02

Blog

Mandatory Sidepath Confusion

Guest post from cycling historian Dr. James Longhurst

Sidepaths haven’t existed for a century – so why do we still refer to “mandatory sidepath laws”?

I want to reclaim a word. As a policy historian who has spent several years writing about the brief and largely-forgotten sidepath movement of the 1890s, I sometimes get an earful from present-day cyclists who are upset about so-called “mandatory sidepath laws.” But their anger is generally the result of confusing two physically different objects from two widely-separated eras. The sidepath movement I’ve been researching was ending by around 1905, and the “mandatory sidepath laws” that so irritate cyclists today didn’t start appearing until after 1944, and really only triggered protest by the late 1960s and 1970s.

The object described by the word “sidepath” in the late 1890s didn’t even exist when the acts nicknamed “mandatory sidepath laws” became the object of derision for cyclists in the 1970s. Thus the phrase “mandatory sidepath law” is a terribly confusing misnomer that makes people unreasonably angry at me, and I’d understandably like to defend the word from such misuse.

The problem might stem from our longstanding failure to agree upon universally-accepted names for bicycle-specific infrastructure. For more than a century we’ve used a confusing list of terms: bike lane, bike route, bikeway, bike path, rail-to-trail, cycle track, bike boulevard, green lane, blue lane, protected bike lane, buffered bike lane, operational bicycle lane, bicycle interstate, and bicycle superhighway. Some of these apply to very different structures, and some individual terms mean different things to different audiences. But with all these choices, you rarely see the word sidepath in general usage today, except in the phrase “mandatory sidepath law”. So what do we mean when we when we say sidepath?

One thing we don’t mean is the actual origin of the word, because the government commissions and the paths they built in the 1890s no longer exist. Beginning in upstate New York in the late years of that decade, even as the golden age of bicycling was reaching its peak, reformers began agitating for state laws to create county-level sidepath commissions. Going farther than previous attempts to build bike paths with charitable contributions, these new institutions would have the right to charge user fees and expend the proceeds to build hard-surfaced bicycle-specific paths alongside the dirt roads of the era. Because these sidepath commissions were enshrined in state law, the police could fine scofflaws who lacked a tag on their bikes as proof of payment. Despite some political and legal difficulties in a few locales, county-level sidepath commissions appeared through much of upstate New York, as well as Chicago, Portland, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most states patterned their legislation on New York’s 1899 law and 1900 revision.[1] Cyclists even had their own publication, Sidepaths magazine, which reported on progress and offered helpful hints for newcomers. At its height this optimistic movement dreamed of building a network of bicycle-specific infrastructure across the nation.[2]

19001200SidepathsVol3No23p430fullcover

Thus, in the 1890s the word sidepath had a specific legal meaning. Sidepaths had a statutory administrative structure, mandated design, and funding system backed by the power of state governments. Case law determined that sidepaths were also legally distinct from sidewalks: turn-of-the-century bicycles were almost entirely banned from sidewalks, and every vehicle but the bicycle was banned from sidepaths.

But the sidepath movement was weakening even as it spread, and died out by around 1905. The fading bicycle boom meant that fewer riders paid the user fees, and commissions ran out of money. Paths fell into disrepair, and most were paved over when the successful Good Roads movement later widened the roads they ran alongside. Rochester, New York – a sidepath mecca – lost all of its sidepaths, but the Twin Cities of Minnesota kept a few of theirs along parkways and lakes. Few mourned the end of the sidepath movement at the time: the newly-paved roads funded by general taxation were much better than either the old dirt roads or the sidepaths themselves, and the so-called “auto-mobile” was still rare enough to leave space for bikes.

Ridge-Road-Path-from-Sidepaths_Monroe_CountyMedium

 

The word “sidepath” largely died with the movement by around 1905, and it might have stayed dead in the coming century if it were not for a colloquial name for one provision in the Uniform Vehicle Code, a proposed model for state-level legislation. While earlier versions of the UVC didn’t have much to say about bicycles, the problem arose when the 1944 revision suggested that states pass laws along this pattern: “Wherever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.”[3] By 1979, thirty-eight states had passed a law that was either identical to the UVC model or similar in language and impact.[4]

While the institutions of sidepath commissions and the paths they built had long ceased to exist by that point, late 20th century observers started calling these additions to state code “mandatory sidepath laws.” It was a strange choice of language because these acts did not actually use the word sidepath in their text. They generally just directed riders onto an “adjacent path”. Oregon’s 1983 law, for example, never uses the word sidepath; instead, it was titled “Failure To Use Available Bicycle Path Or Lane, Prohibition, Penalty.”[5] But by the 1970s, “mandatory sidepath law” was a commonly-employed colloquial name for such laws, even if it was not an actual legal title. And this was the name by which cyclists, most of whom detested these laws, came to refer to them.

This was also strange because the much more common term describing bicycle-specific infrastructure in the 1970s would have been “bikeway.” But that word could mean a confusing list of different things in that decade, including on-street painted bike lanes, on-street signed bike routes, and off-street bicycle paths. “Mandatory bikeway laws” would not be specific enough. Instead, what lawyers, legislators and opponents wanted to describe were laws that required cyclists to ride on infrastructure that paralleled the road where it existed. But since that phrasing was a bit unwieldy, people seemed to settle on “mandatory sidepath law” as a colloquial name, even though the infrastructure to which they were referring was not built by sidepath commissions, did not require the payment of a sidepath user-fee, was not enabled by state-level sidepath law, was not built for the purpose of avoiding an unpaved dirt road, and was not built by enthusiasts of the long-forgotten 1890s sidepath movement.

Today, the so-called “mandatory sidepath laws” are not the existential threat that they once were. Model legislation of this type is no longer a part of the UVC, and many state laws have been repealed in the last decade or so. Oregon still has such a law, though it is now filled with all kinds of caveats and seems to only be enforced in extreme circumstances.[6]

To their credit, researchers with the League of American Bicyclists now occasionally avoid the phrase “mandatory sidepath law,” instead referring to “mandatory use of separated facilities” statutes.[7] It is an unwieldy phrase, but at least it helps me avoid the ire of disgruntled cyclists who mistake the dream of 1890s cyclists for the auto-centric restrictions of the mid-century UVC. The optimistic riders of the forgotten sidepath movement deserve better than that.

DelegatestoSidepathConventionRochesterNY1899

 

–James Longhurst is an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, studying urban and environmental policy. His book, Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, will be published by the University of Washington Press in 2015. He twitters @BikeBattlesBook

Photos: Sidepaths of Monroe County, Historic Monographs Collections, Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, New York.

[1] Ch. 152 of 1899 N.Y. Laws 301; Ch. 640 of 1900 N.Y. Laws 1393.

[2] James Longhurst, “The Sidepath Not Taken: Bicycles, Taxes, and the Rhetoric of the Public Good in the 1890s,” Journal of Policy History 25, no. 4 (2013): 557–86.

[3] Uniform Vehicle Code Act V, § 97 (Revised eds. 1944, 1948, 1952), later § 11-1205c.

[4] NCUTLO, Traffic Laws Annotated (Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1979), § 11-1205c.

[5] Section 700 and 701 of Ch. 338, 1983 Or. Laws 566.

[6] Or. Rev. Stat. § 814.420 (2012); for an example in extreme circumstances, see State v. Potter, 57 P.3d 944 (Or. App. 2002).

[7] Ken McLeod, “Bike Law University: Mandatory Use Of Separated Facilities,”

June 25, 2013, accessed November 2014.

Comments

Amy Benner Johnson Sep 21, 2018

Drivers are coming within less than 1.5 feet of cyclists on the road in Knoxville with alarming regularity. Drivers are coming within less than two feet of cyclists on the road in Knoxville with alarming regularity. It’s not your imagination. It’s not all in your head. Your combined senses of touch, sound, and sight all […]

Read More
Rachael Maney Sep 12, 2018

You may have already seen the video below. If you haven’t, please watch. On Tuesday, August 24th just before 7PM, Jeff McCord and approximately 20 other cyclists were stopped at the intersection of Karl Daly and Grants Mill Road in Irondale, Alabama, a town outside the city of Birmingham. As McCord waited for an ambulance […]

Read More
Rachael Maney Aug 30, 2018

In 2010, Richmond, California got lucky when Brooklyn born Najari Smith planted roots in the Bay Area city, quickly claiming a very important role in his new community. Having given more than 1,100 bikes to Richmond’s youth and community members in the last 6 years, Najari’s vision and mission to promote a bike-centric lifestyle has […]

Read More
Bruce Hagen Jul 17, 2018

On July 11, 2018, a very experienced rider and friend to many in the Rockdale County area, Albert “Ab” Roesel, was killed while out on a rural road doing a ride that he no doubt had done many times before.  Ab was 75 years old.   The police investigation concluded that Ab had been headed Southbound, […]

Read More
Brendan Kevenides Jun 04, 2018

At sea a boat under power must give way to a more vulnerable craft.  The law requires that a power driven vessel give way to a sailing vessel.  A sail boat must give way to a craft engaged in fishing. These simple rules are consistent with the maxim that with greater power comes greater responsibility. […]

Read More
Commuter Bike
Bruce Hagen May 29, 2018

Recently, my wife and I moved into a new home that’s closer to my office, which has allowed me to start commuting by bike.  I rode my bike to and from my office 4 consecutive days before my schedule forced me back into the car. My hope and plan is to commute by bike at […]

Read More
Pat Brown May 10, 2018

Strength, ambition, and courage are just a few words that come to mind when we think of Anthony Lue.  Growing up, Anthony enjoyed playing competitive sports such as baseball, volleyball, basketball and mountain biking, but his true passion was discovered on his high school track.    After winning gold for 100m hurdles at the provincial championships […]

Read More
Lauri Boxer-Macomber Apr 30, 2018

Following a horrific bicycle crash in 2016, Dr. Michael Rifkin has become a new type of bicycling advocate — one who is deeply committed to ending distracted driving. Read his op-ed on Making Distracted Driving in Maine Taboo here. Dr. Rifkin’s piece reminds us that we can be distracted by our phones and other electronic devices even […]

Read More
Brian Weiss Apr 26, 2018

On November 21, 2017, I saw a TV news story about how the Broomfield District Attorney’s Office was routinely offering lax plea deals to drivers that injure cyclists.  In bicycle crash cases with injuries, the DA was offering plead deals to “broken headlight” or “defective vehicle” charges. A “defective vehicle” sentence is one of the […]

Read More
Atlanta's Bike Czar
Bruce Hagen Apr 19, 2018

Who is looking for a great job in a dynamic city with a great opportunity to make bicycle advocacy not just a passion, but a full time, rewarding and well-paying job?   The City of Atlanta is in search of a a new Chief Bicycle Officer to replace the outgoing CBO, Superstar Becky Katz, who after […]

Read More
Joe Piscitello Apr 04, 2018

Piscitello Law – Bike Law PA is pleased to share highlights from the third annual Vision Zero conference, held March 17 in West Philadelphia.  The event was hosted by Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition and opening remarks by the Executive Director Sarah Clark Stuart encouraged 250 participants to “listen, learn and be inspired….”   Mayor James Kenney […]

Read More
Lauri Boxer-Macomber Apr 03, 2018

The first issue is that many bicycle crashes are not being reported into the State of Maine Crash Database, which leads to incomplete and inaccurate state-wide crash reporting data and arguably also leads to uninformed priority setting and budgetary decisions.  The crashes that are unreported and/or underreported on a state level are sometimes, but not […]

Read More
Load More