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Is it legal to ride your bike on the sidewalk when the road is busy?

A cyclist rides on Wychwood Avenue near St. Clair Avenue in Toronto, on Aug. 7, 2012.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

I know bicycles are considered vehicles and are required to obey the rules of the road. On the weekend, we were walking on a very crowded Front Street amongst hundreds of others after the baseball game. An older man riding a bike with his dog running on a leash beside him was ringing his bike bell to force his way through the pedestrian traffic. As he passed, I remarked that it was illegal for him to be riding on the sidewalk at all. He replied that there was no bike lane on Front St. – as if that justified his being on the sidewalk. Was he right? – Tricia, Toronto

If you're over 14, you can't ride your bike on Toronto sidewalks, no matter how busy the road is.

"In Toronto, children riding bicycles with a bicycle tire under 61 centimetres (24 inches) may ride on the sidewalk, but older cyclists can be ticketed for doing so," said Daniela Patino, spokesperson for Cycle Toronto, a cycling advocacy group. "When a cyclist feels that the road might be unsafe or dangerous, we recommend they dismount from their bike and walk it on the sidewalk."

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The sidewalk rule isn't in Ontario's Highway Traffic Act (HTA), but cities, including Toronto, have included it in local bylaws. In Toronto, the fine for riding on a sidewalk if older than 14 is $60. And if cyclists walk their bikes on the sidewalk, they shouldn't be expecting you to leap out of their way because they're ringing their bell, Patino said. "We encourage cyclists who walk their bikes to let pedestrians proceed first, especially when it's busy."

So why allow cycling on sidewalks for kids? Safety. "The intent of this bylaw is to allow young children to cycle on the sidewalk while they learn to ride," the city says on its website.

But that doesn't mean kids have free rein on sidewalks when they're on bikes – or anything else. City bylaw 950-300 says you can't "operate a bicycle, skateboard, in-line skates or roller-skates, coaster, scooter, toy vehicle, toboggan, sleigh, or any similar device on a sidewalk recklessly or negligently or at a speed or in a manner dangerous to the public." It's a $90 fine.

And, the HTA does ban riding in crosswalks – if you don't get off your bike and walk, it's an $85 fine.

The rules vary by city and province. In Quebec, riding on the sidewalk is banned by provincial law. In B.C., the province bans it but also allows municipalities to set their own rules. As a result, some, such as Vancouver, ban it and others, such as Maple Ridge, allow it.

"When the rules vary, it makes it difficult to know what to do," said Richard Campbell, executive director of the British Columbia Cycling Coalition (BCCC). "And quite frankly, there are cases where expecting people with small children to cycle on a road with busy traffic is just not realistic – so the laws need to be settled."

Sidewalks safer?

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Some cyclists know it's illegal to be on the sidewalk but they decide it's the safer option, cycling blogger Tom Babin told CBC in May. "I did it recently riding in the winter," Babin said. "I'm facing a busy road that hasn't been plowed and right beside me is a completely empty sidewalk that is nicely cleared, which one am I going to choose for my own safety?"

Cycle Toronto's Patino said a solution is protected bike lanes – lanes physically separated from cars by a median or other barrier. "So far this year, we've had 32 deaths," Patino said. "We don't have a city-wide minimum grid of protected bike lanes and this is putting people's lives at risk."

While Montreal has 72 kilometres of protected bike lanes, Toronto only has about 25, including a pilot project on Bloor Street. Protected lanes also keep bikes off sidewalks. In downtown Vancouver, a protected lane on Hornby Street reduced the number of bikes on the sidewalk by 80 per cent, the BCCC's Campbell said.

"One of the problems is, when people do cycle on the road, they get intimidated by drivers and passed really closely," said Campbell, whose group is trying to get the B.C. government to adopt a safer passing law like Ontario's. "The painted lines aren't particularly effective. We get drivers who pass too closely to cyclists or honk or rev their motors."

There have even been cases where drivers have chased cyclists down the block, Campbell said.

"These are probably the same folks who give other drivers problems," he said. "For some reason, we tolerate very poor behaviour."

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Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so please let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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