessary level of comfort from beginning to end for the average commuter. Or, perhaps a “route” exists, but it’s designed as a recreational path and doesn’t adequately connect point A to point B – sometimes it’s nice to take the scenic route, but not when you want to get to work or school quickly. 

These “missing links” are often where you find people cycling on the sidewalk. When I see people biking on the sidewalk, my reaction isn’t to shake my finger at those individuals, and tsk tsk them for their choice. My personal reaction is frustration. Why don’t these cyclists have infrastructure that is adequate for them to travel with comfort here?

Thankfully, Winnipeg is making gains in sustainable, healthy transportation. Each year, more protected bike lanes are popping up and people are seeing that commuting by bike is possible. According to 2016 Bike Winnipeg data, it’s estimated that 12,600 people commute by bike each day (counts were conducted in the spring). This is still a tiny fraction of what is possible. Whenever you’re out in rush hour, look at all of the cars and imagine what it would be like if 47% of those drivers felt safe enough to get out of their cars and onto a bike.

Do you want to cycle to work, but are uncomfortable riding with traffic? Consider taking a cycling course to improve your skills and confidence. You can talk to your workplace about hosting a workshop from Bike Winnipeg with your staff, or consider the Bike It and Cycling Champions courses through MPI. At Green Action Centre, we are also thrilled to see the BEST Program taking off in Winnipeg schools. The Bike Education and Skills Training (BEST) course will ensure the next generation of commuters are ready to get to work and school in a healthy and sustainable way!

Call Your Councillor: If you have a great commuting route, with a section or two lacking safe, comfortable infrastructure, contact your City Councillor or municipal representative. Everyone pays for infrastructure through their property taxes, and currently people who drive are getting more than their fair share of municipal dollars spent on infrastructure for vehicles. Be sure to let your Councillor know that you are choosing to commute in a healthy, sustainable way, and that you deserve a route that is direct, comfortable and safe.