It’s the kind of incident that a London cyclist experiences pretty regularly and that I’d normally put straight out of my mind. As I rode home from work a few weeks ago, down Lambeth Road past the Imperial War Museum, a pedestrian yelled at me as I rode through a zebra crossing: “You’re supposed to stop!” Since I’d ridden through as he was on the other side of a central pedestrian refuge from me, on a wide, four-lane road, I found the shout irritating, rather than guilt-inducing. He wanted to make a point, I sensed, rather than to express any plausible serious concern. At the closest point, we were at least four or five metres apart.
The incident has stayed with me because the Peeved Pedestrian of Lambeth Road seems to represent a significant current tendency in anti-cycling thinking. Again and again recently, people have responded to my writing about the dangers facing cyclists by complaining about cyclists’ behaviour in pedestrian areas. “A cyclist whizzed right past me on the pavement the other day,” the rejoinder to some tale of death-narrowly-escaped often runs. “What do you say about that?” People often use cyclists’ alleged misdeeds towards pedestrians as grounds to withhold their sympathy for people trying to improve conditions for cyclists to make riding safer.
|"Shared space" near Clapham Common,
South London: evidence, I think, of how
many cyclist-pedestrian conflicts arise.
This train of thought describes a world entirely at odds with the one I inhabit, where I feel vulnerable in encounters with pedestrians - far more than I conceivably would as a driver. It’s far from uncommon for people to rush into the road to try to knock cyclists off. I’m frequently forced when riding perfectly properly to swerve round pedestrians who see me but insist on not breaking their stride, apparently to express some irritation or anger. While I certainly bring more kinetic energy to most foreseeable collisions than a pedestrian would, the mismatch in power is very different from that between me and someone encased in a steel cage equipped with a powerful engine.
It makes far more sense, it seems to me, to see the undoubted friction between cyclists and pedestrians as a symptom of how poorly many streets have been designed to work for both groups. Cyclists and pedestrians are tussling like two hungry vultures over the scraps of public space left over after the lion-kings of the space - the motor vehicles - have eaten their fill. The two groups would be far better off cooperating to seize some juicy prime cuts. The challenge is to recast people’s thinking to make that obvious.
I am not, I must make it clear, condoning or encouraging the types of behaviour that help to fuel the mistrust. I can understand that people find it irritating when a fast-moving cyclist swishes past at speed in an area that’s meant to be devoted to pedestrians. I’m never impressed on the rare occasions that I see cyclists riding through red lights and causing genuine inconvenience to people trying to cross the road safely. I think all classes of London road user leave too little room for error around others, including cyclists around pedestrians.
|The City of London Corporation blocks a new bike path
over the theoretical risk it might pose to a pedestrian crossing:
astonishing given the tiny risk.
But it’s important to put the risk in context. Only two of the 408 pedestrians killed on the UK’s roads last year died after collisions with cyclists. Only 89 of the 4,584 pedestrians seriously injured on the roads received their injuries in collisions with people riding bikes. While it would clearly be preferable for all these figures to be zero, cyclists account for 1.8 per cent of traffic on the UK’s urban roads and far more in the busy, inner-urban locations where most conflict between cyclists and pedestrians takes place. Since collisions with cyclists accounted for only 0.5 per cent of pedestrian fatalities and 1.9 per cent of serious injuries, it’s clear that being around people riding bicycles is markedly safer for people walking than being around people driving. Some 99.9 per cent of Great Britain’s 1,730 road deaths in 2015 were in incidents involving at least one motor vehicle.
I nevertheless regularly hear rationalisations arguing that these statistics obscure the nature of the risk, rather than illuminating it. People have told me that drivers are somehow more predictable than people on bikes - and that drivers at least don’t endanger pedestrians in their space - the pavement (or sidewalk, American readers). Yet around 6 per cent of pedestrian fatalities in London are people who were on a footway when struck. Overall, last year in the UK, there were more reported collisions on pavements between motor vehicles and people on foot than between cyclists and people walking.
The illusion that drivers are safe and predictable only adds to the danger. The death last month of Joanna Reyes, an actress, on Commercial Road, East London, demonstrates the risks. Huge numbers of drivers drive at excessive speed down the stretch of Commercial Road, which I know well because we stayed there in July and August immediately after returning to London from New York. Reyes appears to have been hit while standing on a pedestrian refuge in the middle of the road, an area most people would assume themselves to be safe. A driver was arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. Even as he shouted at me, the greatest danger facing the Peeved Pedestrian of Lambeth Road was that a motor vehicle would come speeding along the road and hit him.
Yet I suspect that pedestrians’ fears about people cycling aren’t much related to rationality. People who are habituated to regarding the only risk on the road as being large, noisy motorised machines are apt to be scared when they suddenly - and often too late - notice an approaching small, silent machine. The instinctive, angry reaction is so deep that I sometimes imagine it stems from some of humans’ oldest impulses. People seem instinctively to grow more alarmed at suddenly noticing something moving fast but silently in their peripheral vision than by something large, obvious and noisy that announced itself far further off.
It’s also far easier for a pedestrian to experience a run-in with a cyclist as an interaction with another human being. Drivers in cars are not necessarily visible and the vehicles can seem like a faceless force, a fact of street life. Because cyclists are very visibly people, it’s easier, I think, for people to feel rage at them.
On top of all that, a confrontation between a cyclist and a pedestrian is far more evenly-matched than many people’s complaints would allow. There was considerable controversy in September over a video that showed a cyclist on Millbank in Westminster passing uncomfortably close behind a pedestrian on a zebra crossing. While I thought that the cyclist left too little margin for error, the striking point for me was that the pedestrian deliberately reversed course to obstruct the cyclist’s path in retribution. Most people on foot know, I think, instinctively that they can do a fair amount of harm to a person riding a bike if they want, judging by the number of times I’ve had pedestrians deliberately block my path or try to knock me off my bike. If people truly lived in the mortal terror of people on bikes that some critics contend, such deliberate actions by pedestrians against cyclists would be as rare as attacks of that kind on people driving cars..
Much of the road design I encounter, meanwhile, only serves to ratchet up the risks of such cyclist-pedestrian confrontations, rather than to dissipate it. The standard response of many local councils in the UK - and the US, where I lived for four years - is to regard cyclists’ demands as part of an amorphous “active travel” agenda and to force the two different groups into a redesigned but no larger space, which both sides are meant to share. The obvious dangers of such an approach are mitigated by erecting multiple signs telling cyclists to slow down. It is hardly surprising that many people on foot find themselves feeling irritated at being buzzed by fast-moving cyclists in such circumstances, while it’s entirely predictable that people on bikes - which people use to get fast to places they need to go - find themselves frustrated by designs that envisage their going at a walking pace.
|Congratulations, you've built an interurban
bike path that's well-suited for high speeds.
What finishing touch does it require?
Even illegal on-pavement cycling - a regular bugbear of many pedestrians - reflects far more than many people appreciate the muddled design of many roads. I most often see fellow cycle commuters mounting the pavement near junctions when the lanes meant to be filtering them to the more visible, safe head of the traffic queue are blocked by motor vehicles. While I am sure that such behaviour infuriates people walking, I also know there’s a powerful impetus not to let oneself get stuck in a stream of motor vehicles - especially when the road designer has signalled it would be safer to be at the front.
The answer to many of the frustrations is for road planners to start recognising a point that should be self-evident: that motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians all have distinct and different needs and that far more clarity is needed to help all to share public spaces. It’s far less common for me to find texting pedestrians wandering heedlessly into my path when I’m using the clearly-demarcated north-south cycle superhighway on Blackfriars Road than when I’m riding on the short, confusing shared-use section of Sumner St, behind the Tate Modern. It’s also clear that cyclists using the new superhighways are far less prone to running red lights through pedestrian crossings than when on main roads and seeking to escape the road-wide charge of accelerating motor vehicles that a change of lights produces. In interfaces between people on bikes and those on foot, as in many other areas of life, it strikes me that strong fences have a tendency to create good neighbours.
|Cyclists wait patiently for the light on
the north-south Cycle Superhighway:
a striking sign of design's effect on behaviour.
I recognise, nevertheless, that until such designs are widespread, I will find myself interacting with people on foot in spaces that are poorly designed for the purpose. I will seek, as I was doing even on the night of my run-in on Lambeth Road, to ride cautiously and respectfully around people on foot. I think it’s important that all road users try to avoid, where possible, causing other people on the road unnecessary stress.
I hope, however, that people on foot will return the favour a little too. While we both face the common enemy of the motor car, after all, I know that we both face some dangers if we collide and I’m knocked off my bike.
When pondering that point, I remember an incident from the summer of 2013 as I rode home down the Hudson River Greenway on the west side of Manhattan. Near a narrow section where runners and pedestrians were forced together, I came upon a middle-aged Dutch man slumped on the ground and grasping at his shoulder. He had hurt himself, I later discovered, after a runner had stepped off the walkway and into his path, knocking him off.