Ask MassBike: Biking In Crosswalks

42-21548197We get a lot of questions here at MassBike, and we like to think we also give some pretty good answers. We realized that sharing these questions and answers on our website would be a valuable resource to others looking for the same information.

We got this question from Scott about riding in crosswalks.

Hello,
In crossing a zebra crosswalk, where cars must stop for pedestrians, does the law prohibit you from riding your bike across. Must you walk it?

Good question Scott, and unfortunately one with a bit of a confusing answer. Massachusetts law does not expressly address the issue of vehicles (remember, bicycles are legally vehicles) using crosswalks to cross the street. The law does require “drivers” to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks (Mass. General Laws, chapter 89, section 11), which gives us a clue that whoever wrote the law was thinking about cars. And cars, as a practical matter, cannot physically use a crosswalk (unless they are somehow driving on the sidewalk), so lawmakers probably did not think it was essential to write a law prohibiting something that cannot happen. But, taking everything in context, we think the intention is pretty clear that vehicles should not use crosswalks. What does this mean for bicyclists? Here is a common sense approach, where you choose whether to act as a vehicle or as a pedestrian and then stick with that choice:

If you are riding your bicycle in the road, then you are operating as a vehicle, and should not use crosswalks to cross intersections. You should remain in proper position to cross the intersection with other vehicular traffic. Sure, you could dismount, walk over to the crosswalk, walk your bike across, then walk back over into the road and remount, but we do not advise that because it puts you at risk from turning vehicles while in the crosswalk, you may have to merge back into moving traffic on the other side of the street (and cars are not expecting you to do that from a crosswalk), and it makes you unpredictable – no one will know for sure what you intend to do. The little “jog” to the right (into or near the crosswalk) that we see many bicyclists do before running a red light does not somehow make it OK – it is still running a red light (as well as being dangerous for all of the above reasons and potentially conflicting with pedestrians). A mounted bicyclist in the roadway is a vehicle and must obey the rules and signals.

If you are riding your bicycle on the sidewalk where it is legal to do so, then you are effectively a pedestrian, and it may be legal to ride in a crosswalk (although we do not guarantee it). Even so, we think it is safer to walk your bike across the street to avoid conflicts with pedestrians and turning cars that might not be looking for bicyclists in crosswalks. Sidewalk bicycling is illegal in all designated business districts statewide, and each city or town can further restrict it. Some towns prohibit all sidewalk bicycling. You need to check the local rules to know for sure.

If you are riding your bicycle illegally on a sidewalk, you are breaking the law, and riding in the crosswalk is probably also illegal.

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15 Responses to Ask MassBike: Biking In Crosswalks

  1. Alex May 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    I’ve often wondered — how does one know whether one is in a “business district?” I ride on sidewalks in situations where (a) there’s little pedestrian traffic and (b) it’s not safe to ride in the street. But it’s not like there are big signs saying “You are entering a Business District” to let me know where sidewalk riding is and isn’t kosher.

  2. Paul Schimek May 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    Bicyclists riding on paths are often directed to crosswalks (e.g. Minuteman, Charles River, SW Corridor, etc.). And they will be more once we build bicycle sidewalks (“cycle tracks”).

    The law in most states says that bicyclists operating on the roadway follow the rule for vehicles; bicyclists operating on the sidewalk follow the rule for pedestrians. I believe this is still the correct interpretation of Mass General Laws, but it is not clear (bicyclists shall follow “the traffic rules and regulations” — which include rules for pedestrians as well as vehicle operators).

    Therefore bicyclists operating on the sidewalk (or a bike path) should obey the ped lights (WALK, DONT WALK) at signalized intersections, and have the right of way at unsignalized intersections but must not leave the curb so quickly that someone is unable to yield (which pretty much means stopping before entering every unsignalized crosswalk).

    By the way, here is a definition from MGL Ch 90 Sec 1:
    “Thickly settled or business district”, the territory contiguous to any way which is built up with structures devoted to business, or the territory contiguous to any way where the dwelling houses are situated at such distances as will average less than two hundred feet between them for a distance of a quarter of a mile or over.”

    Not so helpful, which is why towns that are seriously interested in enforcing the sidewalk riding prohibition should post signs and stencils the way Cambridge has done.

    Finally, MassDOT has a rule prohibiting driving on sidewalks and a model ordinance to the same effect that has been enacted by many (most?) cities and towns. This rule applies to bicycles if it is applicable to them, which of course is a matter of opinion.

  3. Shane May 25, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

    Alex: You will need to check with your local authorities as each town is able to decide on where they want their “business district” to be.

  4. Bill May 25, 2010 at 5:09 pm #

    In Somerville, as well as many other towns, the city has painted “no-cycle”
    symbols in business districts, right on the sidewalk, you can’t miss them.

  5. Matt Finnigan May 25, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    Yeah – Paul’s example of the SW Corridor Park was very much on my mind as I read the question. I recently rode it, since I’m moving from Somerville to JP, but I work downtown, so I wanted to see what my new commute would look like. I was presented with the dilemma of a green light but a ‘No Walk’ light in my direction of travel.

    His point, and Shane’s, about ‘business districts’ is also well-taken. Somerville and Cambridge (I think) do a good job of marking the curb-cuts. Somerville’s town website also has a PDF od every street (with intersecting streets) where bikes aren’t allowed on the sidewalk. Boston – well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a marker or sign indicating where bikes can’t go on the sidewalk.

  6. Ron Newman May 26, 2010 at 9:00 am #

    Many, many books and websites (maybe even elsewhere at Massbike.org) suggest using two crosswalks to make a ‘non-vehicular’ left turn at busy intersections where the cyclist does not feel he can safely use the left-turn lane (or where there is no left-turn lane).

    Also, there are many situations where a crosswalk is the only way to get from a street to a non-street path, such as at Third Street and Broadway in Cambridge.

  7. Mass Bike May 28, 2010 at 9:32 am #

    Ron: To be clear, when people talk about using two cross walks to make a non-vehicular left turn, they mean you get off your bike and walk it over the cross walk twice. Just wanted to make sure that was clear.

  8. Pete Stidman May 31, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    Hey Shane and MassBike folks!

    It is very important that you make a correction to this advice here. According to Massachusetts Law, bicycles are considered vehicles. Therefore they are never, unfortunately, in any situation, considered pedestrians by law. I have sources in the BPD that tell me they are pressing for signs that say “Bicyclists dismount” for crosswalks along paths as a potential solution to the problem. Because what is happening is that cyclists assume they are protected like pedestrians are in crosswalks—but if they are hit in that crosswalk they are likely to lose any court case because they are considered partially responsible for the crash.

    I don’t want to sound too critical of one of the MassBike campaigns here, because we all need to support each other, but this is another instance where it would be handy if our state took to heart the fundamental that more vulnerable vehicles need different rules. There are too many situations in which “same roads same rules” would lead lawmakers down the wrong path.

  9. David June 1, 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    @Pete Stidman: MA law does clearly state that bicycles are vehicles. It also clearly states that bicycling on sidewalks is only prohibited in business districts. But since vehicles are clearly not permitted on sidewalks, where does that leave bicycles? It’s a gray area, where the bicyclist is neither a vehicle nor a pedestrian. That’s why we recommend acting like a pedestrian when operating in a pedestrian space, and acting like a vehicle when operating in a vehicle space. Sure, there are places where this may lead to confusion or even danger, such as crosswalks along bike paths; this might be something we should address in state law. Putting signs up at bike path crossings is not going to solve the problem – while some people might think they are safe in a crosswalk, I think most people just don’t want to get off and walk across the street every block.

  10. Paul Schimek June 1, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    I second David’s comments.
    In fact if you look at MGL — the only traffic law that applies everywhere in the state — it does not define “bicycle” or “vehicle” (yes, I know “bicycle” is defined in Ch. 90E, but those definitions do not carry over to Chs. 85, 89, or 90, the ones with the traffic rules).

    MGL Ch. 85 sec 11B says bicyclists have to follow the traffic rules, but these include rules for both pedestrians and drivers (of vehicles). However, case law makes it clear that the vehicle rules apply to bicyclists. There may also be cases which have addressed the issue of bicyclists’ status on sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike paths (David — care to do some legal research?).

    My original draft of the bike bill that was finally approved last year would have clarified this issue, but that was one of the items that got dropped along the way because the bill was too long for legislators to read (and there is no entity officially in charge of summarizing bills in Mass, unlike in every other state, as far as I know).

  11. Christopher Laws August 26, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    The problem we are having on Cape Cod this Summer is the lack of proper cycling etiquette and common sense. The crosswalks on the Cape Cod Rail Trail is a pedestrian crosswalk. The bicycles have a stop sign and there is also a sign saying “cyclists must walk in the cross walk”. If you ride your bike across you have lost all legal rights. I talked to the Local Police and bike shops about this. The problem gets worse when the cyclists do not stop and expect the cars to stop at any speed. The common sense here would be to not trust the cars and cross when all of the traffic has stopped. The bicyclist are treating it as if they were a train crossing a road. Many will get seriously hurt and some even killed if something is not done. Putting up signs about proper bicycling rules won’t do enough because people in general think they know it all. Classes won’t work either, we can see how well that has worked for auto drivers. It’s been a frustrating Summer on the Cape, and I am an avid Cyclist.

  12. Bobby September 14, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    What portion of the term “crosswalk” is confusing here? Crosswalks are for pedestrians to walk on. Bicyclists must dismount and walk across, otherwise they are a vehicle, subject to the rules of the road. Numerous cases over decades appear to have established this clearly. Massachusetts may not have an explicit law about bicyclist prohibition with respect to crosswalk use, but that doesn’t matter, unless the cyclist is WALKING.

  13. Ralph Sturgen May 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    @Bobby:
    1. Mass law specifically permits bicycling on the sidewalk except in business districts and any other areas designated by the city or town.

    2. Crosswalks are generally considered to be extensions of the sidewalks that they connect.

    3. I therefore assume that

  14. Ralph Sturgen May 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    …if we may bicycle on the sidewalk that we may bicycle across the crosswalk. I do not, however, recommend it because, while a motorist may be looking for pedestrians, s/he is not looking for someone moving at even slow cycling speeds.

  15. Zak Wass October 6, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    I don’t see any problem with a bicycle in a sidewalk, as long as there is no traffic or pedestrians around. If there is, the bike should yield to both! I was trying to walk through a crosswalk this morning and was almost run over by a bike, then yelled at for not getting out of “his” way. Do bike riders really think they have all the rights of a car with none of the responsibilities?