Sidewalk Salmoning: It's The Law

BluesCatBluesCat is a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, who originally returned to bicycling in 2002 in order to help his son get the Boy Scout Cycling merit badge. His bikes sat idle until the summer of 2008 when gas prices spiked at over $4.00 per gallon. Since then, he has become active cycling, day-touring, commuting by bike, blogging ( and giving grief to the forum editors in the on-line cycling community.

Whenever the conversation turns to responsible bike riding, and a list is presented of the dos and don’ts of it, one don’t is almost certain to appear on it: Don’t ride on the sidewalk!

The sidewalk is for pedestrians, and the consequences for any cyclist venturing onto this Bastion of Shoe Leather are dire: you’ll get labeled an inconsiderate, dangerous criminal giving a bad name to bicyclists everywhere.

Worse, you’ll give the Congress of the United States of America just cause to eliminate any funding for bike infrastructure in the next extension of transportation funding because you’ve shown that bike riders won’t use it anyway. And, worse yet, you will have single-handedly proven that all bicyclists are sleazy malcontents who don’t know their place.

Another admonition given on all of these Rules for Good Bicycling Citizens is the one about riding against traffic. Salmoning, as the practice is called, will earn you the same dark penalties you’ll get if you cruise the concrete meant for citizens afoot. The only thing worse than committing either of these two cycling transgressions is if you have the utter audacity to perform both of them … together.

Salmoning Bike Idiot Google Results
Retrieved 5/22/12

I have a confession to make: I salmon the sidewalk every day on my bike commute. And I do it because I am instructed to do it by The Authorities.

Let me explain some things about my home town of Phoenix, Arizona. It is a young city, which only started growing into the sixth largest metropolitan area in America after World War II. The automobile was a primary facilitator of that growth, because it helped people move quickly and safely across the huge distances and daunting desert environment of the American West.

To speed things up further, the major roads in Phoenix are laid out in one-mile-to-a-side squares on the flat terrain in an almost perfect graph-paper grid. As the population grew, more lanes were added to those roads until today almost the entire right-of-way is used for fast moving motorized traffic. When it came time to build freeways to move even more traffic even faster through the city, the land needed to be acquired by purchasing large strips of developed property and demolishing all of the homes and businesses on it.

Unlike some other big U.S. cities, Phoenix doesn’t use a lot of Federal money for freeways, but instead puts in place voter approved sales taxes to fund them. The design engineers, however, usually follow Federal guidelines, and put in infrastructure which recognizes “the increasingly important role of bicycling and walking in creating a balanced, intermodal transportation system.” This can result in the Feds paying up to 95 percent of the cost of some projects which connect local highways into the Interstates dissecting the city; with the State share being cut to just five percent.

Another thing to note about the Federal rules is that bicycling and walking always seem to be lumped together. Apparently, in the minds of the “transportation experts,” what is good infrastructure for one is good infrastructure for the other. So you wind up with what happens on my bike commute through Central Phoenix.

For about half of my eight-mile ride in the morning, my route parallels Arizona State Route 51, also known as the Piestewa Freeway. This is a limited-access north-south highway which connects Interstate 10 (which goes east and west through downtown) with State Route 101 to the north. At one point, I’m riding up a road with a freeway noise abatement wall  on my left and a quiet neighborhood on my right. As I proceed north, that wall starts moving towards me because the off-ramps are starting to funnel cars towards an east-west overpass just ahead. Eventually, the road I’m traveling is reduced to not much more than a single lane with an extra wide sidewalk running parallel to it on the east side, on my right.

Bike Route: Use SidewalkShortly after the sidewalk starts, I come upon a sign which says:


That’s right, you must ride the sidewalk from now on because all other pavement and concrete at the upcoming intersection is for motor vehicles only; the space available doesn’t allow for both bike and pedestrian infrastructure, we must share what is there. If I pass that sign and look at the back of it, I see the identical information on an identical sign.

There is no sidewalk over on the other side of the road, the sidewalk I must use is the same one I am riding, which means on my way home from work I must ride against traffic.

Which means I am instructed to salmon the sidewalk.

As I follow the sidewalk north I go through a break in the wall, a chicane, which leads to the traffic signals at the intersection on the overpass. I roll north to the intersection. To my left are four lanes on which bicycles are not allowed: They are the end of the freeway off-ramp.

BluesCat's Chichane
Word of the day: Chichane

If I look back when I reach the intersection, I see a pair of big, rectangular signs which say “WRONG WAY.” It is the wrong way for motorists, but the only way for bicyclists to go south into the neighborhood is to salmon the sidewalk south, directly under one of those signs.

Do Not Enter: Except BicyclesTo follow the bike route north, I must cross the intersection and immediately turn left to cross the four-lane entrance to a shopping mall. I continue on the sidewalk around the western perimeter of the mall parking lot until I reach a major street called Camelback Road which runs along the north side of the mall. At that point, I turn right and head back east on the sidewalk until I cross another four-lane shopping mall entrance.

Here again, the road which goes north from here does not allow bicycles to ride the pavement, because the lanes to the west, or left, of the center-line are the off-ramp for traffic coming south, exiting State Route 51, while the lanes on the right are the on-ramp for vehicles heading north on the 51. I must stay to the right, cross busy Camelback Road using the pedestrian crosswalk, and continue on the sidewalk north, past another sign which says, “BIKE ROUTE – USE SIDEWALK.”

And, here again, when I head south in the afternoon, since there isn’t another sidewalk over on the west side of this on-ramp, off-ramp combination, I must salmon the sidewalk. So, even though I am always careful to pedal at jogging speed, and yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, there is no other way to move through this area and avoid being an Inconsiderate, Dangerous, Criminal, Sleazy, Malcontent of a Bicyclist.

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13 thoughts on “Sidewalk Salmoning: It's The Law”

  1. Dan says:

    What a mess!

    I noticed during a recent trip to nearby Mesa that some of the major streets had bike lanes, but no one seemed to be using them. Instead, the few riders I saw were on the sidewalk.

    With the 1 mile grid of major streets, there seems to be no other way to get from one section to another without using them. Maybe someday bikes will have a better path.

  2. Clay says:

    Reason 1,385,213,980 to not live in AZ.

  3. Ted Johnson says:

    @Clay: I can think of a few personal reasons not to live in Phoenix, but Phoenix is not the totality of Arizona.

    You know how ignorant people think Alaska is all igloos, ice flows, and polar bears? Don’t make the same mistake about Arizona — or anywhere else.

    There’s a larger point here. Cyclists who hold forth strident and absolutists positions about the “right” way of cycling everywhere might never have been anywhere outside their own bubble.

  4. Tim Sherman says:

    I’ve never heard of the term though it could be a dangerous way to commute. Salmon in the northwest don’t go against traffic they just cross the road. Watch this for a real life lesson in “Salmoning”.

  5. BluesCat says:

    Clay – What’s interesting is that two cities neighboring Phoenix are highly rated Bicycle Friendly Communities by the League of American Bicyclists: Tempe is silver and Scottsdale is gold. The entire Valley of the Sun could be, should be, and maybe will be a bicycling Mecca. You can ride almost 365 days out of the year, and you never have to wear any heroic clothing — like pogies — to be perfectly comfortable in any season. A while back, I was only HALF joking when I presented a one-item list of preparations for bike commuting in winter in Phoenix:

    1. Zip up your windbreaker.

    As I said, the reason the automobile is so dominant here is because it was a viable, safe form of transportation when the population was much smaller and the distance between human settlements was much greater. As homes and businesses have filled that space, and people live and work closer together here, maybe bicycling will become a much more important form of transportation, and Phoenix bicyclists can turn the sidewalk back to the walkers.

  6. listenermark says:

    How do I finish the day without interacting with an Emergency Medical Technician? That’s the only question. If you live in a car centric city, as I do, you make exceptions to notions that most of us find sacrosanct. Get home safe, respect other travelers, and ride another day.

  7. Graham says:

    Wow, and here I thought cycling in NC was a nightmare. At least here cyclists are almost totally ignored and they can use the roads like automobiles!

    I’d be terrified if those city planners decided to move east.

  8. BluesCat says:

    Graham – (chuckle) According to the 2012 LAB State Report Cards, AZ is 14th and NC is 24th. I don’t think it is a planning OR engineering problem, it’s resistance to change the long standing belief that “You NEED a CAR to live in the DESERT!”

  9. It isn’t just in AZ…we have a few of those same signs here on the border of Virginia/Tennessee (Bristol,the bordertown’s name is),and one of the bike routes also has us salmoning and on/off the sidewalk…I just roll my eyes at it and obey without question,like one should for all orders…

    The DC

  10. john says:

    phx is not that bad. as you pointed out , the streets are on a grid , so any point has at least 4 possible routes to it. find a better route. avoid the freeway intersections. use the canal system. maybe it takes a couple extra miles — maybe if you tried not thinking like a salmon?

  11. BluesCat says:

    john – I usually retreat to neighborhood streets when I ride between those one-mile-apart major intersections. The traffic lights at those intersections switch automatically (no pedestrian button required) and they all have left-turn arrows, so I combine the crossing of TWO major streets into one, well controlled intersection in order to continue my north-west route in the morning and the south-east route in the afternoon. A lot of pedestrians, city bus stops and other cyclists at those intersections makes for much slower traffic than the NASCAR, bumper-to-bumper type race track on the roads between them.

    It’s when you encounter State Route 51, or Interstate 10, or Interstate 17, etc., in Phoenix that you get faced with thinking Salmon because of the combined pedestrian/biking infrastructure.

  12. Brian says:

    A fellow Phoenix bike commuter! The world is a little less lonely.

    That is a rough sounding commute. I typically try to avoid that kind of malarkey but if your going north-east that may not be much of an option. Going south (from north Phoenix is great though as you can take dreamy draw to the canal going east or cave creek to either the canal or mile/half mile streets.

    To Phoenix-haters I would point out that this is an edge case. In a lot of commutes you can count on a bike lane at least most of the way* and there are some great routes you can take through parks to make things more enjoyable. Also, if you prefer the mellower half mile streets (typically having bike lanes*), you can treat those red lights as stop signs (legally) if you know they don’t work for your bike.

    * Phoenix is huge and can vary a lot depending on neighborhood age, your mileage may vary.

  13. Zap says:

    I live in Olympia, WA and while most of the area is cycle friendly I live on a highway. I pull one kid in a trailer and I have one on the back of the bike. I don’t trust drivers enough when they are going 45 mph to my kids health. So for most of my ride to the biking trails I take side streets, but there is a four or five block section I have to use the highway – so for that we use the sidewalk. I’m not proud, but I am content my family is safe.

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