The game of roads is often understood as a battle between motorist and bicyclist, but this is not the full story. Every day on my bike convinces me that the mercenary pedestrian is among the most dangerous players.
The game of roads is often understood as the time-honored battle between motorist and bicyclist, but this is not the full story. Every day that I bike through the streets of Philadelphia I am more convinced there’s another dangerous player, often forgotten among the skid marks: The mercenary pedestrian.
In Philadelphia, wheels are wheels: Both bikes and cars must obey road signs and yield to pedestrians and other motorists and cyclists. They are legally equal, although they are objectively not the same. Bicyclists, by and large, will always think of themselves as somewhere between a car and a pedestrian. And motorists will generally not trust bicyclists — to the point of avoiding them, acting unsafely around them and sometimes even harassing them — because they see so many cyclists behaving unpredictably. (Some cyclists take crazy risks.)
So there’s the source of tension. This is not a defense of bad biking or ungenerous drivers, but it is the reality.
There are rogues on both sides of internal combustion, but at least bicyclists and motorists begrudge each other a certain awareness, a certain caution. Far more often, I find, it’s pedestrians who don’t seem to have a clue what trouble they can cause.
Better to be nice!
I don’t want to get sued — or killed — so I ride cautiously. I rarely come to a complete stop at stop signs, but I always slow down and yield to cars. (Nine times out of 10, they wave me through anyway, and I nod and thank them on my way by.) That might make me the exception, as I often see devil-may-care cyclists whiz right on through from behind me. I always stop at red lights, while many other riders dart out into the intersection, dancing between moving cars and trucks and flipping the bird to drivers who actually have the right of way. I brake for pedestrians, which usually confuses them. Once a guy just stood there and stammered while I waited for him to cross the street. “Oh, I’m not used to that, stopping like that,” he said.
No, I don’t strictly follow the rules, but I am deferential. The key to survival is awareness and politeness — and the knowledge that anything too risky might get me a ticket.
I think it comes down to expectations. I probably don’t get to where I’m going as fast as many bikers, do. But then again, I don’t expect to. I expect that, riding in a city, I’m not going to be able to sail from door to door without a few impediments on the way. Unobstructed freewheeling is for parks and rec, not the streets department. Also, I’m not in such a hurry to get to work that I need to risk my life.
Their life in their hands
Countless times I’ve seen pedestrians wait until their light turns red before crossing — when I am just yards away from slamming into them. They check for cars, don’t see any, and proceed. But I am coming. I am here. It’s broad daylight. And then they pretend to be confused or embarrassed — or irritated! — when I have to choke to a stop in front of them. Where is the confusion? And why are you annoyed with me?
People routinely shuffle across the street on a long angle or wide arc, crosswalks be damned, seemingly unacquainted with the world to their right or left, as if they are in no danger, as if staring forward and refusing to look at me will cancel me out.
And thank heaven for the Center City District curb sweepers. But I am a little less grateful when one of them hops down off the curb with his broom and dustpan just yards in front of me. The Dunkin’ Donuts napkin will still be there after I’m safely gone, buddy, and there are no cars coming behind me.
The kid who leaps into an intersection too engrossed in a phone conversation to look around; the man who pushes a baby carriage out into the street first and then peeks around the parked van or truck to see if anyone is coming; the woman late for work waiting for the bus in the middle of the bike lane (Hint: It doesn’t come any faster if you’re looking for it.) — these are a greater menace than my treating a stop sign like a yield.
I have to wonder: Would they try that if I were a car? Does anyone think it doesn’t hurt to get hit by a bike?
Look, we’re all out there sharing the road. And we all think we’re the ones entitled to be there — because we are. We all belong. I don’t claim the moral authority to declare what’s right and what’s wrong; I break the rules sometimes, too. I don’t care who wants to cross on a red light or jaywalk at a snail’s pace or schedule a colonoscopy from the middle of an intersection. People who break the rules should break the rules carefully. Those who don’t pay attention to what and who is around them can’t expect to get home unbruised for long.
Eric Walter is a NewsWorks editor and web producer.