Council Member Mark Weprin: Driving on a NYC Sidewalk Should Not Be Legal

Ride a bike on a sidewalk in New York City and you are subject not only to a traffic ticket, but a criminal summons. Amazingly, there is no commensurate penalty for the curb-jumping motorist, despite the potential to inflict far greater harm, and countless deaths and injuries that occur every year. Unless intoxication is a factor, prosecutions are rare — even for crashes that result in death — possibly in part because the act of driving on a city sidewalk is itself not a crime.

City Council Member Mark Weprin

In connection with his StreetsPAC endorsement, Council Member Mark Weprin pledged to, in StreetsPAC’s words, “champion legislation in the city council to ensure serious consequences for drivers who, through their own negligence, hop curbs and strike pedestrians on sidewalks.” Weprin says his staff is looking into how such a bill would be crafted.

“We’re going to see what the best possible solution would be,” Weprin told Streetsblog. “Obviously, the circumstances need to help dictate this a little bit. People’s state of mind and all of that is a big part of it, whether they were reckless in what they did or not. But when someone gets hurt someone needs to pay a price.”

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, a StreetsPAC board member who represents pedestrians and cyclists, says the city needs a law based on current regulations against sidewalk bike riding, which do not require recklessness.

When a cop stops a cyclist for sidewalk riding, Vaccaro says, “There’s no inquiry into whether the cyclist intended to be on a sidewalk, or disregarded a risk that they might end up on a sidewalk, or failed to perceive a risk of ending up on the sidewalk, which would be a criminal negligence standard. There’s just, ‘You’re on the sidewalk, you’re operating a bicycle.'”

“Unless you can show that someone picked you up and put you down and made you go on the sidewalk through no fault of your own, you are guilty of a misdemeanor,” says Vaccaro. “That’s strict liability.”

Vehicular law in New York State generally disfavors strict liability, Vaccaro says, putting the burden on police and prosecutors to prove intent — including the recent case where a driver jumped a curb and hit a parking meter and five people without stopping. “If you’re not drunk, there has to be smoking gun evidence of recklessness that’s shoved in the face of the police or they’ll just call it a mistake.” Vaccaro says. “There’s this incredible disconnect.”

A related argument against such a law, according to Vaccaro, is that a cyclist rides on a sidewalk purposely, while a motorist usually doesn’t set out to jump a curb. But intentionality is not the only “culpable mental state” that warrants criminal charges, he says. Recklessness requires awareness of a risk (feeling a bump when a motorist’s vehicle encounters a curb), and disregarding that risk (failing to hit the brakes or take other measures to avoid causing damage) constitutes a “gross deviation” from what a “reasonable person” would do. Criminal negligence, Vaccaro says, is when a driver is not aware of the risk, but the failure to perceive the risk constitutes a gross deviation of what a reasonable person would perceive.

In short, a law attaching an ipso facto charge to driving on the sidewalk would be nothing new — NYPD hands out such summonses to cyclists every day. Vaccaro says he could see the city implementing “reasonable and incremental” penalties, such as a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 20 days in jail and a $300 fine, which is what cyclists face if they hit a pedestrian on a sidewalk.

Weprin is not sure yet if sidewalk driving legislation should parallel bike riding laws, because driving a car on a sidewalk is much more dangerous than sidewalk riding, among other reasons. “Obviously there are times when the person did nothing wrong, and something malfunctions, or something like that,” says Weprin. “I can understand certain excuses, but generally when you drive onto the curb it’s because someone did something wrong. It’s rare that it’s a complete innocent mistake.”

Vaccaro acknowledges that “things can happen more quickly with a car than with a bicycle,” and that a vehicle can, for example, be knocked onto the curb after a collision. But that’s no reason to give curb-jumping drivers carte blanche.

“Let motorists have ways of explaining their presence on the sidewalk,” Vaccaro says, “but force them to, and conduct an investigation so that the explanation that isn’t even plausible on the surface doesn’t get uncritically accepted.”

Says Weprin: “The sidewalks need to be protected from drivers and motor vehicles certainly as much as they have to be protected from people who are riding bicycles.”

  • Stephen Bauman

    It’s already illegal to drive a motor vehicle on a sidewalk – NYS VTL 1225-A

    § 1225-a. Driving on sidewalks. No person shall drive a motor vehicle
    on or across a sidewalk, except that a vehicle may be driven at a
    reasonable speed, but not more than five miles per hour, on or across a
    sidewalk in such manner as not to interfere with the safety and passage
    of pedestrians thereon, who shall have the right of way, when it is
    reasonable and necessary:
    (a) to gain access to a public highway, private way or lands or
    buildings adjacent to such highway or way;
    (b) in the conduct of work upon a highway, or upon a private way or
    lands or buildings adjacent to such highway or way, or
    (c) to plow snow or perform any other public service, for hire, or
    otherwise, which could not otherwise be reasonably and properly
    performed.

  • Bolwerk

    Illegal, but doesn’t say it’s criminal.

  • Jesse

    This is noble and all but as long as “I mistook the gas pedal for the brake” remains a valid excuse, it´s not going to result in any prosecutions.

  • Jeff

    This once happened on a flight I was on. The pilot mistook the yoke for the throttle, and the plane crashed, killing several people on board. The FAA said that it was an accident, and the pilot took off on another flight later that day.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, that statement in the first paragraph should be changed to “is not itself a crime.”

  • Jesse

    Really?! That´s terrible!

  • Brad Aaron

    Fixed.

  • Anonymous

    Says it all.

  • Jesse

    Did you make this? Excellent advocacy tool.

  • KillMoto

    We need a criminal statute: “driving, death resulting”. No knowledge or intent necessary to convict

  • Anonymous

    I did but perhaps the bottom picture is insensitive to the victim?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Since bicycles don’t have exception (a), I expect the police will wise up and start staking out parking garages with bicycle parking.

  • Andrew

    Whoops!

  • überfahr

    funny, I confuse my finger for my thumb sometimes …

  • Steve Faust

    Under NYS VTL 1231 cyclists are granted the same rights and be subject to the same responsibilities as a driver of a vehicle. Under what authority can NYC impose more restrictive behavior and stronger penalties to a cyclist than to a motorist? There are specific conditions required for NYC to write its own law to superseded NYS VTL. Is the No Biking On Sidewalks consistent with VTL 1231?

    One catch in VTL 1231, it applies to riding “upon a roadway”, which may be why cyclists are not covered/protected from not receiving the same rights as drivers on sidewalks. I don’t know what the intent of this off-road exception may be, but motorists have situations, such as driveways, where they can legally be driving on sidewalks, while, apparently, the exception does not protect a cyclist on a sidewalk, even crossing the driveway to their own house.

  • Anonymous

    In the bad old days, biking was a “do whatever, don’t get hit” kind of anarchy experience. In recent years, there has been a big push to build appropriate bicycle infrastructure AND impress upon us that we are subject to the same rights and responsibilities as motorists. Things are not perfect. We still deal with too many poorly constructed streets, are subject to traffic controls that are pointless for bicycles, and are too often forced to choose between breaking the traffic law and putting ourselves in physical danger.

    But by and large, a sense of lawfulness for bikers is emerging. As it becomes clear that the roads and laws are made with bikers in mind, more bikers will be more willing to follow that law on a regular basis.

    Unfortunately, an increasing number of NYC laws that put punitive penalties on bikers for minor violations goes directly against the principle of “same rights and responsibilities as motorists.” If the laws seem to be out to punish anyone on two wheels, why should we respect them? Criminalizing sidewalk riding definitely falls in the “hypocrite” category, as does the outlawing of 1/2hp electric bicycles with top speed of 20mph (while 300hp SUVs with top seed of 100mph are perfectly legal).

    Now I’m wondering… if I ride my motorized bicycle on the sidewalk, would I be subject to a criminal summons? Or would I simply suffer the $1000 fine for riding an electric bicycle — because, after all, NYC law has already defined it as “not a bicycle.”

  • Ian Turner

    I am pretty skeptical of the thesis that dedicated cycling infrastructure leads to lawfulness. On the Hudson River Greenway cycle path in the 60s, cyclists almost never stop for crossing pedestrians (despite clear yield signage). If you do stop you can expect to be passed from behind at speed. Yet this is as dedicated as cycling infrastructure gets, barring grade separation.

  • Anonymous

    But it should result in license revocation since the person obviously isn’t able to operate a vehicle safely. At least in a perfect world, it would.

  • Joe R.

    In all honestly, on dedicated cycling infrastructure like the Hudson River Greenway which has occasional pedestrian crossings, it makes much more sense from a physics and fairness standpoint to require crossing pedestrians to yield to cyclists. The physics say it’s much easier for a pedestrian to stop and wait for a cyclist to pass than for the cyclist to slow or stop, then get back up to speed. From a fairness standpoint, cyclists rightfully must yield to crossing pedestrians just about everywhere else they ride. It’s not too much to ask that in the few places where cyclists can ride on infrastructure designed solely for them that pedestrians yield for a change.

    And yes, this makes yet another case for grade-separated infrastructure. Even if you take cars out of the picture, adding pedestrians to the mix still can create problems for both cyclists and pedestrians. The best infrastructure for cyclists avoids mixing them with either motor vehicles or pedestrians. In some cases, this requires total grade separation. In others, you may only need to grade separate at junctions.

  • Joe R.

    In my opinion, N.Y. ADC. LAW § 19-176 (no cycling on sidewalks) would be repealed if reviewed by a higher court. For one thing, it’s prejudicial against bicycles while ignoring other wheeled vehicles (skateboards, roller blades, electric wheelchairs, etc.) which create as much or more danger to pedestrians. For another, the penalties are overly draconian. Seriously, potential imprisonment of up to 20 days just for being on the sidewalk? Finally, and most importantly, the law violates the principals of natural law which have guided this nation since its founding, at least until politicians got it into their heads to make laws which impose penalties even when no harm is done. Specifically, natural law means the state can only fine, imprison, or execute someone if it’s determined that the person caused injury, loss of property, or loss of life to another person. You might stretch this slightly by including actions which are highly likely to cause injury, loss of property, or loss of life, such as firing a gun in a crowded venue. However, there’s no evidence that just riding a bicycle on a sidewalk is highly likely to cause harm. At the very least, the law should have some qualifiers, such as “reckless riding upon a sidewalk”. Yes, this requires a judgement call by the police officer, but no sane judge will uphold sidewalk cycling tickets on empty or nearly empty sidewalks under such a law.

    And I’m pretty sure it’s legal for bicycles to ride across driveways, even under this law.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose you have a point. Dedicated automobile infrastructure has not eradicated bad driving.

    OTOH… I’ve found that I’m more likely to drive my bike in a sane and predictable manner if I’m not always fearing for my life from behind. When the “fight or flight” instinct kicks in because of some aggressive driver, red lights don’t mean much any more. Especially if you KNOW that if he runs over you, no one will go to jail or get a ticket.

    I don’t think the Hudson River Greenway is a problem. What’s wrong with slowing down a bit for pedestrians, giving them a wide berth and stopping at times? The argument that peds should yield to bikes there could be used just as well to say that peds should yield to cars at any particular spot you choose.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

StreetsPAC Announces Second Round of City Council Endorsements

|
StreetsPAC announced its second round of City Council endorsements today. Endorsees include a council newcomer in the Bronx, and incumbents in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. StreetsPAC likes Assembly Member Vanessa Gibson to succeed termed-out Bronx rep Helen Foster in District 16. Gibson backed legislation to bring speed cameras to NYC, according to StreetsPAC, and supports […]

Weprin Survey Finds 61 Percent Like Bike Lanes, Even in Eastern Queens

|
Several surveys this year by top polling organizations have found citywide support for bike lanes. And in Park Slope and the Upper West Side, questionnaires put out by local elected officials have shown consistent neighborhood-level approval for new bike infrastructure. Now, another member of the City Council has found widespread enthusiasm for the city’s bike […]