Is It OK For Me to Run In the Street?

Dear Dumb Runner,
I live in a neighborhood that was developed from old ranch land and people who live here like to act as if they're ranchers, too, even though we're in the middle of the suburbs. Lots of oversized pickups and SUVs that don't fit in garages and are long enough to block the sidewalk. (Or they just have 50 cars because "this is Texas.") The sidewalk is extremely uneven and broken up in places, as well.

Here's my question: If a sidewalk is provided, am I still within my rights to run in the street?—Russell B., Haslet, Texas


Dear Russ,

Just about everyone who runs regularly, and for any significant distance, tends to prefer streets over sidewalks. 

We'll get to "why" in a moment. But first, to your question: Are you within your rights to do this? i.e. Is it legal?

The answer you usually get to this question is: No. Typically the law says that pedestrians—including runners—are required to use sidewalks where sidewalks are available; where they are not available, pedestrians should face oncoming traffic and remain as far away from traffic as they reasonably can.

You'll also get a canned quote from a lawyer or a police officer—though police officers can be surprisingly ignorant of actual law—and a few esoteric citations ("Section 10.40.030," "Ord. 2940 § 10.3," etc.).

The answer you'll get from me is: No, and it doesn't matter.

First, let's dispense with this notion that because something is "illegal," it is necessarily abhorrent or heinous or recklessly irresponsible. It isn't.

Driving 60 mph in a 55 mph zone is illegal. So is jaywalking. So is honking at someone just because you're angry at them. (At least in Michigan.) 

I admit that I have done all of these things. I'm willing to bet that most of us have. The world continues to spin. 

The real question, then, is: Are you safe running in the street? And the answer to that one is: It depends. Only you can make that call.

Here's the thing. When I run I am constantly scanning my environment. You know how in movies like The Terminator sometimes the camera will show you how the world looks to a robot or cyborg? How its field of vision is overlaid with grids and data and readings on life forms and so on...?

That's what the world looks like to me when I'm running. Only I'm assessing potential threats and obstacles—constantly.

Is the sidewalk smooth, or buckled and broken? Is it crowded? Are there curb cuts, or will I have to negotiate curbs twice per block? There's a guy with headphones up there, walking his dog on one of those retractable leashes—will they hear me approaching?

How about the street—is it wide, or narrow? In good repair? Is traffic heavy, or light? Am I familiar enough with this stretch to know where the especially tricky or busy bits are?

In sum: Which is more likely to provide a smooth, safe surface? Which is the smarter choice?

Most of the time, for me, running in the street is the better bet. All things considered, that is usually where I feel safest. Even when the sidewalk briefly looks more appealing I tend to stick to the street, because constantly switching from one to another introduces its own risks.

(I will pause here to note that often it's less important where you run than how you run—especially when you're on streets and roads, it's important to run defensively, predictably, and visibly. And for cripe's sakes, run facing traffic. Use your head!) 

Motorists, as a whole, don't seem to get this. That's understandable. For one thing, most of them, statistically, aren't runners themselves. Whereas most runners are also motorists, giving us a more complete perspective.

For another, I suspect that few of them spend much time on actual sidewalks. The average motorist, I think, when he thinks of sidewalks, pictures something like this:

When the reality is more often this:

And for what it's worth, I think a lot of motorists aren't truly angry when they tell us to "get off the road"—they're scared. They don't want to hurt or kill an innocent pedestrian. So when they see a runner coming at them, where they don't expect one, they freak—and that emotion manifests as anger.

Just a theory.

The bottom line, Russell, is that you need to decide, based on a multitude of factors, where you feel safest running in any given situation. And then run there—safely!

Thanks for your question.


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