When pedestrians complain about how cyclists ride in the city we reflexively reply: “Oh yeah? Well what about the drivers?”
To be sure, motorists cause vastly more mayhem and death than cyclists, so the impulse to remind people of this when they chide us is only natural. However, “What about the drivers?” is also a pretty lame defense for bad behavior on a bike. If you really think about it, being less of a menace than drivers is a pretty low bar; it’s like defending your lousy cooking by saying, “Oh yeah? Well dinner might have been terrible, but at least you didn’t get E. coli and die.”
No reasonable* person would argue that cyclists are even remotely as dangerous as drivers. However, we have much more in common with pedestrians than we do with motorists, which is probably why pedestrians are compelled to call us out on our behavior in the first place. Both cyclists and pedestrians move under their own power and are equally vulnerable, so when someone on a bike affronts a pedestrian it feels like more of a personal betrayal.
Where much of the problem comes from is a historically imposed belief that people on bikes should act like they’re driving cars. Municipalities are constantly reminding cyclists they have “the same rights and responsibilities” as motorists—and in fact for decades an entire school of bicycle advocacy pushed the concept of “vehicular cycling,” whereby you were supposed to operate your Schwinn like you were driving a Buick. True, ideally we should obey traffic laws, but in practice it’s not always reasonable or safe for us to do so. Moreover, as cities gradually incorporate more bicycle infrastructure we’ve often got to change our mindset on the fly: one moment we’re riding in car traffic, the next we’re on a protected bike lane or a shared multi-use path. Nevertheless, the car still remains at the top of the food chain, and the upshot result of all this is a dysfunctional system whereby entitled motorists hog the road and the rest of us fight over the scraps—sometimes with each other.
American cities have a long way to go before they catch up to their international peers and begin banishing cars in earnest. Even so, as cyclists we can still help right the wrongs of the 20th century by adopting a riding philosophy that realigns us with our natural allies instead of with our automotive oppressors. Let’s call this philosophy Pedestrian Cycling.
The fundamental tenet of Pedestrian Cycling is this: The Pedestrian Is Always Right. If you live in a crowded city where people seem forever to be stepping out from between parked cars and right into the bike lane it might be hard to wrap your head around this concept. Hey, these idiots are just begging to be hit, aren’t they? Well, no, they’re not. Maybe they’re being forced into the bike lane because the sidewalk’s too damn crowded. Or, yes, maybe they did commit the cardinal sin of letting their guard down for a moment while they admired a landmark or simply basked in the glory of a lovely summer day. But here’s the thing: the whole point of getting people out of cars and onto bikes is that making a simple mistake while walking or cycling shouldn’t be a death sentence. So if you don’t cut your fellow bipeds some slack while you’re riding then you’re no better than the spoiled motorists who become apoplectic at the very sight of a cyclist in their path.
Something else to consider if you find pedestrians annoying is that you almost certainly need to Slow The Fuck Down. See, just because you can go fast doesn’t mean you should, and if pedestrians are constantly taking you by surprise then the problem isn’t them, it’s you. (Slowing The Fuck Down also has the added benefit of making it slightly less likely a driver will take you out by surprise too.) Don’t mistake the efficiency and maneuverability of the bicycle in an urban environment for a mandate to go as fast as possible at all times. In fact, it’s this very efficiency and maneuverability that will get you where you’re going faster than everyone else, even if you don’t try particularly hard to do so. If you’re looking to go fast on your bike then head out onto the open road, or else get yourself a racing license and pay for the privilege of testing your limits on a closed course. Riding all-out in the bike lane or on a busy street is like racewalking on the sidewalk; it saves you almost no time while making collisions exponentially more likely and sending your doofus factor through the roof.
Then there’s communication. Unlike drivers, who are ensconced in sound-deadened multi-ton boxes made from sheet metal, and who communicate almost exclusively via horn-honking like the bovines they are, we’re sitting right out in the open and are more or less at eye level with our pedestrian peers. Given this, there’s absolutely no reason to bark imperious orders, blow out people’s eardrums with high-decibel noisemakers, or improvise passive-aggressive lyrics to the tune of the “Star Wars” theme while riding through a major tourist attraction like this schmuck on wheels. Believe it or not, saying “excuse me” and waiting your turn works just as well on the bike as it does off the bike, and just because you can ride swiftly away from someone doesn’t mean you should act in a way that makes them want to take a swing at you.
Ultimately, it’s on cities to reclaim street space from drivers and to create infrastructure and laws that allows cyclists and pedestrians to safely and comfortably coexist. This is already happening in some cities, albeit slowly—New York City recently passed a bill allowing cyclists to proceed with the pedestrian walk signal, which is an important acknowledgement that bike safety and pedestrian safety are by no means mutually exclusive, and that we can all benefit from the same policies. Arguably we can never expect die-hard motorists to support more bicycle infrastructure and safer streets. However, there’s no reason pedestrians shouldn’t be joining us in advocating for these things—apart from the unnecessary (and totally avoidable) ill will toward people on bikes, born of experiences with close passes and failures to yield. Fortify our relationship with pedestrians and cities will move more swiftly on our behalf.
*Oh sure, there are cranks in the comments who make this argument anyway, but note that I specified “reasonable.”