Jumping the Curb

How sidewalk-riding cyclists are changing the Boise bike lane debate.


Some pulled pork diplomacy was in play Sept. 24, when the Boise City Council and Ada County Highway District got together for a rare joint session. Members of the organizations—which have clashed in the past over parking meter sensors, the locations of roundabouts, even the existence of ACHD—gathered around picnic-style tables in the Council chambers to pave the way toward consensus over bike lanes on Capitol Boulevard, their latest and perhaps most heated controversy.

At the Sept. 24 session, ACHD commissioners watched as the Council voted unanimously to recommend the highway district make vehicle lanes narrower in an effort to slow traffic on the thoroughfare.

The suggestion came from a survey of stakeholders, but ACHD Board Member Sara Baker had something else on her mind: She pointed to what she said was a growing number of complaints over bicyclists riding on sidewalks rather than in bike lanes.

"What we got out of those comments is the unpredictability of bike riders." Baker said.

Things quickly soured. The following day, ACHD commissioners rejected the proposal, saying that general traffic lanes along Capitol Boulevard need to be at least 11 feet wide—not 10 feet wide, as called for by the proposal.

Baker's comments further fueled the debate over infrastructure between cyclists and motorists, and even cyclist pedestrians. In the absence of designated lanes, bikers have carved out space for themselves on open streets and, with greater regularity, sidewalks.

"I think [tension between bikers and pedestrians] is a little unspoken," passerby Marie Stender told Boise Weekly while walking down Eighth Street near a freshly painted bike lane. Stender said she has had a number of close calls with cyclists and one stuck out in her mind.

"Whenever I'm walking I don't assume I have to look out for cyclists," she said. "But yeah, I was coming around a corner; I nearly knock him over, he almost knocks me over."

For bike commuter Kyle Bates, who was cycling down an Idaho Street sidewalk, rolling among pedestrians is a last resort when vehicle traffic edges him out of the road. Bates works on Eighth Street but lives in Garden City, and his commute can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes one-way. Most of his ride is on the Greenbelt, but when he reaches downtown, he said he has to juggle between the rules of riding in the street and riding on the sidewalk.

"When I am off the Greenbelt, most of [my ride's] on the road," said Bates. "A lot of people, when they're taking left turns onto one-ways—they don't look."

If Bates represents the group of cyclists who use sidewalks as a respite from car traffic, Jimmy John's delivery cyclists represent a more aggressive rider. At Jimmy John's, going "damned fast"—to quote the company's website—is part of the job. Their red and black jerseys signify them to pedestrians, but they're not always visible to motorists, and at least one JJ's rider said his job would be safer if bike lanes were installed.

"We'd have a designated lane and people would know where to look for us," said JJ's rider Robert Sneider.

JJ's delivery riders are often seen speeding through Boise's downtown core, keeping pace with traffic and making sharp, daredevil turns. Many of them have reported near-misses with vehicles, and every rider is required to wear knee and elbow pads, as well as a helmet. During the bike lane pilot project this past spring, some JJ's riders said the lanes were a boon to slower riders, but for cyclists moving at 15-20 mph, the lanes were unsafe because bicyclists were more difficult to see.

"For us, [the bike lanes] are questionable. I think for slower bikers with kids, it's good because it does provide some protection. But for us, I think it's definitely not a good idea," JJ's rider Tim Cornell told BW in May. "For any road cyclist going more than 15 mph, there's a real risk of getting hit by cars turning across the bike lane. The cars can't even see you half the time, and that's if they're looking."

So far, stories of cyclist-on-pedestrian accidents have flown under the Boise Police Department's radar, since affected parties rarely make official complaints. Tom Shuler, of the BPD Bike Patrol, told BW that pedestrians rarely call in official complaints against cyclists, and he has never handed out a ticket for violating the city's Riding on Sidewalks and Crosswalks ordinance.

"I can't remember when I've ever been contacted. Once in a while when I'm downtown and I see someone riding next to people coming out of a building, I'll stop them," he said. "It's not something we have a lot of issues with."

Rather than handing out tickets, Shuler said BPD's bike patrol engages in community education, explaining the law and courtesy of mixed-use city sidewalks. Sidewalk riders must yield to pedestrians and give audible warnings when passing. On the sidewalk, cyclists count as pedestrians, though when riding in the road, bicycles count as vehicles. Additionally, bicyclists may not leave the sidewalk or curb and enter traffic if doing so creates a hazard.

For the most part, Shuler said the bike patrol tells people to slow down around pedestrians and choose routes through town that minimize danger to themselves and others.

"Everybody's comfort level is different," he said, "but if you're not comfortable riding next to traffic, you're on the sidewalk. If there's no bike lane, you'd probably want to ride on the sidewalk."

Cyclists are trapped between the rules of the road and those of the sidewalk, and will stay that way for the foreseeable future: Since ACHD didn't take up the Boise City Council's plea to reconsider the original proposal from the bike lane stakeholder group, the issue hasn't appeared on either group's meeting agenda. The engineers who designed the bike lane plan that would connect Boise State and City Hall have returned to the drawing board, and it's unclear when they'll return.

Editor's Note According to ACHD spokesman Craig Quintana, the ACHD is still eager to install bike lanes along Capitol Boulevard between Front and Jefferson streets pending engineer design, and hopes to implement them during its Capitol Boulevard resurfacing project, which begins Oct. 15 and is expected to be complete by mid-November.