Can cyclists and pedestrians coexist?

3-way street

This fascinating video by designer Ron Gabriel shows the problems caused by errant motorists, pedestrians and cyclists at an intersection in Manhattan. Each class of traveller has members who act selfishly and inconsiderately toward the others. This is just one of 12,370 intersections in New York City – they are the site of 74% of traffic accidents in the City, according to the video.

Cars are the biggest problem because they can do the most harm to other users, but at least they usually keep off areas dedicated exclusively to walking. A new problem emerging with the increasing popularity of cycling is bikes intruding into areas like footpaths, squares and promenades usually considered the sole domain of pedestrians. I wouldn’t dare make a sudden move when walking along the river at Southbank without checking first to see if there’s a cyclist threading his way through the throng who might possibly collect me!

Mounted cyclists do not mix well with pedestrians on footpaths. Those who cycle in crowds at speed are of course more dangerous, but speed is a relative term. I don’t relish being stabbed by a Shimano 105 shifter carrying the momentum of an 80-90 kg man, even if it’s only moving at 10 kph. My greatest worry was when my kids were very young and likely to run about unpredictably – they should be able to do that in a pedestrian area without the risk of being collected by a bike. In fact I think the greatest risk is from 10 kph cyclists who track too close to walkers, leaving no room for avoiding an incident with pedestrians who don’t behave as predictably as the cyclist (incorrectly) anticipated.

As I understand it, cycling in pedestrian areas is illegal for anyone over the age of twelve unless they’re supervising a child who’s also cycling. It isn’t just an issue of endangering pedestrians – it also makes walking a less enjoyable and relaxed way of getting from A to B. What’s more, like cyclists running red lights, it can potentially reinforce the negative perceptions and rhetoric of the anti-cycling brigade. The cyclist who ignores red lights really only puts himself at risk, but if he cycles in pedestrian areas he can put others at risk.

Cyclists who use pedestrian areas while mounted might say that they have no choice because the roads are unsafe and the cycling infrastructure is inadequate. It’s true that drivers do make cycling unsafe but that sort of response is immature – it doesn’t give riders the right to impose on pedestrians in, effectively, the same way (although I wouldn’t suggest that a bike is as lethal for pedestrians as a car). I subscribe to the view that there’s a hierarchy of harm potential, where motorists can do the most and pedestrians the least – cyclists are somewhere in between. Cyclists who aren’t happy with using roads should simply dismount when using the footpath to avoid a dangerous section of road, at least when there’re pedestrians about.

Having said that, I’m a cyclist and I’ve been guilty of riding in pedestrian-only areas. I was wrong to do that and I try to avoid doing it now. From a policy perspective, better cycling infrastructure will reduce the need to ride on footpaths but that’s some time away yet. In the shorter term there’s no instant solution. Enforcement could work but is very expensive. It’s also hard to build works that successfully discourage cycling while maintaining the quality of the walking experience. Social disapproval might be the most effective approach – a campaign to let cyclists know that it’s unacceptable to ride in some areas and let pedestrians know they have a socially sanctioned right (not just a legal one) to express their disapproval to inconsiderate cyclists. A few prominent signs in places like Southbank saying riding is not permitted would help.

I expect conflict between cyclists and pedestrians is going to become an ever bigger problem as cycling becomes more popular. As a cyclist myself, I don’t want much-needed improvements to infrastructure and regulations to be squashed by opposition from motorists on one side and by pedestrians on the other. Cyclists and pedestrians seem to be able to get along in some European countries and there are lessons we could learn from them, but we have a different history and different attitudes towards cycling. We’ll probably need a tailor-made solution.


28 Comments on “Can cyclists and pedestrians coexist?”

  1. Michael says:

    I don’t think you can make an across the board condemnation of cyclists riding on the footpath. Sometimes I will ride on a short section of footpath, always making sure there isn’t anyone using it. What’s the big deal if it’s done with consideration and no one is in danger? Pedestrians certainly aren’t sticklers for rules when it comes to jaywalking – and more than 99.99% of the time it’s perfectly safe and reasonable. I don’t condone riding in crowded areas though. Maybe a campaign re-inforcing consideration for others is needed rather than a heavy handed attack on cyclists that most car drivers salivate at.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I don’t really have a problem with cyclists using pedestrian space if there’re no pedestrians either. But there’s the age old problem that it’s very hard to tailor rules to the full range of possible circumstances. Also, there’s a risk that if cyclists ride on a lightly used pedestrian area in any sort of numbers it will be “colonised” by them and avoided by pedestrians altogether.

    • T says:

      Although it’s true that pedestrians don’t always follow the rules, generally when a pedestrian jaywalks, they are putting themselves in danger more so than motorists. The difference with cyclists using pedestrian areas is that the cyclist is potentially putting pedestrians in danger over themselves. Would it be ok for a motorist to break the rules and drive on the footpath if nobody is around? Of course not. If cyclists want rights on the road, they have to abide by the same rules as everybody else.

  2. Oz says:

    The maximum walking speed is 5-6 km/hr. For cyclists to share designated walking areas the cyclist must be mandated to travel at walking speed. Eventually planning and design applications will allocate sufficient and safe space to separate all faster cycle travel. In the interim social pressure will need to be applied to cyclists not to be abusive to the young, hesitant, infirm and elderly walker.
    It is interesting to watch the selfish behaviour of many cyclists over only a few metres, (five seconds of travel) during the Swanston Street reconstruction…

  3. Andrew says:

    The mix of cyclists at a relatively high speed and aimless pedestrians along the river at Southbank is extremely fraught. While I have a high tolerance of cyclists on the roads and I care little if they go through a red light so long as no one else is inconvenienced, how dare they yell ‘look out’ at us along the Southbank promenade.

  4. Russ says:

    I’m of the view that all cyclists should be allowed on the footpath provided their speed is below 12km/h (twice walking speed). There are enough reasons for cyclists to be on the footpath at various places when starting or ending their journey or traversing to bike paths with gaps or whatever that it makes sense to allow them globally, with guidelines, than bar them in ridiculous ways. (A particular peeve is bridges that ask cyclists to dismount, a rule that actually makes a cyclist wider and reduces their control of the bike).

    Better enforcement would help a little, but enforcing cycling rules is particularly hard, and you can’t legislate for every piece of thoughtless or stupid behaviour. Better to have some education campaigns that point out to cyclists and drivers alike that they put their own and others’ safety at risk by being thoughtless, impatient and aggressive on and off roads. For every cyclist I see who does something dangerous and illegal, I’d reckon I see five who do something dangerous but legal (weaving in and out of parked cars, passing through or riding in a car’s blind-spot into an intersection, passing vehicles being parked, and so on). We do very poorly at ensuring riders have defensive riding skills before they take to the roads.

    • Michael says:

      If I come accross a cyclist dismount sign and anyone is around who might get their knickers in a twist I get off my bike and run with it. It might take up more space than riding but there isn’t a law against and that way I don’t add too much extra time to my commute and get a bit of exercise at the same time.

      • Russ says:

        Michael, sure, but my bike shoes have cleats. It is hard to walk in them, let alone run a bike across a narrow bridge.

        • Sam says:

          The my shoes have cleats excuse is very weak.

          My shoes have cleats, SPD-SL even, and I get off and walk my bike to use pedestrian crossings and footpaths. They are awkward to walk in, but not hard. They wear out quicker when walked in, but they are replaceable, so that is no biggy. If either of these became such a problem that I couldn’t walk in them, I would wear different shoes.

          • Russ says:

            Sam, it is not an excuse, it is a risk assessment. I have less control of the bike walking in cleats on a bridge than riding. As do most cyclists, cleats or no, particularly where there are gradients on or off the bridge that means they can’t hold their brakes. Requiring cyclists to dismount is more dangerous than sign-posting a speed-limit. Requiring cyclists to always stay off a footpath is more dangerous overall than allowing it below a certain speed.

            Cyclists do many many stupid things, sometimes legal, sometimes not, but sometimes they do things that are illegal that are not stupid – and therefore increase overall health from a societal perspective. In that case it is the law that is the problem.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Russ, I’ve only seen those ‘cyclists must dismount’ signs at bridges and crossings on shared bicycle trails. These are by design legitimate places for cycling so I’d take a different view about restrictions on cyclists on them. I’m talking in the post about areas which are reserved for pedestrians (and are places where cyclists are not permitted to ride under the existing law) and where there is potential for conflict with pedestrians’ enjoyment of them.

      • Russ says:

        Alan, true, but you mentioned Southbank. Cycling is allowed in Southbank, there are prominent signs limiting the speed of cyclists (too ften ignored). If cyclists were removed from that area they have three options: north-bank, an even more conflicted shared space; traffic heavy Flinders St; or the back of Crown casino and Southbank boulevard (likewise). By any measure of social risk it is better for cyclists to be on Southbank. (Personally I avoid the whole section of the river, it is awful to ride on). Arguably a section could be painted to indicate a cycling thoroughfare, but that has its downsides – cyclists go faster on it, pedestrians will still drift in and out of it. Sometimes you just have to take the worst option and work on attitudes and behaviour within shared spaces.

        • Michael says:

          I haven’t ridden on southbank but there is a section of path between the exhibition building and the river that is for cyclists only and needless to say it is full of pedestrians unaware that there is a line they are supposed to keep one side of.

        • Alan Davies says:

          Actually I didn’t realise cycling was permitted at Southbank (my Melway shows the Capital City Trail stops between Princes Bridge and Queens Bridge) and I’m appalled to discover it is (as an aside, I wonder how the legality would stand up if tested – is the promenade defined as a road?). I just think the promenade is so pedestrian-intensive that riding shouldn’t be an option at any speed. On that view, there is therefore a gap in the trail system which cyclists who aren’t prepared to use roads can only negotiate by walking. I’d favour dedicating some road space to fill in the gap. Wise words by Simon at No. 8.

          • It’s allowed, there’s a even a dedicated “lane”. This said, the lane is marked by a barely visible line, has pedestrians wandering in and out of it constantly and has a lot of cyclists riding waaay to fast down it.

            I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a bike is far less dangerous to a pedestrian than a car is to a bike. If riding is to be encouraged, then places like parks, wide promenades like Southbank, etc should be ok for bikes, providing riders ride sensibly.

            Just as you’ve argued for 35km/h speed limits for cars in the CBD because of the number of pedestrians I’d argue for a 10-15km/h limit for bikes where pedestrians are. A bit of enforcement for ‘reckless riding’ could also be used, people that cut too close to people, etc.

          • Alan Davies says:

            Please Julian, I’ve argued for 30 kmh max for cars in the CBD, not 35 kmh – that’s too fast! Yes a bike is less dangerous to pedestrians than a car is to cyclists (much less), but we shouldn’t be reduced to compromises that risk injuring pedestrians and, probably more importantly, lessening their enjoyment of public spaces. Speed limits are problematic for bicycles and enforcement will always be a joke, no matter how good the intentions. The answer in the city centre is to take space away from roads for cycling, not (effectively) from pedestrians.

          • Julian Wearne says:

            I don’t believe that having shared pedestrian/bike spaces will reduce the enjoyment of public spaces.

            At Southbank, for the most part bikes, pedestrians and even skateboarders all seem to be getting along fine. There was even a large crowd of people gathered to watch a guy perform some very impressive stunts on his bike, hopping up and down from different ledges, etc. The only section of Southbank I’ve actually had a problem with is the short stretch that has a “lane” marked, here it seems every rider thinks this barely visible lane will be completely void of pedestrians and they ride twice as fast.

            The video you pointed to of Darwin’s helmet law exemption also showed that people in Darwin are allowed to ride on footpaths, which also didn’t seem to be causing a problem.

            People that want to ride as fast as lightning tend to use the roads, people that are happy going at a slower leisurely pace tend to use the footpaths.

  5. TomD says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more Alan. And to those who want bikes in pedestrian areas to traverse an area or otherwise … sure let them have their bikes there, but first they should dismount and become pedestrians for the period and stretch involved before no longer ‘walking their bikes’ and starting to ride again!

  6. Michael says:

    Another way of thinking about this issue is that now climate change is being seriously dealt with, the externalities of driving has been costed properly and paid, cars don’t speed and drivers don’t use their phones, and cycling is at record levels thanks to cycling infrastructure being provided by a state authority so that it is consistent and safe we can think seriously about punitive law enforcement that might discourage cycling. After all pedestrians don’t jaywalk anymore and people walking their dogs keep them on leashes so it’s fair enough to focus important resources to making cyclists obey the laws even though they pose a small real risk to others.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I don’t think the argument that ‘cycling is pure’ is strong enough either morally or logically to give cyclists permission to degrade the quality of pedestrians’ walking experience — for one thing, walkers could claim they’re even more pure! Nor do I think the fact that pedestrians jaywalk or let their dogs off-leash is a sound argument for cyclists to ignore the law or give them the right to be inconsiderate to pedestrians. Also, as I said above, the fact that there is inadequate cycling infrastructure is not a justification for cyclists to impose on pedestrians. And I really can’t see that insisting cyclists dismount when in close proximity to pedestrians would be a serious deterrent to cycling, just an annoyance.

      • Michael says:

        I’m not arguing that cyclists should be able to do whatever they want and put others in danger (some cyclists are inconsiderate – just like most motorists). I just don’t believe that good behaviour on the part of cyclists can really be adequately enforced by more laws or punitive fines that are arbitrarily doled out whenever some moron decides to take out their frustrations on an easy target. The fact is that a lot of cycling laws can be broken without putting anyone in danger (Just as jaywalking is done a lot perfectly safely). Cycling paths often end where there is no ramp back onto the road and shared paths exist in a few places and not in other identical situations. The key is to create an environment where cyclists are more aware of what they are doing and encouraged to act more considerately. Sure you can say cyclists can always get off their bikes, well pedestrians can always walk to the nearest lights – but they don’t and the world keeps on turning.

        I would dispute that pedestrians are more pure than cyclists. Cycling is far more efficient as a means of transport and a lot of the pedestrian traffic in somewhere like the CBD got there by other means such as cars. Cars routinely put cyclists in far more danger than cyclists put pedestrians – it’s a simple fact.

      • Michael says:

        Or to put it a different way – I’m not saying it isn’t a problem, it’s just that it’s a small one in the scheme of things and it would be more realistic to encourage cyclists to ride at walking pace than to get them off their bikes. If it’s a substantial problem in a crowded area then having the police issue warnings would be more productive than issuing fines. I don’t ride in crowded areas but using a bike occasionally on a footpath in deserted area is perfectly safe and shouldn’t be illegal.

  7. Michael says:

    A cyclist busted in NY for not riding in the bike lane – worth a watch

  8. Simon says:

    When the vast majority of street space is designed for, and dominated by, motor vehicles, then pedestrians and cyclists will inevitably fight over the scraps.

    Don’t do it. Pedestrians and cyclists are on the same side on this issue. The problem is the greedy motorists who take up all the space.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “When the vast majority of street space is designed for, and dominated by, motor vehicles, then pedestrians and cyclists will inevitably fight over the scraps”.

      Very astute observation Simon. I fear however that conflict between cyclists and pedestrians is going to become a much bigger issue as cycling becomes more popular. The solution is not to mix up cyclists and pedestrians but to give cyclists more road space.

  9. I ride to work every day, from Osborne Park to Belmont in Perth. Mostly I’m riding along back streets or dual use paths but I do use footpaths for a few sections where I consider it too dangerous to use the road.

    Illegally riding on footpaths is not a big deal, and it’s not rocket science either: Slow down and use your bell. Simple courtesy really.

  10. Noah says:

    I agree with Alan, the best way to deal with the issue is to provide more space for cyclists. If cycling is to grow as a legitimate form of transportation and truly compete with the car it must be given priority.


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