Riding an e-bike provides a ton of rewards. However, the one major risk of riding is getting into a collision with a motor vehicle, leading many cyclists to want to ride on the sidewalks where they feel safe.
But are you allowed to ride an e-bike on a sidewalk in the United States?
In general, the answer is “yes”, e-bikes can ride on sidewalks in many cities and states. However, the Federal government leaves it to the individual states, counties, and cities to determine whether they will allow e-bike riding on sidewalks. Some states still classify e-bikes as motor vehicles (and treat them like a moped) making riding on sidewalks clearly illegal. Therefore, you need to obey the local laws.
And figuring out the laws is a bit of a challenge. It’s hard to understand whether or not it’s okay to ride on the sidewalks because each local area may have different rules.
However, the good news is that there are usually clear bicycle laws in each city as well as rules of etiquette when riding an e-bike that’ll keep you safe and out of trouble. I’ll tell you about these and give you several tips to make sidewalk riding (when allowed) more comfortable and enjoyable.
When Electric Bikes Can (or Should) Ride on Sidewalks
Other than when you’re in a state that still classifies e-bikes as motor vehicles, such as New Mexico, Alabama, or Massachusetts, you’ll be allowed to ride on a sidewalk in many local areas.
In fact, if the e-bike you’re riding is classified and defined as a “bicycle” within the area of the U.S. in which you’re riding, then you should feel comfortable following the standard bicycle laws about riding on the sidewalk.
So, you really must find out from each city you plan to ride in:
1. Where e-bikes are allowed to go in the city: Specifically ask… can you ride them on the sidewalk, on multi-use paths, in the business district, in shopping centers, or in other pedestrian areas?
2. And if they can be legally ridden on the sidewalk: Be sure to clarify where it is acceptable to ride on a sidewalk. It may be okay in the residential areas but not in the city’s “downtown” area.
Contact the local City Hall online or in person for more information.
Finally, there are a few reasons that you probably should ride your e-bike on the sidewalk (it still might not be “legal” however):
- When there are no bike lanes and you’re in a busy area or on a street where cars are moving fast.
2. When the bike lane isn’t wide enough for cars to stay a safe distance from you (in California and other states, that’s at least 3 feet).
3. If your bike isn’t working properly and could put you in danger if you’re on the street.
4. Anytime you’re stuck in a situation where you fear for your safety and it would be better to get a ticket (and worth fighting it) even if it might be illegal. Or… maybe you should just walk your bike. Some e-bikes even have “walking” modes to make it easy.
Reasons E-Bikes Should Not Be Ridden on a Sidewalk
Even if you feel safer riding on a sidewalk than on the road with fast cars, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are safer or that you should stay on the sidewalk.
Here are several reasons you should avoid riding on sidewalks whenever you can:
- Business districts in large cities have a lot of people walking around: The potential for injury to both the e-bike rider and pedestrian magnifies greatly just based on the larger number of people in one area.
- Risk of harming pedestrians: Any time there could be significant danger to pedestrians, you should stay off the sidewalk.
For example, someone could get harmed while riding on the sidewalk when kids are getting let out of school, or there’s a “walk-a-thon” charity event, or the sidewalk is just too narrow for you to pass anyone safely.
If the road is too dangerous for you to ride on, then consider walking your e-bike on the sidewalk until you get into a safe spot to ride again.
- You like to ride fast: If you’re not willing to slow down for pedestrians, and even children riding bikes, then everyone will be happier if you stay off the sidewalk.
- Too many driveways and crosswalks are in your path: Riding on the sidewalk can actually be more dangerous to the bike rider in some circumstances.
Cars don’t expect fast-moving e-bikes to suddenly appear when they are backing out or when they’re moving through crosswalks. In other words, bike riders can be invisible!
- It’s illegal: Yep, this is pretty straightforward. If it’s clearly illegal to ride your e-bike on sidewalks where you’re at, you shouldn’t ride there. Some cities will post signs and have street markings telling bikes where they can ride.
And it’s most likely for a good reason: Your safety and the safety of pedestrians.
How to Keep the Peace with Pedestrians on the Sidewalk
You won’t find many pedestrians happy to share the sidewalk with you. Most would rather you were not allowed on a sidewalk. Having a bike whizzing past while you’re walking, especially when it wasn’t there a second ago, is sometimes startling and scary.
Then add the fact that you’re on an e-bike. They might hear a slight whirring of your motor which makes them feel even more that you shouldn’t be riding on the sidewalk. Or, if your e-bike has fat tires, it might look more like a moped to them.
People on the sidewalk are often walking casually and may even swerve a little while talking to a friend. Or a parent may stop suddenly to take care of the baby in the stroller. And a child could quickly dart to the other side of the sidewalk to see a lizard.
So, when you zoom past someone walking, even if you ring your bell as a warning (which can be startling in itself), they’re likely to be annoyed, imagining what could have happened.
So, here’s a suggestion… Slow down considerably when you’re approaching a walker or jogger. This will let them know that you understand their concerns and are looking out for them.
You should be going slow enough to offer a friendly “hello” or “have a nice day”. And use your bell close enough for them to hear and have a warning that you’re coming, but not so close that you’re already passing by.
Bike Lane Safety for E-Bikes
So, if you don’t want to (or aren’t allowed to) ride your e-bike on the sidewalk, then you’ll most likely end up riding in a bike lane.
When riding in a bike lane, follow these safety tips:
- Get and use a rearview mirror: This will give you the ability to always see if there’s a car coming up on your left. You might realize that you can then move further to your right in the bike lane, or decide to slow down until it passes.
- When in the bike lane, always stop at red lights or stop signs and yield the way to pedestrians, just as you would if you were driving a car.
- Signal when you’re going to make turns or stop. Review those hand signals!
- If the bike lane contains debris or construction, use your hand signals to safely move around it or move off the road (and perhaps onto the sidewalk briefly).
- Always stay as far to the right in the bike lane as possible.
- If your electric bike has a throttle, use it to move out of intersections and unsafe locations quickly. But, first, take a glance around you and don’t use the throttle to speed through intersections or crosswalks.
Thankfully, many cities are becoming more bicycle-friendly, some even adding wide, protected, well-marked bike lanes. These lanes keep you safely separated from cars, with at least a low barrier. You won’t even miss sidewalks!
Consider traveling to these cities with your e-bike to catch the views and travel safely within miles of protected bicycle lanes: Seattle, WA; San Francisco, CA, and Portland, OR