Cyclists? Pedestrians? Drivers? Who is to Blame for Urban Tension?

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This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)

There’s no way you can ignore the tension that exists between cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers on the road (just take a look at this video). And this is especially true in a city as dense as New York, with 8 million people sharing streets, sidewalks, subway platforms and parks.

While I’m wholeheartedly an advocate of biking and walking over using cars (for too many reasons to list), I’m not comfortable ignoring the fact that many cyclists and pedestrians do exhibit some pretty bad behavior. While I’m sure the majority of them are doing the right thing and being mindful of those around them, it’s no small number who aren’t.

But what I see as the problem is this tendency to pit mode against mode and jump to conclusions. Yes, there are plenty of cyclists whose habits and aggressive tendencies intimidate pedestrians, but that is not cause for calling for the removal of bike lanes or an excessive ticketing policy. Fact is, there are inconsiderate users of all modes of transportation.

Pedestrians in the Wrong. Every time I walk down Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, I spot at least 5 pedestrians carelessly cross into the separated & painted bike path without looking to see if a cyclist is approaching (it’s a well-used lane, so there often is). Sometimes it’s a child straying from the un-watchful eyes of their parents, sometimes it’s a person jumping out of their car and bee-lining it for the sidewalk. Whatever the case is, this is not just a phenomenon in Park Slope; it happens throughout New York’s five boroughs, and other cities, no doubt.

Cyclists in the Wrong. But I have also nearly been run over by cyclists riding the wrong way down streets and running red lights. Every time I leave my apartment, I can guarantee you that I will encounter at least several cyclists totally ignoring street rules, regardless of whether the road is busy or not.

Drivers in the Wrong. When I was a Campus Organizer across the river in Newark, NJ, I had to contend with drivers who seemed to be wearing special goggles that blocked out the sight of pedestrians. In front of the Student Center was a marked zebra crosswalk, complete with an in-street “Yield to Pedestrians” sign. Still, the cars would not stop. If you weren’t bold enough to continue inching out into the road in front of them, you could easily watch 10, 20, 30 cars continue on their way without so much as a foot on the brake.

Pedestrians in the Wrong. Back to those pesky pedestrians. Have you ever been on a bike or in a car, incredulously braking for a whole gaggle of pedestrians crossing in front of you when you have the green light? This is a bit of lemming behavior — individuals adopting a group identity instead of thinking for themselves. It usually starts with one or two people who spot a break in traffic and legitimately can get across the street without causing incident. But then another goes, and another, and soon the whole crowd is moving because they’re not actually paying attention to their surroundings themselves.

Drivers in the Wrong. Then of course there are the drivers who aggressively “yield” to pedestrians in the crosswalk. As in, they inch their 2-ton hunk of metal into the crosswalk until they successfully create enough of a barrier between groups of pedestrians to drive through. While this is annoying and intimidating, it is nothing compared to the very real fact that car collisions kill 46,000 people each year, and that when they involve cyclists and pedestrians, most of the time it’s the car driver at fault.

Cyclists in the Wrong. Back to Brooklyn, this time inside Prospect Park. As a Volunteer Coordinator, I spent plenty of time driving the paved loop inside the park (park vehicles are allowed to drive on it anytime). I’ve also walked/run the loop many times, and just recently started riding my bike there. And I have to tell you, cyclists are my least favorite users of this space. More specifically, it seems to be the competitive cyclists. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard them yelling angry obscenities to each other, to non-competitive cyclists, to pedestrians, and to drivers. They rarely stop for the red lights, even the popular ones where there is foot traffic waiting to cross. They also go much faster than the speed limit, which is intimidating and dangerous in an environment shared by children.

Transit Users in the Wrong. In case you missed it, thousands recently joined in when #ThingsNotToDoOnPublicTransportation trended on Twitter. Clearly there are some inconsiderate folks sitting too close to us on the bus, playing music too loud on the subway, and jabbering away into their cell phones on the train. Ok, ok, most of the acts mentioned are mere annoyances and not a threat to our safety, but they do illustrate that maybe there is a bigger lesson we can learn here. Maybe that lesson is that we can all stand to be a little more considerate and thoughtful on our way from point A to point B, regardless of which mode we take.

There will always be tensions, but what we need is some more serious discussion on how to deal with the tension that exists, and try to lessen it as much as possible. The answer to getting more people to walk and bike isn’t just about painting bike lanes and narrowing down streets (although that is a huge and crucial part of the equation), but it’s also about understanding and respecting everyone else on the road, and making it more enjoyable to share the space with each other.

Image courtesy of Spencer T. on flickr

  • Anonymous

    The only caveat that I would make is that the system of red lights in NYC is timed for cars, not for bikes.  In Copenhagen, there is the “green wave” that times the lights better for bikes.  It is a lot harder to stop and start pedaling than it is to stop and start a car.

    • Lyndsey

      That’s really interesting — didn’t realize that, but sounds like a good policy

  • Gabbrielgarcia

    You forgot to blame the state – there is no infrastructure for bikes in Brazil, and the media together with the government  keep with the same ideological demagogic message that it is the responsibility of both cyclists and car drivers – It is WRONG – see Netherlands as a clearly example of that – they have a huge infrastructure for cyclists (and the DO demand a huge infrastructure) – just google the two words, cycling and Netherlands and you will have a huge amount of elements for my argument. Avoiding discussing the necessity of infrastructure is perpetrating the violence that you mentioned. Brazil has a clear influence of United States as we were exploited by them in all levels and being culturally influenced in all levels as well. This same ideological condescending message is being heard in Brazil through media, instead to stop the blahblahblha and start really to change the infrastructure of the cities.   

    • Lyndsey

      That’s very true, and I absolutely believe we need to radically change infrastructure. I would love to see more areas completely off-limit to cars. But this is just one article that happens to address a different angle of this issue. That said, I think it will be easier to get infrastructure improved if we do a better job of addressing & managing the tensions between different users of the roads… easier political sell. 

  • lisa

    While I agree everyone needs to behave better- 35,000 people die every year in the US via car crashes.  35,000 people. per. year.  (ref: http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx ) How many people die from cyclist or pedestrian activity?  To me that says volumes about where we should focus our energy – minimizing car use and protecting the vulnerable street users (i.e. those not in steel roll cages with airbags).

  • GowanusDriver/Runner/Cyclist

    This is a somewhat ridiculous article. The speed limit in the park is 25. As an almost every day user, I can say it is the rare bunch of cyclists who are even capable of sustained bursts that are faster than the speed limit, let alone “much faster.”

    And as a driver, if you yielded to every pedestrian who got in your way, you’d never get anywhere in a car. Now, maybe that’s the point, but then the laws should be enforced and driving should be reduced.

    • Lyndsey

      *Just a note, my familiarity with driving in the park is in park vehicles, and our policy is to not exceed 15mph. Most of the day, the park is only open to park vehicles, and cyclists generally pass the vehicles.