Street or Sidewalk: Where Can I Ride My Bike in the Washington, DC Area?

By Cory Bilton

Rock Cr Pk Trail 1

Spring is slowly arriving to the Washington, DC area.  If you haven’t already, it’s time to dust off your bicycle, pump up the tires, and start riding again.  An issue that continually comes up is whether bicyclists can ride in the street, or on a sidewalk, or both.  The simple answer is yes to all three (though it might be impossible to do “both” at the same time).  There are a few caveats to this, but there is far more confusion among pedestrians, motorists, police officers, judges, and lawyers over this than there should be.  Since I like to dig down to the source, the following references provide the legal foundation for whether bicyclists can ride on streets or sidewalks around the DC metropolitan area.

Where Can Bicyclists Ride in Washington, DC?

On Washington, DC Streets, Roads, and Highways

There are two regulations that permit bicycles to be ridden on any street, road, or highway in DC.  According to DC Municipal Regulation § 18-1200.3, “Operators of bicycles have the same rights as do operators of other vehicles and in the additional rights granted by this chapter.”  “Vehicle” is defined in DCMR § 18-9901 as a motor vehicle, trailer, or “appliance moved over a highway on wheels or traction tread . . . .”  So basically, a bicyclist has all the same rights as a motorist.  Driving on a street is one of the rights of a motorist.  Therefore, a bicyclist has the right to drive on a street, too.  Mirroring this first pronouncement is DCMR § 18-1201.1 which states, “Every person who propels a vehicle by human power or rides a bicycle on a highway shall have the same duties as any other vehicle operator under this title . . . .”  So if driving on a roadway is a duty, instead of a right, then bicyclists have that duty to ride on the roadway, too.

On Washington, DC Sidewalks Outside the Central Business District

Riding your bike on the sidewalk in DC is permitted by DCMR § 18-1201.9.  However, there are two restrictions.  The first is that riding on the sidewalk cannot create a hazard.  There is no case law defining what “hazard” means in this context, but the phrase indicates that cyclists must make a safety determination before riding on the sidewalk.  The second restriction is that you can’t ride on the sidewalk within the “Central Business District” (which I will shorten to CBD).  The CBD is defined in DCMR § 18-9901 and is basically the space between 23rd Street, NW on the western edge, Massachusetts Avenue on the northern edge, 2nd Street, NE on the eastern edge, and D Street (east of 14th) and Constitution Avenue (west of 14th) along the southern edge.  I’m a visual person, so I put together a map of the CBD.


On National Park Service Streets, Trails, and Sidewalks

As many local residents know, many streets and sidewalks in the DC area are federally controlled; mainly under the National Park Service.  For example, Rock Creek Park, the National Mall, and the GW Parkway are all controlled by NPS.  Bicycle use in National Parks is generally controlled by 36 CFR § 4.30, which states “The use of a bicycle is permitted on park roads and in parking areas that are otherwise open for motor vehicle use by the general public.”  From this general rule, each individual park may deviate, but must clearly state why bicycles are not permitted.  Bicycling on both streets and sidewalks is welcome according to the National Mall and President’s Park (which covers most of the NPS area in downtown DC), except for a few designated areas like the White House Sidewalk.  Cycling is allowed on every paved road and trail in Rock Creek Park.  Along the Potomac, bicycles are not permitted on the George Washington Memorial Parkway or the Clara Barton Parkway.  Instead, the NPS encourages cyclists to use the Mount Vernon Trail or the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail.

Where Can Bicyclists Ride in Virginia?

On Virginia Streets, Roads, and Highways

Bicyclists may ride on any Virginia “highway” according to Virginia Code § 46.2-800 (“highway” is defined in Va Code § 46.2-100 as “every way or place open to the use of the public for the purposes of vehicular traffic . . . .”).  When a cyclist rides on a roadway, the cyclist has all of the rights and duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle.  § 46.2-800.  However, bicycles are not permitted to ride on interstate highways in Virginia.  Va. Code § 46.2-908.1.  But other than interstate highways, there are no roads that are off limits to Virginia cyclists.

On Virginia Sidewalks Unless Prohibited by the City or County

Bicycles are one of the few types of vehicles permitted to drive on sidewalks in Virginia.  Va. Code § 46.2-903.   However, a city or county may prohibit the use of bicycles on sidewalks through an ordinance.  Va. Code § 46.2-904.  When riding on the sidewalk, a bicyclist has all the rights and duties of a pedestrian under the same circumstances.  Id.    According to Arlington’s County Code § 14.2-65, bicyclists are welcome to ride on all Arlington roadways and any Arlington sidewalks without conspicuous signs saying that bicycling is prohibited.  Fairfax applies the same rule in Fairfax County Code § 82-9-6; bicycles are permitted on sidewalks unless there are conspicuous signs saying bicycling is prohibited.

Where Can Bicyclists Ride in Maryland?

On Maryland Roadways and Highways

Maryland has slightly more nuanced laws regarding where bicyclists may ride.  Maryland Transportation Code § 21-1205.1 states that bicycles may only be ridden on roads with a speed limit of less than 50 mph that are not expressways or controlled access highways.  Even when riding on the roadway, a bicyclist is expected to use the bike lane or smoothly paved shoulder if there is one (a few exceptions apply, like when necessary to pass).  Id.  So whereas in Virginia, the default rule is the bicyclists are permitted on roadways, in Maryland the default rule is that the bicyclist should not be on the roadway if there is some other path for the bicyclist to travel.

On Maryland Sidewalks Where Allowed by Local Ordinance

As a general matter, Maryland prohibits the driving of any vehicle on sidewalks.  Md. Transportation Code § 21-1103.  However, there is a specific exception for bicycles when a county passes an ordinance allowing bicycles on the sidewalk.  Id.  So cycling on Maryland sidewalks is perfectly legal when allowed by the local county.  Montgomery County Code § 31-5 specifically allows bicycles to be used upon sidewalk areas except where the county executive prohibits it.  Prince George’s County Code similarly says that the county executive has the authority to designate whether or not bicyclists can use sidewalks.  Prince George’s County Code § 26-150.  But the county has not taken the same step as Montgomery County.  So bicycling is not allowed on the sidewalk in PG County as a whole.

Read as a whole, the answer to the question of “where can I ride my bicycle in the DC area?” includes most roads, streets, highways, and sidewalks.  There are some major exclusions, such as no cycling on sidewalks in DC’s CBD.  However, these are the exceptions to the more general rule of “anywhere.”  Confusion over where cyclists can ride continues to be widespread.  Responsible cyclists should take a few minutes to learn the local bicycle laws.  Knowing the bicycling rules of the road will allow you to bicycle safely and to educate your friends and family on the proper way to ride.

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