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People cycle and walk along a waterfront path in Toronto on April 2, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

It looks like a lot more people are riding bikes because of COVID, but I’m wondering if all those people know what the rules are. For example, I now see people riding bikes on sidewalks regularly. As a long-time cyclist, this really frustrates me. Are more people being charged? – Marcus, Montreal

They say you can never forget how to ride a bike. But a lot of us are pretty fuzzy when it comes to remembering the rules – if we learned them in the first place.

There are likely more new people on bikes in most Canadian cities right now. While weekday cycle trips were down by 10 per cent nationally in July compared to last year,  there was a 23-per-cent increase in weekend trips, says Eco-Counter, a company that counts the number of bikes on roads and trails.

So, with people on bikes who are new to cycling or haven't ridden in years, might more people be breaking the rules?

Police in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver say they haven't seen an increase in tickets or complaints against cyclists.

"If there are actually more offences happening, it's hard for us to say," says Nathalie Valois, safety division officer with Montreal police. "But we gave out fewer tickets this year."

In April, May and June last year, Montreal police handed out 2,163 tickets to cyclists. In the same period this year, they handed out 991 tickets.

But despite fewer tickers, all cyclists could use a refresher about the rules, Valois says.

“For some, maybe it’s been a while since they’ve been on bicycles – or maybe they don’t know the rules,” Valois says.

Treat bikes like cars, mostly

Cyclists have to follow the rules of the road.

That means staying off sidewalks, stopping at stop signs and lights, following the direction of traffic and stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks.

In most provinces, cyclists are allowed to ride in car lanes as long as there's not a sign banning it – even when there's a dedicated bicycle lane.

"The one exception is that they cannot cycle in the middle of the street – they need to cycle to the right, close to the curb," Valois says. "But the other rules are basically all the same as driving a car – if you know the rules for driving a car, you know the rules for riding a bike."

One rule that surprises cyclists in Quebec? They can't ride with headphones.

"It's an offence, even with just one headphone," Valois says. "This summer we have noticed that more cyclists are riding with them."

In Vancouver, you're allowed to ride with one headphone, but not with two, Vancouver Police say.

“One that people don’t know much about is that wearing two headphones at the same time is not allowed,” said Const. Tania Visintin, Vancouver police spokesman, in an e-mail. “Riders must be able to hear at all times.”

While most other places in Canada don't ban wearing headphones while riding a bike, it's probably safer not to. Studies have shown that they can prevent cyclists from hearing approaching vehicles, especially electric cars and hybrids.

There are other rules that are unique to bicycles. In some provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia, cyclists are supposed to walk their bikes in crosswalks. B.C. and the Atlantic provinces require all cyclists to wear helmets. Alberta and Manitoba require helmets for riders under 18. Everywhere else, there's no helmet law.

Most sidewalk cyclists not scofflaws

There are times when cyclists might break rules – for instance, riding on a sidewalk – because it's safer than the alternative.

“Here in Montreal, we see people on the sidewalk because of road work or because cars are speeding,” Valois says. “Of course, if they’re new, they might be a bit uncomfortable or they might not know.”

Unless the rider is endangering pedestrians on a sidewalk, police might typically just give a warning instead of an $80 ticket, Valois says.

On some high-speed suburban roads without bike lanes, sometimes the sidewalks are the only safe place to ride, says Sabat Ismail, a Toronto-based cycling instructor.

“Some people wouldn’t cycle in certain places if they couldn’t cycle on the sidewalk,” Ismail says. “Be a good space-sharer and respect the other folks in the community.”

While riding on the sidewalk may be a stopgap solution when there are no protected bike lanes, it's ultimately not safe for cyclists or pedestrians, says Justin Jones, program manager with the Share the Road Cycling Coalition.

“A lot of people view sidewalks as a safe place to cycle, and they’re not,” says Jones. “When you’re on a sidewalk, every driveway is an intersection and sidewalks are not designed to make someone visible when they’re going the speed of a bike.”

Especially with COVID-19 and the need for personal distancing, cyclists need to leave sidewalks to pedestrians, Jones says.

“It’s vital that our limited sidewalk space be kept for people who are walking or using mobility devices,” Jones says.

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