It’s time to finally admit it. We are the most lawless users of the transport system - and the luckiest.
Expensive infrastructure is built for our use even though we don’t make any direct payment for it, and it is often ignored, or goes unused for much of the day. We pay no registration, display no licence plates, trample mores and break laws with impunity – we know we will almost never be punished.
By “we” I mean, of course, pedestrians. Stand on a busy city street-corner for 10 minutes, and you’ll probably need a clicker to keep count of all the bipedal lawlessness.
As I am both a pedestrian and a cyclist, I can see all sides of the saga. There's a difference between lawlessness and recklessness, between risking your own safety and risking that of others.
I find many of my fellow pedestrians to be a worry when I’m in cycling mode. They’re so unpredictable. They’ll step into the road or a dedicated cycle path without warning; often they’re texting, talking on the phone or plugged into a listening device and weaving as they go, seemingly unaware of the world around them.
“Shared use zones” for pedestrians and cyclists provide a particular challenge. I have yet to find an acceptable way to notify walkers of my presence. Ring a bell, and you’re being arrogant; say “excuse me” and you’re being imperious. At times, I’ve tried rolling gently behind the walker, hoping to be noticed, only to startle them when they suddenly spy a large cyclist in their wake.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was walking down a steep shared path that exits the Harbour Bridge, after taking some pictures of afternoon traffic chaos.
WHOOSH! Without warning, a cyclist came rattling past me at speed. He’d crossed into the other lane, giving me masses of room, but I wasn’t expecting it and nearly jumped out of my skin. And I was reminded of Jane Caro’s recent musings on the challenges of shared-use paths.
The interaction between cyclists and pedestrians can be a fraught and emotional topic – perhaps out of proportion to the actual problem. In 2006, a pedestrian in Melbourne was killed by a cyclist in a tragic, controversial incident. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a similar death in Australia in the six years since. But in 2010 alone, some 227 pedestrians were killed nationally, mostly by motor vehicles.
Of course, cyclists and pedestrians do collide, and serious injuries occur. Unlike car/pedestrian collisions, cyclists run a significant risk of injury in these accidents, especially as they will likely hit the ground at speed. I’ve heard several tales where a cyclist has sustained broken bones, while the pedestrian received little more than a bump on the shoulder.
But it's often the sense of danger that can make such encounters terrifying, as my Harbour Bridge experience reminded me. "The cyclist nearly hit me," one will say. Well, millions of cars narrowly avoid a head-on collision on our roads every day – by not straying into the oncoming lane - but somehow the suddenness of many a cyclist-pedestrian encounter can feel like a near-death experience.
Perhaps the biggest – and most valid – complaint I hear from pedestrians is about people who cycle on the footpath.
Make no mistake, this is illegal – in NSW and Victoria (somehow, it’s not seen as dangerous or undesirable in Queensland). Yet I can understand why some cyclists do it – due to intimidating and dangerous road conditions.
In Sydney, with its as-yet-uncompleted cycle ways, there are many places where protected paths simply disappear. Consider, for example, the options of anyone cycling east up King Street, trying to traverse the city. At Clarence Street, the separated cycle way abruptly terminates in a choked and scary road. As a pedestrian, I never begrudge people cycling carefully along pavements; I realise that, like everything in life, it's only the minority who behave badly. And I sometimes wonder if some who complain about cyclists on footpaths also shout "get off the road" when driving.
Here are a few things to consider if you’re a pedestrian, a cyclist, or both.
- A shared path is just that – no group is an interloper. Don’t obstruct or clog a path to the detriment of fellow users.
- If you’re cycling on the pavement, don’t test the goodwill of walkers. If you want to go fast, get back on the road. And do some research on quieter, safer roads to use.
- Walk predictably when cyclists are about – and don’t try to dodge them. If they’ve seen you, they’re planning to miss you. Jinking left and right only confuses matters.
- Cyclists who treat pedestrians as a slalom course are idiots. You know who you are. Don’t be the fool whose actions get bicycles banned from a useful thoroughfare.
In the end, it all boils down to mutual respect and better facilities. The situation is becoming increasingly urgent as more and more people choose bicycles to get to work. Often, the "quick fix solution" of designating areas as shared-use isn't ideal, and creates tensions between commuters.
In Victoria, spending on dedicated cycling infrastructure was recently slashed. In NSW, Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s plans for a more liveable, user-friendly city are being blocked by the state government.
Rather than squabble, cyclists and pedestrians should work together to demand better infrastructure for all forms of active transport. And keep looking out for each other.