Road Rules: Who has the sidewalk right-of-way, pedestrians or bicycles?


Question: Since pedestrians and bicycles share sidewalks, who has the right-of-way?

I was at a sidewalk intersection and almost didn’t see the bicycle speeding toward me. At 80 years old it is not easy to make an abrupt stop. When I chided the rider as he swept past me, his reply indicated he thought he had right-of-way. If bike riders want to tangle with a car, truck or bus, that is their problem. If they hit me, I will probably break something and that could be very serious for me.

Answer: The bigger and faster you are, the more responsibility you have for safety. That’s not in the law, at least not officially, but it’s a good principle to keep in mind, especially if you’re the bigger, faster one on the sidewalk or road. Building on that concept, I’d like to introduce you to something called “hierarchy of right-of-way.” That’s a term I just made up, so again, not in the law. Stick with me for a minute though, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

In the Revised Code of Washington, there are a couple of laws that explain who yields to whom on sidewalks and in crosswalks. Here’s how it breaks down: Drivers yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, bike riders and personal delivery devices. (In case you’re not familiar with that last term, imagine your camping cooler grew six wheels, became an autonomous robot, and started doing door-to-door deliveries.) The robots yield to pedestrians and cyclists. And cyclists yield to pedestrians. On a side note, when I was a kid dreaming of the future it was flying cars and teleportation. Instead, we have legislation allowing robots to bring us Chipotle. 

There’s a ranking here based on who is most vulnerable and who can cause the most harm. Pedestrians are the slowest and most exposed, while drivers are big, fast and protected. In between we’ve got cyclists, who are also vulnerable but faster than pedestrians and, as you mentioned, could cause them plenty of harm in a collision; and robots, who would likely be unharmed by walkers or riders but don’t stand a chance against a car.

You didn’t ask, but I have a few thoughts about the robots. Yes, drivers are required to yield to them on sidewalks and crosswalks. But if you’re a driver faced with a no-good-outcomes decision between a robot and a human, of course, take out the robot. Sure, the robots are kind of cute, but humans are intrinsically valuable; even more, we’re kind of irreplaceable. 

Also, fixing humans is expensive. Your insurance would much rather replace a $5,000 delivery robot than cover hospital bills. Finally, don’t get yourself into a no-good-outcomes situation in the first place. The better plan is to look farther down the road so you see potential hazards in time to avoid them altogether.

Your question brings up another issue. On busy sidewalks it’s hard for walkers and bike riders to co-ambulate harmoniously. That’s why some cities prohibit bikes on the sidewalk in downtown districts. I’m usually saying this to drivers, but cyclists, when you’re the biggest and the fastest, you’ve got some extra responsibility to be safe. Even if riding on the sidewalk isn’t prohibited, the right choice might be to ride in the street, or if you’re not comfortable with that, walk your bike. 

Ultimately, if our transportation infrastructure doesn’t work for the most vulnerable, it doesn’t work for any of us. At some point each of us becomes the most vulnerable person in a potential traffic conflict, and we all want to get where we’re going safely.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


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