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Do I have to ride my bike in a bike lane or can I use the sidewalk?

As a child you learned how to ride your bike by going up and down your block’s sidewalks. As you got older you ventured farther away, down longer sidewalks and driveways, only going into the street when absolutely necessary. Riding on sidewalks was what was safe and familiar. However, now that more and more adults are using bikes for transportation (thanks, no doubt, to soaring gas prices), bike lanes have become the preferred routes for riding one’s bike.

Bike lanes provide more direct routes and faster travel than sidewalks, as they follow the same routes and provide the same amenities as roads for motor vehicles. Bike lanes are to sidewalks for bikers as highways are to back roads for cars—a less confined area where you can go faster without having constantly to adjust speed because of terrain. However, just because they may seem faster or more convenient, do you have to use them if you’d rather not? It all depends on where you’re riding.

Bike Lanes vs. Sidewalks

Every state, commonwealth and municipality has its own stance and opinions on mandatory bike lane use. Some feel that you should always use a bike lane when available, while others allow you to decide for yourself.

  • Washington, D.C., suggests but does not require nor mandates the use of bike lanes. You can choose whether you feel more comfortable on the sidewalk or in a bike lane where available.
  • Maryland requires you to use bike lanes when available except when passing, preparing for a turn or avoiding hazards. Sidewalk riding is illegal when bike lanes are accessible, except in specifically designated areas such as Montgomery County.
  • Virginia, like D.C., also doesn’t require you to use bike lanes at all times, but highly suggests you use them where available in order to decrease sidewalk traffic.

No matter where you ride, safety should always be your number one priority. Make sure you’re always following the rules of the road and staying alert to your surroundings. Sidewalks can be just as dangerous as busy roads if you’re the one not paying attention.

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