Pedestrian-cyclist conflict - Protest by residents of Elysian Valley, LA. "We asked it be named Pedestrian-Bike Path as opposed to Bike Path"

As cycling gets more popular, conflict between cyclists and pedestrians is emerging as a hot topic of public debate (e.g. see here, here and here). There are two major areas of conflict – traditional pedestrian areas like footpaths, squares and parks on the one hand, and shared off-road paths/trails on the other.

From the staunch pedestrian’s point of view, footpaths should be exclusively the domain of those on foot – cyclists are the invaders. In some States, adult cyclists are explicitly prohibited from riding on a footpath unless there’re special circumstances, like supervising a child cyclist.

The key issue is the perception of danger and how this affects peoples’ confidence in walking. Pedestrians worry they’ll be injured. They worry about their children and pets, who’re unpredictable and vulnerable. Many cyclists slow down and give way to pedestrians on footpaths, but of course some don’t. On shared bike paths, most don’t.

There’s some physics involved here. Momentum equals mass times velocity (p=m·v), so an 80 kg rider on a 12 kg bicycle travelling at a modest 15 kph carries three times as much momentum as the same person walking at 6 kph (1380 vs 480 kg·m/s).  If the same rider cycles at 25 kph, the momentum is five times higher. Moreover, bicycles have hard and sometimes sharp bits like shifters that don’t give a lot when they hit flesh and bone. (Update: a reader points out it’s kinetic energy that matters – and at 15 kph my rider would have seven times the energy he would if he were walking).

Pedestrians on busy footpaths, promenades, parks and squares haven’t “evolved” to avoid making unpredictable changes in direction for fear of stepping in the path of a cyclist. Footpaths and malls have traditionally been safe havens from all forms of vehicular transport, so pedestrians aren’t used to being constantly and reflexively alert for bicycles looming up from behind.

Pedestrians argue they’ve effectively been pushed out of so-called shared trails by speeding cyclists. If a path like the Yarra Trail in Melbourne ever had a role as a linear park for quiet and contemplative strolling singly or in groups, it’s largely lost it now. Much of the trail is dominated by cyclists (and to a lesser extent by joggers and speed walkers) for whom it’s primarily a road, albeit a scenic one. It’s an artery for travellers who’re either going somewhere or happy to enjoy the river at speed.

From the staunch cyclist’s point of view, on the other hand, the risk posed to pedestrians by riders is greatly exaggerated. While there’ve been cases of pedestrians suffering serious injury as a result of collisions with bicycles and even a recent well-publicised one where a pedestrian was killed (although it was on a road), the number of such incidents is quite small.

So far as many cyclists are concerned, footpaths are their safe haven from dangerous roads, where there’s the ever-present risk they’ll be seriously injured, even killed. They’re at much greater risk of critical injury from cars than pedestrians are from bicycles.

Some cyclists argue that the absence of dedicated infrastructure for cycling means they have no choice but to cycle on the footpath. In any event many footpaths, particularly outside the city centre, are used only occasionally by pedestrians so the scope for conflict is minimal.

Cyclists also point out that bicycles are legal on shared paths (hence the name) and in many cases it’s the dominant use. Indeed, many were built in the last 20 years primarily with cycling in mind and are known popularly as “bike paths” rather than “walking paths” or “shared paths”.

Now, as with so many of these debates, cyclists and pedestrians could get along quite happily if all parties behaved with consideration for each other at all times. For example, cyclists could slow down to a speed that makes pedestrians comfortable when they’re passed or overtaken. People out walking could keep better control of their dogs. But of course there’s always the minority who won’t or can’t empathise with others.

What to do? Let me acknowledge first that I’m a keen cyclist – enthusiastic enough to have commuted by bicycle for a couple of years at one time. Even so, where there’s potential for conflict, I think pedestrians should be given primacy because walking is the one mode that’s available to all almost everyone. Not all people drive, cycle or take the train, but they all walk.

I think the long term future of cycling must be on roads, not footpaths. The absence of safe cycling opportunities is not a credible argument for degrading the quality of the environment of pedestrians.

That requires drivers accept the legitimacy of cyclists on streets, as I’ve argued before. Motorists must drive slower and in some cases give up road space for the provision of dedicated cycling facilities. They must accept cyclists have priority on local and arterial roads. Given safe conditions, roads are technically far superior to footpaths for cycling anyway.

In my view, adult cyclists should be excluded from pedestrian-intensive areas like city centre malls, footpaths and parks, without exception. I’m also doubtful about the wisdom of designing bicycle paths into busy pedestrian-oriented places like the redeveloped Swanston St in Melbourne (I’ll wait and see on that one, but I’ve never been optimistic about it). And it’s unfortunate Melbourne’s bikeshare stations are on the footpath rather than on road space.

While I acknowledge many cyclists behave considerately, too many don’t. The trouble is it doesn’t take much to degrade the perceived quality of public space.

I think it’s feasible to police a ban on cyclists using footpaths in busy areas like the CBD and to prioritise on-road alternatives for cyclists. Managing cyclist behaviour on little used footpaths and shared paths is much harder.

A good start would be to promote heavily the message that the interests and welfare of pedestrians is always paramount – a highly visible Code of Conduct for all parties is needed. Drivers must give way to cyclists and pedestrians; cyclists must give way to pedestrians.

Cyclists shouldn’t fight on two fronts. Their primary objective must be to get access to safe road space. Cyclists and pedestrians should be allies, not enemies.