Tuesday, September 20, 2011

War or Peace? Exploring the Relationship between Bikes and Peds

A recent question from a reader got me thinking once again about our friends on two wheels. I'll say up front that while I like and appreciate bikes--I have even been known to occasionally ride the one I own--I've always found it odd that they are inevitably grouped together with pedestrians. Given their widely differing demographics, trip lengths and purposes, and infrastructure needs, lumping cyclists with pedestrians strikes me as akin to calling submarines and spacecraft the same because both require users to travel with their own oxygen.

Nonetheless, it seems impossible for transportation policymakers to separate the two, and although there are some extraordinary partnerships between the modes (e.g. the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center), just as often we hear of intense conflicts as cyclists and pedestrians jostle for urban space. Are we really at war, as so many news articles claim? Let's examine the issues.

My observation is that when pedestrians complain about cyclists, they're most often grousing about illegal or inconsiderate behaviors: riding on sidewalks (where prohibited), riding too fast or in the wrong direction, or generally riding in ways that make pedestrians feel unsafe. (To be fair, cyclists could say the same about pedestrians).

While there are always going to be people who behave badly no matter what the circumstances,  a combination of enforcement and educational campaigns can help address these problems. This is an area where a partnership between cyclists and pedestrians can be particularly effective, as the two groups could work together to develop formal Codes of Conduct for both walkers and riders, lobbying for increased or clearer signage on shared paths, or create informational websites, signs, or brochures to help the public understand the expectations for all users.

Advocating for uniform policies throughout a particular region may also make sense. Consider how confusing it is for cyclists in the LA region, for example, when rules regarding riding on sidewalks vary within adjacent jurisdictions. Not only does this require a cyclist to be aware of the law within each city, but also to understand specifically where city boundaries are located.

However, these efforts alone will not be effective if there are fundamental problems with pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, which brings me to the topic of...

Here we're really talking about two situations: properly designing facilities that are shared between pedestrians and bicycles, and ensuring that non-shared facilities exist for both modes. In the first case, it's important to understand that there isn't a one-size-fits-all design for multi-use paths. A commuter path that links residential and commercial centers will draw a different mix of users than one beside a lake that serves primarily as a recreational opportunity.

While AASHTO and the FHWA provide design standards for trails, I found this publication out of Australia especially helpful because it focuses specifically on design considerations to prevent pedestrian and bicycle conflict, with different standards for local access, commuter, and recreational paths. In particular, Table 3 outlines eight key design elements (path geometry and route options, surrounding environment, access and intersections, lighting, signs, linemarking, conflict points, and physical separation) and describes both the key design considerations associated with each, as well as potential solutions to bike/ped conflicts, such as widening paths at conflict points and maintaining a consistent layout throughout the facility.

I believe that good design of shared facilities can go far towards calming the "war" between bikes and peds, but it won't entirely solve the problem--which brings me to my second point: proper engineering for pedestrians and cyclists usually means separate facilities for each mode. All too often, the tendency to group bicycles and pedestrians into one planning "animal" tempts engineers to design shared facilities when they are not appropriate. Consider the shared sidewalk, like this one in Ventura:

The consensus is generally that riding a bike on a sidewalk is not as safe as riding on the road, yet the consistent emphasis on vehicle travel over other modes leads to half-hearted solutions like this one that invite disastrous encounters between bikes and peds. (And at least Ventura makes some effort to delineate separate travel ways for each mode, as opposed to many locations where dangerous riding conditions force riders onto even more precarious sidewalks.) Cyclists and pedestrians travel at different speeds, to different destinations, and in different patterns: they need different paths.  Of course, that leads to the question of...

Here again bicycles and pedestrians are always joined together, even though in most cases the projects being funded are entirely different for each mode. The danger here is that cyclists, who have an admittedly stronger lobby than pedestrians in most cities, may do their job too well and end up with a disproportionate piece of this shared funding. Or, more likely, the transportation powers that be won't put much thought into how the bike-ped funding pie should be divided to do something thoughtless and easy like, oh, say dividing the money exactly in half.

Case in point: Los Angeles Measure R Transportation Funding, which is divided equally between projects for bicycles and those for pedestrians (see pg. 271 of the city's adopted budget). At first blush this seems fair, until you consider that according to the most recently available census data, nearly five times as many people commuted to work on foot than on bike--and that's only for work trips, which tend to have higher rates of cycling. Thus, taking demand into consideration, LA may be disproportionately underfunding pedestrian projects. I argue that separating funding for the two modes would force policymakers to take a closer look at the exact projects to be funded, as well as the demand for those projects, and provide monies accordingly.


  1. As a bicycle commuter who believes my place is on the road (and the law backs me up on this, as bicyclists start with the same rights and responsibilities as vehicle drivers in all 50 states), I share your frustration with designers mingling the two, in both the funding and design of facilities. The vast majority of multi-use paths are unsafe above a speed of about 10 MPH, whereas I tend to cruise between 15 and 20 on a flat road with no wind. I follow the rules of the road and protect my space, following bicycle driving education I have taken, and I have very few problems.

    One frustration many of us have with the building of a lot of bicycle-specific and shared bike-ped facilities is that it increases the social pressure on bicyclists to use those facilities, whether we want to or not. This can increase harassment on those of us who choose not to. I can't tell you how many times motorists have yelled at me to "get off the road" or "get in the bike lane", even in places lacking even a shoulder, much less a bike lane (and there IS a difference, by the way).

  2. Well said. Design is often at the heart of the problem. And then there's lack of education too. I am surprised at how many people ride their bicycles on sidewalks and think it is somehow safer than if they were riding on the quiet adjoining street.

  3. I do think that there are times when shared facilities are okay (towards that end, I wonder if a "sidewalk speed limit" would make more sense than an all-out ban on wheeled vehicles?). However, I agree that they are never going to work for some riders--in fact, much of the info I reviewed acknowledged that fact (even if motorists don't).

    I don't like to engage in too much car-bashing, but I'll admit that in many ways the real "war" here is between private vehicles and all the other travel modes that use the public right-of-way. Until we stop unduly prioritizing private vehicle travel in road design, there will continue to be conflict with others who also need to use road space.

  4. I live in Japan, which [in general] has a much higher number of bicyclists than in the U.S., and where the majority of bike-riders ride on the sidewalk... plenty of people use the street too, but not most (though the general attitude seems to be pretty casual and practical — if the sidewalk gets too crowded, they'll use the street instead). As far as I can see, there's basically zero bicycle "riding" infrastructure like paths or lanes, although there's a lot of ancillary bicycle infrastructure like parking, ramps on under/overpasses, etc.

    There are certainly bike-ped conflicts/accidents/etc because of this, but by and large, things work out OK. It certainly doesn't seem to stop people from riding or walking, and there doesn't seem to be any real sense of conflict.

    I don't think this is really the best thing (I'd personally much rather have a separated bike-path!), but I bring it up just to make the point that sidewalk riding is not something inherently evil that can never work at all for with a serious biking culture. Maybe it wouldn't fit with U.S. biking culture (but I don't know that).

    Guesses as to why there aren't more conflicts — (1) people are used to it, and there are so many bicyclists in some places that one learns to be a bit careful, (2) bicyles are almost exclusively local transportation, so people tend to ride somewhat slowly (faster riders do often choose the street instead), (3) there's none of the vague sense of competition and aggression that sometimes seems to be an issue in the U.S.

    [I think there are laws putting some restrictions on when and where you're supposed to ride in one place or another, but as far as I can figure, nobody ever pays attention to them, and the police don't enforce them.]

  5. It's interesting how different countries seem to have very different biking cultures. I was surprised to see how in Denmark pedestrians feel the need to organize primarily in response to bike/ped issues, as opposed to vehicle/ped issues like here in the US.

    As to why shared facilities work better in Japan, I lean towards your third theory based on my brief experiences there--walking around, I just didn't feel the same sense of aggressiveness (from all people, not just cyclists) that I felt here in the US. Tokyo is the only major city I've visited where I didn't feel the need to constantly watch out for my purse or person.

  6. Re: Sidewalk speed limit...
    The bigger issue for me with bicyclist riding on the sidewalk is actually not the safety of pedestrians (though that is an issue too). It's the danger to the bicyclist from cars backing out. It's also the danger from cars turning right when a bicyclist on the sidewalk enters a crosswalk without stopping. A bicycle speed limit would help, but wouldn't eliminate this danger.

  7. I think a big factor is simply that in Japan, bikes are mainstream: they're both widely used, and used by almost all segments of society — kids, adults, teenagers, housewives (with the kids and all the shopping), businessmen, young lovers, respectable ladies, old people, hipsters, bums(!), etc, etc, and that's been the case for a very long time.

    Nobody blinks an eye because they've always been there; sometimes they're more fashionable, sometimes less, but they're always familiar.

    In the U.S. bikes have a much lower mode share and ridership seems to be fairly concentrated amongst certain groups. The result seems to be some degree of resentment and fear from people not in those groups — bikes are what "those other people" use, they're the invader...

  8. Addressing pedestrian & cyclist conflicts is important, and I think largely a result of our horrible infrastructure. At least in Santa Monica there seems to be a lot of resentment of cyclists amongst pedestrians even if it is really the cars killing everyone.

    I think many cyclists ride on the sidewalk because they are unwilling to put up with the death threats, shouting screaming, throwing garbage and other acts made in temper tantrums by drivers toward bicyclists from time to time.

    As for the funding points you make, I kind of take issue with your suggestion that bicyclists are unfairly being given too much of the pie. Bicycling infrastructure is so much further behind in where it is starting from, and while yes more people walk, more people don't bike because almost no effort is made toward making biking safer and more comfortable.

    As poor as L.A.'s sidewalks and crosswalks can be at times, it is a monumental and comprehensive network of walking paths all across LA. Now look at the broken full of holes garbage that is the LA regional bike route map, which also includes a lot miles of green lines that are worthless class III bike routes, that is roads with nothing designed for bikes, but they put up a little sign that says share the road. Some of the bike lanes that do exist, are narrow and on busy corridors next to opening car doors and with buses swerving back and forth across the bike lane, and as such not comfortable for most people.

    Technically any road a cyclist has the right to ride on, and I do so daily, but if we want bicycling to a mode of transportation accessible to anyone, we need real facilities. We won't get that if serious money is not dedicated to playing catch up since L.A. is so much further behind when it comes to bikes.

    I find it very frustrating when different alternative transportation movements point fingers at other alternative transportation modes and say they get too much money. Instead of keeping the focus where it ought to be, and that is allocating money away from the cash hungry automobiles that are chowing down on public funds faster than anything else by far. I walk, I bike, I bus, and I want to see all of them well funded, and going after the car is the only way that is going to happen. Bikes are not the reason walking projects are underfunded in Los Angeles, not by a long shot.

  9. I absolutely agree that the bigger issue is undue focus on auto mobility, and I think that a lot of the ped vs. bike anger is really happening because there aren't adequate bike facilities, not because cyclists are inherently trying to behave in ways that make pedestrians uncomfortable. Illegal/dangerous behavior is one thing, but if you leave cyclists without other options it's not fair to complain when they're forced onto the sidewalk. (And a little "share the road" sign definitely doesn't cut it, in my mind).

    As far as the funding issue goes, obviously I think the bigger problem is that both modes are underfunded--and I certainly don't want to imply that we should pit the two against each other over funding issues.

    That said, simply splitting the money in half doesn't strike me as particularly thoughtful. I'd rather see a more thorough cost-benefit analysis based on cost of projects (I admittedely don't have a good idea what a typical bike project would cost, if there's even such a thing as a "typical" project), potential users, and of course environmental benefits.

  10. You make some really good points. I feel for both the cyclists and the peds, as I usually ride a folding bike, and so sometimes I am a cyclist, and sometimes I am a pedestrian carrying (or rolling) a bike on the sidewalk. And I do think that separate paths for bikes and pedestrians would be best, but I'm not sure if it's financially feasible.