A recent incident here in San Francisco, where a pedestrian was mowed down in a crosswalk by a cyclist, has led to major uproar and has caused a push by the city to get tough on bicycle scofflaws. The incident happened at the busy intersection of Market and Castro, where pedestrians, cars, bikes, buses, trolley cars, and even dogs are “frequently entangled in amusing and not-so-amusing ways.”
(Credit: San Francisco Chronicle)
This comes at a time when more and more American cities are seeing vehicular homicides outnumber all other homicides. The street has become the danger zone, a place where pedestrian injury accounts for over $20 billion annually. Almost every day you hear about the life of another pedestrian or cyclist ruined by a gas-guzzling machine. It may seem like automobiles are the only culprit. However, a moving bicycle on a city street is a dangerous vehicle too. Even though pedestrian deaths by cyclists are rare, there needs to be more of a shared attitude about the law.
Almost 40 percent of land within American cities is devoted to public streets. Streets are the foundation that makes a city a great place to live, but also a place where people of all modes of transportation are jumbled together into a complex madness. There is a competition for claims on public space, causing a disconnect in the way we treat each other on the road and the way we want to be treated.
(Credit: Spacing Magazine via Flickr)
A lack of respect for space exists between both cyclists and motorists alike.
On a bicycle, you are completely exposed to the dangers of the road. Cyclists will take command of a street not to be rude, but because they have to in order to stay alive. Hordes of oblivious drivers move through traffic as fast as possible, drifting lanes and swerving around everything in their path. A cyclist who takes the lane to avoid dangerous obstacles would otherwise get swiped by someone trying to squeeze by. Sometimes on a bike you need to keep moving just to survive.
From the motorist point of view, it seems cyclists are renegades who refuse to obey traffic signals. My observations while commuting to work (as a cyclist myself) through San Francisco are that some bikers will just keep on rolling, right through red lights and busy crosswalks (again, see above for a fast-moving example) unless there is an imminent threat of slamming into a truck or city bus. The above-the-law riding habits are of some cyclists are atrocious, and a major headache to all others on the road.
According to the motorist, bicycle facilities are a traffic headache as well – valuable street space previously intended for car lanes and parking are given away to these entitled cyclists, who don’t follow the rules to begin with. Unless we want more people to get hurt and things to boil over, something’s gotta give.
Every cyclist spends time in an automobile at some point or another.
As a city dweller, I do not own a car, nor do I plan to own one in the near future. I use my bicycle and public transit to traverse the city streets for daily purposes. One thing I’ve found however, is that I need to use a car every once in a while (read: often) for long distance trips or to move large items. Riding in a car is not a bad thing; it’s become a necessary and enjoyable part American life.
It is also important to note that each and every person on a city street who uses a vehicle, whether it be a bicycle or an automobile, must also become a pedestrian at some point. Once you park your car or bicycle at your destination, you will find yourself walking the very same streets.
(Credit: NYC Bicycle Coaltion)
The major issues related to pedestrian, bicycle, and automobile interaction on a city street boil down to conflicts on perspective and design.
Depending on which mode you may be currently using at the time, your perspective on safety and responsibility will change drastically. The place of the pedestrian, cyclist, and automobile on the designed infrastructure within the urban network should be agreed upon in order to prevent these conflicts. This means the ways in which we interact with facilities, signage, and other vehicles must be implicitly clear. If we want to have safe and positive interactions between all groups, we need to start taking these issues seriously.
Abe Finkelstein is a transportation engineer living in San Francisco and an avid cyclist. Recently, he rode from coast-to-coast in the summer of 2011 in coordination with Habitat for Humanity on their annual Bike and Build trip. You can get in contact with him here.