Cyclists and Pedestrians: Fighting Over the Scraps

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Cyclists and pedestrians somehow managing to get along with each other in Copenhagen.

"Gridlock" Sam Schwartz’s op/ed piece in the Times City section yesterday is generating lots of discussion in the cycling community. Weirdly headlined, "Rolling Thunder," the editorial briefly examines the conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on New York City streets, acknowledges the antipathy that many walkers feel towards people riding bikes, and proposes physically-separated bike lanes and a reduction in the city’s motor vehicle traffic as solutions to the problem.

Below is my breakdown of the story accompanied by some photos I recently snapped in two truly great biking cities, Copenhagen and Utrecht. (We already have some excellent discussion abut the article underway in the Comments section of Today’s Headlines):

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In Copenhagen a helmetless woman rides in a lane that would be reserved for parked cars in NYC

EVEN my own daughter, Deena, complains to me: "Dad, I know you’re a big fan of bikes but you’ve got to do something about them. I almost got run over by a woman on Second Avenue!"

Schwartz approaches the issue from the perspective of the-typical-New-Yorker-annoyed-by-cyclists. While this angle naturally makes bike advocates uncomfortable, Sam is preaching to the unconverted and I see a lot of value in starting the conversation this way. 

What is it about the conflict between bike riders and pedestrians that’s got so many people riled up and what can be done about it? It’s important to look at this historically.

Gridlock Sam’s historic anecdotes are always great but I think he somewhat misses the boat on this one. The answer to his question can be found by simply taking a look at any New York City street. While drivers are a minority in New York, the vast majority of the city’s public spaces — our streets — have been given away for the movement and storage of people’s private motor vehicles.

Pedestrians and cyclists are crammed into the margins fighting over the scraps of public space that have been left to them. The real problem are the rows of parked cars hogging up street space throughout the city. One of the things that jumped out at me during my recent visits to Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Utrecht (below), was the way in which these cities frequently give curbside street space to buses, bikes, and café tables rather than parked cars.

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Utrecht, Holland: People don’t bother to drive cars downtown when parking has been replaced by biking.

This means bikers must yield to pedestrians — even errant ones. Biking is a superb form of transport we should encourage. Drivers must yield to bike riders — even errant ones.

You can’t argue with any of that. Yet, having spent a little time in a number of great biking cities, I really think that if you want cyclists to start adhering to the rules of the road then you’ve got to give cyclists their own right-of-way and their own infrastructure. As long as cyclists are treated as marginal street users they are going to make up their own rules and do what they think is best for their own safety and transportation needs.

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Copenhagen: A safe, pleasant bike lane between the sidewalk and parked cars. Why not try this in NYC?

The Police Department has so far written 40,000 summonses to bike riders in 2006;

This is a staggeringly large number. And New York City says that it wants to encourage cycling? Puh-lease. Ray Kelly’s police department is out of control when it comes to bike enforcement. When will Michael Bloomberg step in and do something?

No one I’ve spoken to has noticed better behavior. Instead, let’s focus on what really matters – making sure bicyclists respect the right of way of pedestrians

Sigh. While it makes sense for this op/ed piece to be written from the perspective of pedestrians angry at cyclist recklessness, this still makes me a bit nauseous. New York City pedestrians frequently fail to respect the right-of-way of bikes creating extraordinarily dangerous situations for cyclists. Perhaps we all have to be more mindful of each other in an increasingly crowded city. And, again, this fight between peds and bikes is a distraction from the real issue: We are all being squeezed into the margins by the city’s increasing volume of motor vehicle traffic and the Bloomberg Administration’s continuing failure to do anything about it.

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A neighborhood shopping street in Copenhagen. Lack of car parking does not mean lack of shopping.

Car traffic must be reduced and more room made for pedestrians and bike lanes. London and Stockholm understand this — that’s why they introduced congestion pricing and sharply reduced car traffic.

Amen. Though, as many of the above photos illustrate, the city could make huge strides forward simply by replacing on-street parking with dedicated bus and bike lanes. We don’t necessarily need to go through the huge political hassle of congestion charging to make progress here.

  • Karen Orlando

    Very nicely put. I’m also getting tired of how this “pedestrian vs cyclist” issue is getting framed by the media. It’s as if every time a journalist covers cyclists and the promotion of cycling or safety on the city streets, they have to bring this issue up. I agree that it is a distraction from the main issue of pedestrian/biker safety from motor vehicle traffic. I imagine that the writer’s are trying to be “balanced”, but it seems to me that they are exaggerating the problem between cyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians and cyclists have more to fear from cars any day of the week than from each other.

  • g

    “No one I’ve spoken to has noticed better behavior. Instead, let’s focus on what really matters – making sure bicyclists respect the right of way of pedestrians.”

    To me, this sums up the problem that we’re up against when it comes to public opinion and support for cyclists.

    Of course you only notice the bad behavior. How many people notice drivers who obey the speed limit? It’s the ones that speed and run lights that get our attention. I typically don’t make a big deal about my street being clean, but if someone left a big pile of garbage on the corner I’d sure notice it.

    I hate the logic of “I’ve only ever seen bad cyclists, so they all must be bad.” Could it be that no one has noticed better behavior because better behavior does little to draw attention to it?

  • someguy

    “As long as cyclists are treated as marginal street users they are going to make up their own rules and do what they think is best for their own safety and transportation needs.”

    That point is key, and hasn’t been hammered in enough. Any of us who have rode a bike in this city understand that you end up biking more aggressively in order to A) go at a reasonable speed that makes it worth your effort to choose bicycle as your transport mode and B) avoid a violent death. Physically protected bicycle infrastructure addresses both of these issues and bicyclists would behave more calmly in that situation, as we see in the cities you’ve highlighted here.

  • Karen Orlando wrote: “Pedestrians and cyclists have more to fear from cars any day of the week than from each other.”

    I own five bikes, and I ride 7 days (and nights) a week. In my experience, reckless cyclists pose a far greater threat to my safety than motor vehicles. Many times every day, I encounter cyclists riding the wrong way on one-way streets and in bike lanes, and blowing through red lights and stop signs without slowing down or looking. I consider it a small miracle that I haven’t had a head-on collision with a reckless biker yet.

  • J:Lai

    John, I appreciate your sentiment because I, too, have been often annoyed and occasionally endangered by bikers going the wrong way or running lights (I refer to times when I have also been on a bicycle.)

    While I try to respect traffic laws, I admit that I will go through a red light if there is no oncoming traffic, and I will go the wrong way on a street for a block or two if there is little or no traffic on the street. The reality is, as others have pointed out, that bikers lack even the bare minimum of infrastructure to make biking safe and reasonably efficent. As a result, bicyclists tend to break traffic laws. I think that adding infrastructure like physically separated bike lines, and better provision for bikers at busy intersections and bridges, would go a long way toward encouraging bikers to behave more responsibly in accordance with traffic laws.

    I also believe that this would go a long way to ameliorate the conflict between bikers and pedestrians. The reality is that bikers and pedestrians have far more in common in the struggle against motor vehicles than they have to fight over. However, because non-motor-vehicle surface transport is so marginalized, we are all competing for very limited space and we tend to turn on each other. This is well document behavior in the psychological literature – marginalized groups will most readily turn on each other rather than cooperating to address the root problem of their joint marginalization.

    Bikers, walkers, runners, skaters, subway riders, and everyone else who gets around without the use of a car should all be talking to each other and working together on the problem of excess motor vehicle use and the infrastructure and policies which enourage it.

  • Increasingly, I just won’t ride my bike on the street in Brooklyn. I ride on the sidewalk — slowly, carefully and considerately, but on the sidewalk nonetheless. I just won’t get out into traffic when I’m hauling a 30-pound 2-year-old on the back and when my local government refuses to build proper bike facilties.

  • Clarence

    From my frequent travels to the West Coast, it is amazing to notice how catchy “good behavior” can be between car drivers, cyclists and peds. I become self-aware of what a rule breaker I must seem like when I cross against the light while in Seattle, San Fran or Portland where pedestrians usually wait even when there are no cars coming for blocks in either direction!

    Usually by the 2nd or 3rd day of my stay, I start behaving as well. Because you grow to appreciate the civility and don’t mind waiting a few seconds here or there because the city pedestrian experience is so much safer. Very rare is it in these cities that cars will wisk by and nearly run over your feet while trying to make a right turn thru peds in the crosswalk.

    Could that happen here? I so much hope it could. There are alot of challenges.

    But I think the first step must be enforcement against car drivers. They easily do the most potential damage and break the law with virtual impunity. Sure you could do education and enforcement on all modes, but the enforcement against drivers would need to be swift and overwhelming. No more redlight running. No more sitting in crosswalks. No cutting thru pedestrians in crosswalks. No speeding. No parking in bus stops, no illegal parking.

    Pedestrians must always come first.

    Oh another thing about the West Coast – I know the fine in Portland for going thru a red light (ped, cyclist, driver) is $242! That must be a big convincer cause everyone I know out there knows how much the fine is.

    In Portland they have periodic undecover crosswalk enforcement actions where they write tickets to all modes. Mostly to drivers, but they will nab anyone who does not yield to the right of way of another including cyclists and also to peds who cross in front of cyclists!

  • g

    John highlights another of this fight’s problems: the use of personal experience rather than statistics and evidence as the basis of policy and politics.

    I’m sure everyone here has had a bad experience with a fellow cyclist, but if you look at cold, hard facts, the numbers do not support the more vocal complaints that cyclists are a menace to the city. As far as I have read, not one cyclist (or pedestrian) has been killed in an accident with a fellow cyclist. But well over 120 cyclists have been killed by cars since 2000.

    I certainly don’t mean to diminish John’s experience, as I too am often frustrated by the sheer idiocy of other cyclists when I ride. But the individual behavior of riders each of us sees is not the whole story. Calmer heads – calmer than both the more extreme activists advocating for cyclists and certainly calmer than the draconian NYPD – along with research and study are the only solution to this debate. Otherwise it just becomes a big shouting match.

  • Sam

    Though some people really do need a car to commute to work (eg to the suburbs beyond walking distance from a train station etc), it makes less sense to own for the majority who use cars less frequently. Even if someone needs a car two weekends out of a month, they’d save money by renting rather than owning, maintaining and garaging. Even though it may sting everytime you pay $2 for public transit, you’re still saving money over owning a car. Keep a log and see for yourself.

  • Karen Orlando

    “I own five bikes, and I ride 7 days (and nights) a week. In my experience, reckless cyclists pose a far greater threat to my safety than motor vehicles.”

    That just doesn’t seem like an honest comment from someone who rides a bike 7 days a week in the city. I just hit the 4000 mile mark for miles ridden in 2006, (for pleasure and commuting) primarily in Brooklyn, Manhattan, LI & Queens on my one bike, and my experience is that the real danger I face as a cyclist comes from drivers of motor vehicles and not from other cyclists or pedestrians. Just this morning, I was clipped by the driver of a car, not a bicycle, and I was following the traffic laws, not the driver. Almost daily, I encounter drivers who come to close to me, stop short in front of me, fail to use their blinkers when I am right behind them unaware that they are about to turn, beep to intimidate me, or run me into the curb. In my experience, the commuting hours are the worst time for these experiences.

    Does this mean I hate all drivers and think all cyclists and pedestrians are always in the right? No. But I think I have a handle on what the real dangers are for me as a cyclist in New York City both from personal observations and from reading up on the issue.

  • Thanks for your very thoughtful take on Sam’s op-ed. I am tired of the notion that if cyclists just behaved themselves, they’d be a lot better off. The people who say this are usually non-cyclists, at least as far as I’ve observed. I say, ride a mile in my saddle, and see how polite you feel after getting cut off by a car and having hordes of pedestrians step into the street in front of you, as if you weren’t there.

  • Mark Anders

    If, in a ten-year period. Approximately 2,500 pedestrians are killed in NYC by motor vehicles (not including increased incidence of lung cancer and asthma due to pollution) and cyclists kill about 4, what is the bigger threat to pedestrians? Cyclists or motor vehicles? Put it another way. Would you rather be hit by a fast moving machine weighing thousands of pounds, or by a bike? Also, cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam which have the highest rates of cycling have the lowest rates of pedestrian fatalities. This is not rocket science. The statistics, the evidence, and the laws of physics are on our side. Why doesn’t the cycling community come up with a few simple, compelling talking points and images, and hit them home until the public, the media, and the politicians get it. It worked for the anti-fur people. It sounds crazy but maybe put up a billboard.

    I think we should be fighting hard for physically separated bike-lanes, especially in heavily trafficked streets. Besides all benefits mentioned already, a cyclist would be able to safely cruise past all the motorists stuck in gridlock. A lot of those drivers will then wish they were on bikes.
    -Mark

  • Rick Muller

    I call it the ‘startle factor.’ Fear, and consequently hatred, is aroused by being startled. Motorists’ behavior towards pedestrians may be aggressive, but it is fairly predictable – cutting someone off in a crosswalk, continuing through an intersection a second or two (or three) after the light has changed. (I think peds suffer less aggressive types of behavior from drivers than cyclists.) Because cyclists come from unexpected directions, weave among and around pedestrians, blow through lights long after they have turned red, and mount sidewalks to avoid traffic situations (or ride them regularly as delivery bikes do – and not considerately like Aaron, who wants his kid to live to a rip old age), peds are made to feel insecure, startled and endangered by cyclists in a way they don’t by cars. Older people are particularly and justifiably resentful of us. They can wait overly long to make sure the last maniac in a car has blown the just-changed light before they cross, but those with fragile bones and precarious balance suffer tremendous psychological stress from bikes on sidewalks. I also have to second the comment about nearly being creamed by a cyclist going the worng way popping out from behind a double-parked vehicle, which has happened twice to me in as many days.

    Of course that is in the context of a land of double-parked vehicles. And again of course all this occurs in the context of a mindset among peds and drivers alike that cars rule the road, the streets are for them as the sidewalks are for peds, and bikes inhabit the interstitial never-neverland of the edge of the road, the ever-blocked bike lane, and the less-than-legitimate status of a non-participant in the assumptive hierachy of power and man(person)hood – car ownership. And the for the peds, it is either victim status or identification with the agressor (If I had a car, I’d drive like that, too.) I’m so disappointed in inconsiderate cyclists because I like to think they are motivated by higher values or are on a higher levcl of consciousness. Wrong! It’s understandable that an oppressed minority would take their frustrations out on a less-powerful majority. Cyclists get pushed around by drivers, so when a ped gets in their way, what’s the all-too-human response? I’m all for equitable distribution of street space, so – lots more wider sidewalks, less parking, more bike lanes and ways, less parking (again) for more bus ways for bius rapid transit and much more funding for public transit so the people who want to and are forced to get out of their cars have a convenient and comfortable alternative.

  • Rick Muller

    I call it the ‘startle factor.’ Fear, and consequently hatred, is aroused by being startled. Motorists’ behavior towards pedestrians may be aggressive, but it is fairly predictable – cutting someone off in a crosswalk, continuing through an intersection a second or two (or three) after the light has changed. (I think peds suffer less aggressive types of behavior from drivers than cyclists.) Because cyclists come from unexpected directions, weave among and around pedestrians, blow through lights long after they have turned red, and mount sidewalks to avoid traffic situations (or ride them regularly as delivery bikes do – and not considerately like Aaron, who wants his kid to live to a rip old age), peds are made to feel insecure, startled and endangered by cyclists in a way they don’t by cars. Older people are particularly and justifiably resentful of us. They can wait overly long to make sure the last maniac in a car has blown the just-changed light before they cross, but those with fragile bones and precarious balance suffer tremendous psychological stress from bikes on sidewalks. I also have to second the comment about nearly being creamed by a cyclist going the worng way popping out from behind a double-parked vehicle, which has happened twice to me in as many days.

    Of course that is in the context of a land of double-parked vehicles. And again of course all this occurs in the context of a mindset among peds and drivers alike that cars rule the road, the streets are for them as the sidewalks are for peds, and bikes inhabit the interstitial never-neverland of the edge of the road, the ever-blocked bike lane, and the less-than-legitimate status of a non-participant in the assumptive hierachy of power and man(person)hood – car ownership. And the for the peds, it is either victim status or identification with the agressor (If I had a car, I’d drive like that, too.) I’m so disappointed in inconsiderate cyclists because I like to think they are motivated by higher values or are on a higher levcl of consciousness. Wrong! It’s understandable that an oppressed minority would take their frustrations out on a less-powerful majority. Cyclists get pushed around by drivers, so when a ped gets in their way, what’s the all-too-human response? I’m all for equitable distribution of street space, so – lots more wider sidewalks, less parking, more bike lanes and ways, less parking (again) for more bus ways for bius rapid transit and much more funding for public transit so the people who want to and are forced to get out of their cars have a convenient and comfortable alternative.

  • Anne

    i am very glad to see these ideas in such a mainstream outlet as the new york times and from a known former public official. clearly, if there were a designated place for cyclists – physically separated bike lanes – it would work wonders toward alleviating the chaotic streets we currently live with.
    in many places this could be very easily accomplished without even reallocating street space, by simply moving the existing bike lanes NEXT TO THE CURB and putting the parking spaces next to the traffic, where they belong. especially with the new ticketed parking meters, there is no reason why cars need to park next to the curb, and it is the safest places for bikes to be, from both the cyclist and the pedestrian perspective. i am constantly amazed that this very obvious idea (proven effective in amsterdam, copenhagen, berlin, munich, etc.) is not being implemented. it would be dramatically safer for everyone than the so-called “buffered” bike lanes we have on many streets, and the bike lanes would actually occupy LESS street space.

  • Rick Muller, reflecting on why so many pedestrians hate bicycles: “I call it the ’startle factor.’ Fear, and consequently hatred, is aroused by being startled. Motorists’ behavior towards pedestrians may be aggressive, but it is fairly predictable – cutting someone off in a crosswalk, continuing through an intersection a second or two (or three) after the light has changed. …”

    I think an important element of the irrational bicycle-hate phenomenon is class or social status. The rule is that the person who has the biggest, fastest, or most expensive machine is the most important. It is a common practice to deflect one’s anger from a high-status person or group to those of lower status who may more readily serve as targets. Pedestrians must compete with motor vehicles, bicycles, skaters and so forth for street space and resent them all, but the resentment of the more important motorists is deflected on to the less important bicyclists. The motorist is thought to be engaged in serious business, whereas the bicyclist is either playing with a toy in a manner inconvenient to others, or is a truly low-status person like a delivery boy who should stay out of the way and defer to his betters.

    This explains such anomalies as resolute police harassment of Critical Mass, a fairly harmless if somewhat annoying group (?) and the unwillingness of the city administration to do anything serious about reducing motor vehicle congestion on city streets on behalf of non-motorists.

  • If you just pulled over and parked your SUV…are you still a pedestrian when you get out of the car and walk to your office?
    I think there should a distinction made here.

  • I think it’s pure transferance. People are accustomed to thinking of cars as “the normal way to get around.” So they tend to sublimate the danger created by cars, which, when it pops up again, needs a more socially acceptable target, which will often be bikes.

  • “John highlights another of this fight’s problems: the use of personal experience rather than statistics and evidence as the basis of policy and politics.”

    Sadly this is also the case here in Australia, with frequent outbursts in the media that do nothing to simulate or develop discussions relating to shared road use.

    In Melbourne, Bicycle Victoria in conjunction with Melbourne City Council, are installing Copenhagen style bike lanes.

    Although Melbourne maybe not a entirely dissimilar environment to NY, many local cycle advocates are observing this with great interest, as segregation could inadvertently provide yet another argument for cyclists to be on bikepaths, not roads.

  • Interesting. Thanks for the Australian news, Chris. Please keep us posted with what’s going on down there.

  • Mitch

    Here in Madison, I can go most places on bike paths or low-traffic streets, so I don’t usually come into conflict with motorists.
    But I do have problems — lots of them — with other bicyclists, who ride against traffic, glide through stop signs without looking for cross-traffic, and generally treat traffic laws as suggestions to be ignored. Worst of all, from my point of view, they ride at night with no lights, no reflectors and dark clothes, and expect others to stay out of their way. A collision with a bike is not as bad as one with a car, but it can still be pretty serious, so these “stealth bikers” scare me.

    There are times when it’s safer to violate the law (or to interpret it creatively) than to obey it, and I think it’s fine for bikers to keep themselves safe in those circumstances. But I think a lot of bikers don’t obey the rules because they think of themselves as pedestrians on wheels, and not as traffic (notwithstanding the Critical Mass slogan).

    If bikers want others to take us seriously as traffic, we have to take ourselves seriously as traffic — which requires us to acknowledge that the rules do apply to us and that the authorities do have the right to enforce them — not as a form of harassment, as it seems to be in New York, but as part of the deal that keeps us safe on the streets.

  • Sam

    Why not make elevated bike lanes over the right lanes of the road, with ramps that go down to the sidewalk so bicyclists can still commute places, and ramps that go down to Central Park?

  • Frank

    elevated bike lanes might work well in very limited places — i saw a nice one running over a busy intersection in a dutch town once. but elevated bike lanes would also be expensive and cumbersome, they’d cast shadows and block views — especially around central park — and they would potentially reinforce the idea that the street belongs to cars rather than pedestrians and bikes.

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