Pedestrians in bike lanes

By Felix Salmon
July 10, 2009


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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9 comments so far

The problem with walking in bike lanes is not brief infringements like this photo. We’re not talking about people jaywalking THROUGH the bike lane. We’re talking about people who walk at length in the lane as if it is the sidewalk, for blocks on end, to avoid sidewalk traffic.

It’s something we NYC bikers have to deal with every block or at least every two. Bikers are trying to worry about the CARS that slip into the bike lane to pass, and we have to dodge pedestrians popping out between parked cars on one side and mailboxes on the other. It’s dangerous and it’s been getting steadily worse.

I’m one of those rare bikers that (generally) stops at red lights, but I’ve also been known to scream very loudly at pedestrians and cars that have decided my bike lane is their resting place. Just the other day, while going down the new bike lane from columbus circle to times square, I had to yell at a woman 3 times before she noticed I was there, because she was busy standing smack in the middle of the bike lane taking a picture up broadway. I couldn’t even swerve around her thanks to the fact that they actually put raised curbs on the outside of the lane, ostensibly for protection.

Needless to say, the 3rd yell involved some profanity, at which point she got completely put out because I spoke rudely to her.

That being said, while taking my ride, I started thinking about what it would take for people to respect the bike lanes.

Not to use too many cliches, but I agree that we need to get to a european level of cycling, a critical mass of cyclists using the lanes to reach that infamous tipping point where people know what the bike lanes are. In order for that to happen, cyclists need to conscientiously use the bike lanes, rather than riding in the streets right next to them (I completely understand why they don’t want to, but it’s not helping in the long run). The flip side is that the bike lanes need to make sense. I usually just ride for fun (I live too close to work to make anything other than walking the sensible commuting technique), but in deciding to explore the broadway and 8th ave bike lanes on tuesday (rather than the greenway), I was shocked at how often the bike lanes just make no sense. They’re great and protected for 10 blocks, and then they just end, dumping cyclists who perhaps aren’t prepared for it into traffic (or, in the case of the times square clusterf*ck, pedestrian only zones). On my way back up 8th avenue, there was a lane most of the way up (filled with trucks, cop cars and pedestrians), and then it just disappeared around the port authority (and then appeared again afterwards). I actually saw another cyclist get hit by a car in that two blocks by a driver who pulled out from a parking/standing spot without looking (luckily, only his tire was damaged), and then the car (with out-of-state plates) zoomed off before I could get the number. To “disappear” the bike lane in during to most heavily traffic-ed and crazy portion of 8th ave is completely nonsensical and, quite frankly, inviting of accidents.

didn’t mean to rant, but I got on a roll there.

As an NYC cyclist who stops at red lights more than half the time WHERE I AM SUPPOSED to, I resent your massive generalization as a cyclist and pedestrian.

Avoid using terms like “no one” when you are talking about MILLIONS of people.

“Why do pedestrians walk in the bike lane?” is the same question as, “Why do cars drive in the bike lane?” “Why do people walk in the street?” “Why do trucks park on the sidewalk?” etc.

People aren’t “bikers” or “pedestrians”, they are “users of the transportation infrastructure” which, believe it or not, is actually fairly well designed, and tends to work well when everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Don’t succumb to the availability heuristic when thinking that it is just users of a particular class of transportation who commit the infraction of “not being where they are supposed to be, and being inconsiderate/dangerous”. Most of the inconsiderate cyclists are probably also inconsiderate drivers (you just don’t notice them as much when they are in their cars, because you are much more used to inconsiderate automotive behavior).

Generally speaking, people don’t think much about how their individual use of the transportation infrastructure affects everyone else’s ability to use it safely and effectively. This lack of awareness, without the same level of fear one has for semi-trucks, results in people wandering into bike lanes while walking around.

Posted by Sam Ley | Report as abusive

I appreciate what can only be called an admission against self-interest: many cyclists seem to think that no rules at all apply to them, that they can go anywhere and do anything they like. Ride against traffic, disregard signals, whatever. I have one report (from a bike _advocay_ group, mind) that shows 70% of bicycle-auto collisions requiring hospital treatment involved the cyclist breaking traffic rules, as opposed to 45% in which the motor vehicle driver did (and a certain number in which _both_ were out of order, of course). The effect is pronounced on and around college campuses, where cyclists are apt to whip out into the streets from any point, and in any direction. I’m a committed “share the road” type, but more emphasis needs to be placed on cyclist responsibilities–not just rights.

Posted by Craig | Report as abusive

I like the term ‘bike salmon’. As an auto driver near a college campus, I tire of swiveling my head around trying to spot the bike that’s going the wrong way up the street, jumping off the curb, or using the pedestrian cross walk. It’s a pleasure to see a bike following traffic rules so their movements are predictable.

Posted by rmark | Report as abusive

But Felix, by definition *you* are bike Salmon. And if you get hit by a car you’re chum Salmon (aka “bait.”)


Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

i want you to try driving down fordham road in the bronx. pedestrians and automobiles share the road quite well when pedestrians don’t follow any rules as long as drivers understand this. traffic flows very, very slowly.

Posted by q | Report as abusive

Another useless blog and useless blogger, new media is crap.

Posted by Terry | Report as abusive
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