Puyallup Herald

Puyallup weighs ban on riding bikes on downtown sidewalks. Would it be safer?

The city of Puyallup is considering making it illegal to ride bikes on certain sidewalks in downtown Puyallup.

An ordinance proposed to Puyallup City Council Tuesday would prohibit bicycle riding on sidewalks, alleys, public paths, publicly owned parking lots or other areas designated by the city.

The regulations aim to create a safer environment for pedestrians, say supporters.

“It’s a high-pedestrian area,” Councilman Jim Kastama said about downtown. “We want it to be pedestrian friendly. We want it to be age friendly. We want it to be disability friendly.”

Two maps were proposed with the ordinance, focusing the restricted area to Meridian between Stewart Avenue and Pioneer Avenue.

Exceptions are made for law enforcement officers, medical personnel and children ages 12 and under.

Supporters say the ordinance isn’t a ban on bikes — people can still ride on the street.

But others say it introduces another safety problem, this time between vehicles and bicyclists.

Pedestrian safety

Before 2014, it was against the law to ride bicycles on sidewalks in downtown Puyallup. Council voted to change the law after constituents said they “feel more comfortable riding on sidewalks rather than roadways,” according to an agenda from June 2014.

It stayed that way until Kastama brought the item forward to review in October, citing anecdotes from constituents about nearly getting hit by bicycles on sidewalks. Narrow sidewalks and limited sight distance for people exiting businesses contribute to near collisions.

As Puyallup increases development downtown, the city should prepare for more foot traffic, Kastama said.

“This was brought forward because of the growing visibility and presence of pedestrians downtown,” Puyallup Police Chief Scott Engle said at the Council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 29. “... Some folks who ride their bike(s) are not respectful of others. This gives an officer a chance to reach out to correct that behavior.”

Regulations on bicycles aren’t unheard of. Generally, state law allows bicycle riding on sidewalks. It also allows municipalities to make their own rules. Bellingham is one example for prohibition.

“We’re really asking people … we’d like you to dismount your bicycles and walk with your bicycles,” Engle said. “If you don’t, then you’ll need to ride in the road, and the law states if you’re riding in the road, you accept all the same responsibilities and rights as a vehicle.”

At the same time, cities don’t always post signs or conduct education campaigns if the rules are changed.

“If you’re changing the rules, it’s only fair to let people know that’s the case,” said Barb Chamberlain, director of the active transportation division for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Safety for cyclists

Bikes on the street might be safer for pedestrians, but is it safer for cyclists?

Not necessarily, according Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for Transportation Choices Coalition.

When cities allow biking on sidewalks, it’s usually because riders say biking on the street “is intimidating, and not very safe, especially for less confident riders,” Mesher wrote in an email.

It’s the same reason the city of Puyallup changed its regulations to allow it in 2014.

“We know from data that collisions between people biking and people walking on sidewalks are very infrequent,” Mesher continued, “and almost never result in serious injury, whereas collisions between people biking and cars can easily result in a trip to the ER or worse.”

A 2018 traffic report by the Seattle Department of Transportation showed that of all documented bicycle collisions, only 5 percent happened on a sidewalk. By comparison, 37 percent of collisions happened in the roadway.

“Ultimately, unless there are safe places for people to ride bikes on the road, such as a network of protected bike lanes or greenways, it is much safer to allow the option of riding on the sidewalk,” Mesher said.

There’s a gap in data when it comes to collisions or injuries that do not occur with a vehicle, said Chamberlain. In those situations, police reports often aren’t filed.

“In the absence of data, the anecdotal stories are the only things people have to point to, and that tends to influence the kinds of ordinance responses we see,” Chamberlain said.

That could change in the future. A bill introduced to the Legislature in 2019 would make it easier to identify patterns in both pedestrian and bicyclist injury and fatality data.

Puyallup Councilwoman Robin Farris mentioned during the Jan. 29 discussion that she talked with Cascade Bicycle Club about the ordinance and that it did not support it. Cascade Bicycle Club declined to comment for this story.

The ordinance will return to council at a later date.