With bicycle riding being encouraged due to its benefits to society, cyclists are taking over the streets, annoying motorists and putting the lives of pedestrians in danger. They might not pose a threat to people inside cars, but we hear about the danger of pedestrians being run over all the time, so surely there is reason for concern?
I am a pedestrian, bike rider, motorists and even occasional scooter rider. We read a lot about the relationship between people behind the wheel and on the ones two (bike riders), but seldom about pedestrians and how they interact with bike riders.
Cars – the dominant species on Planet Earth
When ‘Ford’ from ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ first came to earth, he stepped onto a road and tried to introduce himself to a speeding car, because he understandably thought that cars were the dominant species. That moment was his first experience as a pedestrian on Planet Earth, and almost his last. I’m guessing he quickly learned that cars are king (which was historically not the case) and pedestrians belong on the gaps between roads and buildings after space is allocated to cater for motorised vehicles - referred to as the arrogance of Space. Sure, we do need roads and you can’t walk everywhere (not all the way at least), but big cities are filled with pedestrians that pour out of train stations, from bus stops and parking garages and continue on foot to take on the final section of their journey, referred to as the last mile problem.
Pedestrians walk shoulder-to-shoulder on the safety of a footpath, subconsciously aware that if they step out of line, they put their lives at risk.
As a pedestrian using a shared path, I had to learn to behave differently than when on a footpath. I learned to walk in a straight line and look over my shoulder when I change direction. But there is still the fear that some silent ninja on a bicycle is going to fly close pass me and scare the living daylights out of me. It would be pure luck that I didn’t change direction at that precise moment, as pedestrians often do. Even though it almost never happens, a small hint of fear is always in the back of my head and that fear can turn into annoyance and enough annoyance can turn into despise of this ‘other species’, the bicycle riders invading my space. Just the idea that you no longer are in a comfortable, safe place, can fuel this flame. Frustrations build up, whether it is based on actual threat or a vague annoyance.
This is verbalised as ‘danger’ and that very odd near miss, ‘last minute swerve’ or rider ‘appearing out of nowhere’ becomes absolute proof that your life is at risk. And that story of a friend of a friend that got ran over by a cyclist is the nail in the coffin.
I rarely share footpaths with bicycles and when I do the nature of the space is such that the rider can’t go much faster than walking speed, but there are footpaths used more frequently by bicycles due to lack of safe cycling infrastructure and that the result would be similar.
A new threat - bicycles
With cities promoting cycling due to the potential that they offer in reduce congestion, pollution, infrastructure and health cost, people on bicycles are becoming more prominent. Cities are working hard towards #minimumgrid which will ensure that the need to use the same space is minimised. With enough protected bikelanes and lower speed limits, there would be less reason to share space, but anyone that has spent time in a city knows there are growing pains.
When do bike riders and pedestrians interact?
- When we share the road, for example at a crossings
- On footpaths, where in some states it is legal for people of all ages to ride bicycles while in other states only if you are under 12 years of age
- On shared paths
Assertive riders prefer roads where they can commute at higher speeds, but casual bike riders do occasionally use the footpaths. This possibly happens for multiple and short periods of time, to navigate between sections where they feel more comfortable to ride. These riders are usually not the assertive type of riders and mainly do it to avoid a busy section of road, and usually at a speed not much faster than walking.
Stopping them from using these footpaths might result in them stopping riding all together due to lack of other safe options.
Pedestrians have, and should have right of way and there is probably the occasional inconsiderate person that abuses their right to use a footpath (in states where it is legal) by weaving in between pedestrians at high speeds. There is no need to defend these people – they are a menace and not the norm.
Pedestrians are expected to share space with a faster moving object, cyclist are annoyed with the wandering, smartphone-obsessed chaos, and motorists are frustrated that their money is spent on ‘cyclepaths’, but sometimes avoided by cyclists. These two different worlds are suddenly expected to understand each other’s rules.
With limited space and budget, shared paths are an attractive compromise for government organisations. It is a complex issue with different designs and purposes. Some of them are better than others, but in areas with high activity and less space (where pedestrians and bike riders need their own space the most) there will always be potential for conflict.
Renowned international bicycle blogger David Hembrow says “Where conflict between cyclists and pedestrians occur, it is almost always due to cyclists being forced to use infrastructure which is not designed for them at all” and “Even when taking care, [bike rider’s] behaviour seems aggressive and unpredictable to many pedestrians.”
There seems to be no educational programs on using shared paths and the two different types of road users are expected to magically adjust to the new situation.
There are also some designs that cause higher levels of frustration, for example where a bikepath ends and continues onto a shared path. It is a bit like someone driving along at 100 km/h that suddenly has to slow down to 40 km/h, with pedestrians in the middle of the chaos.
On the road
People on foot or bike do have interaction on the road, for example at intersections. Bike riders running red lights are on the lookout for motor vehicles and might not spot a pedestrian. While I don’t condone cyclist running red lights, this research found that most riders do this believing their actions are safe and at the same time believes it increases their own safety.
The reverse happens as well, when pedestrians cross at times when the traffic lane has right of way, once again, looking out for a motor vehicle travelling in the centre of the road and not for a bike rider closer to the edge. In the UK, most pedestrians that are hurt by cyclists are as a result of the pedestrian not hearing or seeing the rider and stepping into the path of an oncoming rider.
According to BITRE, In Australia in 2014 there were 152 pedestrian fatalities, trending downwards from 226 in 2005. Only 0.4% of fatalities were caused by cyclists (between 2009– 2013).
Another study by Australasian College of Road Safety concluded that in Sydney the chances of getting struck by a bicycle are, conservatively measured, less than once for each 75 million trips. The risk of dying as a result of tripping and falling on a footpath is 23 times higher than being killed by a bicycle.
The risk of getting injured is conservatively calculated at 1 injury per 460 00 trips. The Sydney study used in this analysis, unfortunately doesn’t offer a breakdown in the severity of the different injury types (for example head injury), other than noting that 29% were superficial injuries of the lower leg.
It also says that “The integration of cyclists and pedestrians on shared user paths would largely protect cyclists from vehicle impact injuries without unreasonably enhancing the risk to pedestrians. [It is] proposed that there were no major reasons to justify the exclusion of cyclist from pedestrian areas.”
People are not just numbers, but it is clear that the most lives can be saved by focussing on the 96.6%, but at the same time if bike riders using footpaths responsibly are not prosecuted, the increasing cycling fatalities could possibly be changed for the better.
Perceived vs real threat
What I take out of this, is that there is no carnage. There is no constant, high threat posed by bicycle riders. There is annoyance. There is an element of fear. Perceived risk. Possibly a reduced enjoyment of the journey for both parties. And yes, an extremely low risk of getting hurt.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. I couldn’t find any research on how bikes and pedestrians sharing space influence the personal experience.
In terms of well-designed shared paths, over time people that use the same path day by day, by my experience, seem to adjust their behaviour and a shared path culture evolves. With enough space, good design and a cultural adjustment they could possibly work, but if there is constant conflict it means there is something wrong and this is unfair to both users. It would also mean that pedestrians need to get used to sharing space with cyclists and accept it is not dangerous, but that they are no longer in their own space.
By encouraging people to use bicycles instead of motorised vehicles, city centres become safer and more enjoyable. And with the increased uptake of riding, it opens up the opportunity to replace traffic lanes with protected bikelanes. There will always be sharing, but the level and quality of sharing is key. We have to reshape our cities faster. This is a big, expensive, painful political minefield and along the way there will be frustrations and we will have to tolerate them without giving up on working towards the ideal solution. Pedestrians and bikeriders do have common goals – being active while using the most sustainable method to get somewhere, being part of the solution for constantly growing cities and all that they asked for in return is to be safe. These two groups have different requirements and when there is conflict between them, the focus should be on fixing the infrastructure instead of making assumptions about intention and character.
There is simply not enough room to host private vehicles and attempting to do so, results in pedestrians being pushed into the ‘leftover’ space and also an increase of bike riders not being accommodated. And this all for the sake of the expensive luxury of driving from doorstep to doorstep.
It is time that pedestrians and bike riders (humans), become the dominant specie again.