A Context-Based Look At How We Share Our Roads

This is a continued commentary on the idea of “revisiting” the long-held notions of where cars, bikes and pedestrians can/should/will & want to belong when moving about our communities.  It’s a subject that I believe we, as a nation, have become a bit to “dug-in” about.  Whether you’re a regular driver, cyclist, or pedestrian, we have to start thinking about the diverse sets of contexts, wants, needs and safety concerns that are intertwined in this subject instead of simply reacting with a canned answer based on the popular or broad-brush position.

I talk about this dynamic a lot. Why? Because very simply I’m a car-free bike commuter. I don’t wear spandex or take a shower when I get to work. For the most part I ride in what I have on, which means that I have to ride slowly in summer to avoid being a sweaty mess when I arrive at my destination. Usually I fail.

But as someone who often “slow-rides” at 10-15mph on my way to work on my 25 pound bike alongside two-ton vehicles moving between 30 and 50 miles per hour with little or no shoulder, I admit I often make the choice to ride the seldom-traveled sidewalk that parallels the heavily-congested roads.  As I’ve stated in the past, I often get a lot of “side-eye” from urbanists who feel that the only place for bikes is in the road.

Last week I posted a blog about a small survey I conducted showing that Americans still prefer riding their bike on the sidewalk instead of our roads. I suggested that, with this in mind, perhaps our insistence of forcing bikes into our auto-dominated streets might need to be adapted. If the desire is to increase cycling across our country because it is a healthy, sustainable way to move about, we need to start taking the “casual cyclist” and their comfort level seriously.

I did not directly advocate for biking on the sidewalk. As I have done in the past, I tried to give a voice to a very real and yet very marginalized segment of our cycling population (or rather, potential cycling population). And I received a lot of positive responses from people who decidedly will never feel safe riding in the road.

But as predicted, I also heard another choir of voices advocating for their single cause in this three-way conversation that has a unique complexity.

Many who walk scoff at the idea that bikes might share the sidewalk with them, even in some less dense urban and outlying areas. Pedestrian safety and comfort have always been cited as reasons why bikes belong in the road with cars and not on the sidewalk with those on foot.

This argument is always interesting to me. If we look simply at potential safety risk of each population as a whole, it’s logical to conclude that a bike vs. pedestrian crash at 10-15mph is less likely to seriously harm or kill someone than a 3000lb car vs. bike crash at 40+mph. If roles were reversed and cyclists insisted pedestrians walk in traffic, I would venture a guess that every pedestrian would be livid with the idea that someone would suggest putting them at greater risk.

What’s interesting is that most cycling advocates echo the concerns of the pedestrian with regard to the “shared sidewalk” scenario. Advocates believe the road is the place for bikes despite the incredible disparity of weight and potential speed between bikes and cars. But is this posture based on the cyclist with the $1000+ bike and the thighs that propel them at car speeds, or the regular, every day American that just wants to ride safely without worry?

And while advocates will tout the fact that studies show cyclists are safer in the road than on the sidewalk (due to issues like sight lines and the fact that drivers turn into cyclists because they don’t expect a fast-moving vehicle on the sidewalk) I can’t imagine this could true on all roads. For example, a significant portion of my morning commute is on a very busy 4-lane road with no shoulder where traffic often travels above 40mph. The sides of this road are chewed up in many spots and the drainage grates are even worse. Riding in this road is extremely scary for an experienced cyclist like myself, to say nothing about the casual rider.

Meanwhile, the parallel sidewalk is almost completely vacant with VERY few driveways or side streets and usually about a pedestrian or two per mile. There is no statistic you can throw at me to tell me that riding on this particular sidewalk on this specific stretch of road is less safe than being in a busy, fast moving 4-lane shoulder-free highway masquerading as a street. And this is FAR from the only place like this in Rochester’s fringe areas.

As I have stated in the past, I am concerned that our stance on road cycling with fast moving traffic has given biking the image of a skill-based sport rather than a simple, fun and stress free way to move about our communities. I would go out on a limb and say that this inferred image has done almost as much damage to bike riding numbers as our dangerous, inhospitable, car-oriented roads. Yet cycling advocates continue to insist that the sidewalk is for pedestrians only, a message that, recent evidence suggests, conflicts with popular opinion.

What about those who drive? Their only concerns are time and hassle. Unlike pedestrians and cyclists, a driver doesn’t have to worry about their safety with regard to sharing road space with other forms of transportation. If there has ever been a driver that has said “I worry about my safety with bikes in the road,” I’ve never heard it. The only thing drivers have to worry about with regard to their personal safety is, well… other drivers.  And themselves.

Let’s sum it up. Pedestrians believe sidewalks are for them and bikes belong in the road. Cycling advocates echo this notion, citing broad-based statistics while evidence suggests that most of the country still prefers to ride on the sidewalk. Drivers simply want the road to themselves with as few other modes of transit as possible so that they may reach their destination on time.

Every group is thinking about themselves without thinking about the consequences of their stance. A pedestrian that insists that a cyclist’s place is in the road may be sending that bike rider to their demise on certain roads. A person who wants to simply bike on the sidewalk may not think of the pedestrian that just wants to get to where they are going without worrying about a speedy cyclist coming up behind them, or potential injury. A road cyclist assumes his or her place on the blacktop without thinking of the 10 cars he/she might be holding up on their way to work. And finally, the driver will never fully understand any of the above experiences until, frankly, he/she gets out of the car.

We need to stop thinking of the right-of-ways we inhabit in terms of what we want. We also need to remember that not all roads and right of ways are equal… statistics about where pedestrians/bikes are safest cannot possibly be representative of all streets and roads in all contexts. With a wildly diverse set of variables regarding our roads and their individual safety, we might do well to look at what options work best for each individual right of way instead of making blanket statements as to where bikes and walkers belong.

We have to take a big picture, realistic and wholistic snapshot of what sharing our streets, roads, paths and yes, sidewalks really means. In a New Urbanistic world where we are trying to promote shared space in a safe, welcoming environment for everyone, we all have to be a little bit flexible in our stances regarding mobility and transportation. We have to be willing to ask the scary questions of whether sidewalks are only for pedestrians, whether bikes are more like walkers than drivers, and whether drivers (yes you’re in this too) should have have to give up a large portion of their space and speed for the sake of better communities. And asking these questions is just the start… we have to answer them in the context of the big picture instead of simple what’s best for us as individuals.

In writing this, I am not advocating for anything more than a revisit of the practical and case-by-case use of our roads and sidewalks, without resting on our pre-packaged responses based on our own one-dimensional experiences. Because roads take a number of forms, blanket statements about national statistics may not be the best answer when asking the questions about safety and movement on vastly different right-of-ways. Just because we are Urbanists, cyclists or walkability advocates doesn’t mean we are immune to seeing things differently and in their individual and environmental contexts. In fact, it is our responsibility to consider all possibilities that affect a diverse set of wants and needs in moving about our communities.