Can cyclists and pedestrians coexist?Posted: June 9, 2011
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.