Sunday, 4 December 2016

A peeved pedestrian, a rider's broken shoulder and why it's time to stop designing for conflict

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.
Drivers speed past the spot where Joanna Reyes died:
a reminder of the real source of danger.

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.
A shared-use path across Clapham Common: designed to
produce confrontation

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.

There could scarcely have been a starker illustration of the real, albeit small, risk that cyclists face in such situations. I waited for 20 minutes with the man until an ambulance arrived to take him for treatment for what seemed to be a badly-broken shoulder. A few miles after I restarted my ride home, I came upon the runner again. She had not only been able to continue her run uninjured but was apparently untroubled by the damage her actions had caused.

28 comments:

  1. I really don't know what the answer is.
    Motorists hate cyclists because we don't have Insurance, Road Tax and always cycle through red lights. Yet the same motorists love to turn a blind eye to the fact that they were doing 30 in a 20, doing no harm phoning the wife from the motorway, the light was Amber, or flipping someone the "Bird" because they blasted their horn because you just cut them up. Yet this is the same person that will refer to cyclists as "Self Righteous".........
    Pedestrians say All cyclists cycle on the pavement and every Person who has a view about cyclists knows someone who was, conveniently, wiped out by a cyclist.
    Pedestrian's are just as bad. In 2015 there were over 4000 recorded accidents involving vehicles where the Pedestrian was showed to have been at fault. Pedestrians don't have insurance nor do they pay "Road Tax".
    I think its all about education, for everyone, Motorists, Cyclists, Pedestrians. The problem is they all share the same disposing factor, they are all Human beings. And we all know how hopeless they can be at times.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Das,

      Thanks for the comment. I guess the ultimate problem is that humans aren't, as decades of efforts to introduce socialism demonstrated, perfectible. I'm sceptical about whether educating people, while it plays a part, solves all that many problems. The answer, I increasingly think, is to design public spaces to reduce the conflict when people, predictably, do stupid things or to make it harder for them to make the mistakes in the first place.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Pedestrians: "motorists let out for air" as per Dr Behooving.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for the comment. There is undoubtedly an element of the problem that far more people are used to driving and feel sympathetic to people in cars than are used to cycling.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. Hi Richard,

    On-point as always. I'm put in mind of something that happened maybe 18 months back, when I was tandeming with my daughter in downtown Brooklyn, approaching the Brooklyn Bridge, on the return leg of something that went into Queens and picked up the middle 50% of the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway there.

    We were on Adams street, northbound, by the Shake Shack there, but found that construction had blocked off the bike lane for a half-block. The main traffic lanes on Adams are no place to do family cycling and the sidewalks there are wide and (at that moment on a Sunday) were uncrowded.

    So I chose to route around the obstruction on the sidewalk, and this gentleman of a certain age off to my right by about 15 feet (again, very wide sidewalk) yells out "you can't ride on the sidewalk!"

    I slow down to remonstrate "Yes, I'm sorry, but the bike lane is obstructed."

    Him: "It doesn't matter."

    Me, after a beat. "Well, I'm sorry that we ruined your day."

    --

    Narrowly speaking he had a point, but he might as well not have.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. There is certainly a class of person who wants to pick up cyclists on the minutiae of the rules, regardless of whether the rule-breaking is doing any actual harm. Such an "all rules are sacrosanct" approach might be viable. But, in my experience, its advocates generally find ways to explain away comparable misdeeds by drivers or pedestrians, while insisting that cyclists stick rigorously to the letter of the law.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. "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" - so, making it legally two pedestrian crossings separated by the centre refuge. Two separate crossings. No obligation on a cyclist or motorist to stop for the pedestrian until they are ready to step out onto the second crossing (ie., presumably the one you were riding over).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for that legal cover.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Insufficiently pithy: next time just yell back `and you're supposed to be a Zebra' :-)!

      Delete
    3. Mark,

      Thank you. I'm just as disappointed at the dearth of pelicans crossing.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. By the way, as far as the Hudson River Greenway goes, did you follow this story?

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2016/11/02/cb-7-endorses-year-round-parks-department-greenway-detour/

    The tl;dr there is that in a key segment of the greenway, cyclists will be detoured onto a winding, hilly detour instead of taking the obvious riverside route. With no allowances for seasonality, and no actual data from parks feeding into the discussion on what the traffic counts actually are, in-season or off-.

    --

    I'll also throw this out here: my wife's cycling season this year was suddenly cut short at the beginning of June on the bike-pedestrian bridge between East Harlem and Wards Island. A boy about 8-9 years old was walking the other way, westbound (we were eastbound), wasn't watching where he was going, and shoved her over from the side. Torn ACL; we ended up scheduling reconstructive surgery that happened 2 months back, and only this week has her physical therapist introduced unlimited time on stationary cycles as part of her recovery routine. The boy was completely unharmed; wasn't even knocked down.

    And people wonder why cyclists go on extra high alert if riding in a mixed-use space, and can get so touchy when people act unpredictably on them. :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Matt,

      I'm very sorry to hear about your wife and that's further evidence of the threat that pedestrians can pose to cyclists. I hope she recovers soon.

      As for the Hudson Greenway point, I was aware of that. It's very irritating and I nearly included it in the post, but it was too long and involved anyway without adding even more. It is, nevertheless, an excellent example of how cyclists are expected to put up with any inconvenience, including the ruining of a cyclist-orientated facility, in preference to people on foot.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. It seems to me that the user of greatest power has the greatest responsibility to take care. A cyclist is about 2.5x more powerful than a pedestrian. Kinetic energy rises with the square of the velocity (Eā‚– = ½mv²).

    Whilst the risk of death or injury from a cycle-pedestrian collision may be minor in the overall scheme of things, it's still a loss of utility having even to anticipate a potential collision. British cyclists are rather apt, in my experience, to accuse pedestrians of "just stepping out in front of them," perhaps to exonerate their own lack of anticipation and poor road positioning.
    If the UK ever gets round to implementing a presumed liability law like other European countries', justice would demand that it is the cyclist who is at fault in the event of such a collision.

    >"Good fences make good neighbours"

    Are we trying to facilitate movement or restrict it? Fences serve the latter. My experience of most cycle infrastructure is that it tends to the bumpy and narrow, especially around intersections, and I'd much rather ride on the road, surrounded by appropriately respectful and courteous road users. Were they to be otherwise, legal and educational measures would probably be more appropriate than new kerblines.

    The elephant in the room: motorists' century of impunity setting a bad example for everyone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also do bear in mind that the 2.5x greater kinetic energy will impact a cyclist no less than a pedestrian in a cyclist/pedestrian crash. Perhaps the cyclist has less chance of being caught completely unawares, is all.

      Delete
    2. Douglas,

      Thanks for your comment. I've written before about the need for cyclists to ride ethically to avoid harming others and it's a point that's very dear to my heart: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/a-fast-riverside-ride-central-park.html I also think nearly all road users leave too little room for error either on their own part or that of others. I try to be wary around pedestrians and to anticipate that they might do the unexpected. Cyclists do have greater responsibility around pedestrians because they're moving faster.

      However, as Matt points out above, I don't think the kinetic energy in a pedestrian-cyclist crash directs itself the way that the energy in a crash between a car and a vulnerable road user or other car does. A lot of the energy is likely to get directed towards knocking the cyclist off or doing other harm. I mentioned the man I helped on the Hudson Greenway, while Matt mentions the severe injury his wife suffered after colliding with someone. So I don't think the issue is as simple as your calculation might suggest.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    3. It is highly likely that the cyclist will come off worst in the event of a collision with a pedestrian. This is a good thing, as it motivates us to behave responsibly. The proposal that each steering wheel be fitted with a spike to ensure the driver's instant demise in the event of a collision comes to mind.

      Delete
    4. Douglas,

      Thanks for the comment. I think it's rare for a cyclist to come off worse in a collision, although it happens and you're correct that the risk to cyclists does make a difference to cyclists' behaviour. I also think the increasing invulnerability of drivers in modern vehicles makes them indulge in riskier behaviour. But the spike on the steering wheel idea has always been a little dark for me.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    5. A philosophical thought experiment, not a practical suggestion. Though it should be noted that car manufacturers devote considerable resources to the illusion of security, for example employing sound designers to ensure that the noise that car doors make as they are closed is a "secure clunk." This in no way affects the consequences of the laws of physics in the event of a head-on collision of course.
      Risk compensation is quite a well-studied effect these days: John Adams the leading exponent of the phenomenon, see for example http://www.john-adams.co.uk/2007/11/17/risk-compensation-deniers/

      Delete
    6. Your point about the liability for the cyclist is well taken. So why isn't it an issue further upstream in the case of the driver? Why isn't the liability of the driver of a large moving blunt object ever emphasized either by the government or even by insurance companies?

      Delete
    7. Such laws are the norm in most European countries. After abolishing the death penalty in France in 1984, French historian and statesman Robert Badinter promulgated his 1985 strict liability law. This provides for pedestrians and cyclists to be promptly compensated for injuries incurred in a collision with a motor vehicle under almost all circumstances (unless the motorist can prove "faute grave" (~"inexcusable negligence"). The upshot of the legislation is that drivers drive confident in the belief that if they hit a pedestrian or a cyclist they are certain to incur considerable legal and financial ennui. Such laws are, I believe, now the norm in most European countries; such rules certainly also exist in the Netherlands. Why vulnerable road users in the UK and the US lack this vital protection must be left as an exercise for the reader: it was certainly a factor in my decision to emigrate to France.
      Life as a cyclist here seems much more pleasant as a result: one is overtaken correctly on country roads, and the vast majority of drivers in towns and villages tend to caution. Of course there are idiots everywhere, but the daily cursing of inconsiderate motorists that was my lot as a cyclist in England, is now, happily, a dimming memory.
      French regions do vary; my remarks may be less valid in the more Latin south or around Paris, but round here (Nantes) driving tends to be rather cool, and that's the way we all like it.

      Delete
  7. That's one main problem with the world and its societies:
    The lack of sensible boundaries. The way the areas of one faction constantly overlaps the areas of another unrelated one.

    It's not a matter of prejudice and bigotry to suggest that each faction be separated into its own area. It's simply a matter of making sure each one's needs and priorities are properly met so as to ensure each faction is being treated and regarded equally via "one's needs and priorities are just as important as all the others". And sometimes a certain degree of separation is necessary to ensure a communal harmony of sorts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tal,

      Up to a point, you're making a point similar to the one I made in this post about New York's neighbourhoods: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2016/07/a-tour-of-tolerant-diversity-horrors-of.html I think people need safe havens to interact with each other confidently.

      However, I was reluctant for a long time to embrace segregation between modes precisely because I generally don't believe in segregation. I think it's vital people mix and I think good things generally come out of it. Different types of traffic, however, don't seem to mix well.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  8. The statistics regarding pedestrian ksi's by cyclists, and by motor vehicles are telling on their own. But I wonder if the inverse statistics might be even more telling, i.e. how many ksi's by peds of cycles, and how many of cars by either cycles or peds, especially to show the relative vulnerability of both peds and cycles, and the insane invulnerability of those pesky metal boxes (as we often ignore their fleshy controllers). I'm guessing there's at least one naught involved.

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  9. The hidden point here is that cyclists are a tiny minority that can be attacked (groundlessly and erroneously or not) by others with little fear of effective retribution or of being thought badly of by more than a negligible few. SWB in the US could stand equally well for "stopped while black" or "stopped while bicycling." Heaven help any black person stopped while bicycling. Double whammy!

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  10. I wonder if the pedestrian in your example considers that to be an example of "nearly hit by a cyclist". I am constantly surprised by how many people claim they are endangered by cyclists every day and I have often suspected what they consider a near miss is a bit extreme and that they may have a problem noticing that they are actually walking in a cycle lane.

    My own story involves a pedestrian crossing ahead of me. I slowed down to about 5kph so they he would have plenty of time to finish crossing. He stopped three quarters of the way across, the middle of my side of the road and looked at me. Still about 10m away I slowed down so that I was barely moving (maybe 1kph) and the pedestrian announced loudly that he wasn't moving until I stopped completely. I went around behind him and I don't feel the tiniest bit bad.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Not surprising that your entire article did nothing but dismiss the experience of pedestrians with cyclists. Sop.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. c ra,

      Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry you were disappointed in the piece. It sounds like the problem might be that somehow your internet erased the fifth paragraph from the top of the piece, since it in fact goes out of its way not to dismiss pedestrians' concerns. To help you out, here it is:

      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.

      I hope that clears things up.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  12. This discussion at the London Review of Books site a year or so back is apropos: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2014/10/31/glen-newey/reverse-pedalling/ Discusses the pedestrian/cyclist experience from a Netherlands perspective.

    ReplyDelete

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