Pedestrians in bike lanes

By Felix Salmon
July 10, 2009

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Laura Conaway asks why pedestrians walk in bike lanes, and reprints the photo above, which might well have been taken on Broadway, just south of 42nd Street. I know that stretch well — I bike down it on my way from work — and in general I stick to the road-for-cars, rather than risking life and limb on the bike-path-for-bikes.

This is a badly designed bike path, because of the location of the pedestrian zone you can see on the left hand side of the photo. There’s the sidewalk, and then the green bike path, and then the brown pedestrian zone, and then the black car lanes. When Broadway is bustling with foot traffic, it’s only natural for pedestrians to move back and forth between their two zones, especially during times when bike traffic is light.

But more generally I think it’s just that pedestrians were taught the rules of walking on streets by recourse to fear: look both ways, lest you get run over by a car. The natural corollary to such thinking is that if there’s no danger of getting run over by a car, there’s no need to look out for traffic. (If and when pedestrians do see me biking down the lane, they’re generally good enough to stay out of my way; the much bigger problem is the oblivious pedestrians, often listening to their iPods, who have no idea I’m there, and never stop to look.)

There’s also the natural impatience and pushiness of New Yorkers, who have a natural tendency to use bike lanes as a staging point in their rush to cross the street. No one in New York waits patiently on the sidewalk for the lights to change; instead, they inch forward on the road as far as they can without walking straight into the path of cars. They don’t worry about getting into the path of bikes, though, and if they see a bike coming, they generally stay put, since they couldn’t possibly step backwards. And if they’re crossing mid-block, which they often do, they generally take one step out from between parked cars before looking for traffic, since they know any car driving down the road won’t drive that close to the parked cars. (Bikes, again, they just don’t think about.)

Bicyclists, I have to say, are just as bad, if not worse: at intersections they never stop where they’re meant to, and instead stop either (a) right in the middle of the pedestrian crosswalk, or (b) right in the middle of the cross-street’s bike lane. (And don’t even get me started on the “bike salmon” who ride the wrong way down the block and seem to think that all bike lanes are two-way streets.) Although bikers get very mad at motorists, the fact is that car drivers are much more law-abiding than either bicyclists or pedestrians, and tend not to feel that the rules don’t apply to them. I’ve even noticed an increasing number of car drivers who seem to know the difference between a bike lane and a left-turn lane.

In northern Europe, everybody tends to be much better behaved. I think that’s learned: as the number of cyclists in a city rises, two things happen. Firstly drivers and pedestrians become more conscious of the fact that a cyclist is likely to be on the road. And secondly there’s an increasing number of what you might call non-brave cyclists, who don’t consider biking to be some kind of urban warfare and who are more likely, at the margin, to simply follow the rules of the road which they know so well from driving cars. Eventually their good behavior rubs off onto the more reckless.

Ultimately I think it all comes down to a combination of visibility and civility. As bikes and bikers become more visible, everybody else will be more conscious of them. And as they feel more noticed and less victimized, they will start to behave more responsibly to other road users, on foot and in cars. Who will then start to reciprocate even more. The problem is this takes years; it doesn’t happen overnight. And in the meantime there will be nasty bike-pedestrian collisions, some of them unspeakably tragic. My friend Josh Phillips died in 2006 after hitting a pedestrian on his bike. The pedestrian wasn’t malicious, just oblivious. But that’s no solace to Josh’s family and friends.

Update: Walking back from lunch, I noticed this scene on 41st and Broadway. You can shout as loud as you like, this obstacle won’t get out of the way. And as a result you can see two bicyclists having to detour into the pedestrian zone.

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