Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Puzzling pedestrian pronouncements

Yesterday evening, I rode east from downtown as usual on Liberty Street. One-way eastbound, it has four travel lanes and a left-side parking lane from Second Street to Preston Street. Between First Street and Preston Street, both of the two rightmost lanes become right-turn-only. These two lanes carry heavy traffic to the interstate highway on-ramp between Floyd Street and Preston Street, and to right-turn destinations before the ramp. To avoid the heavy traffic and make my path obvious, I ride in the third lane from the right - the rightmost lane that serves my destination. Just east of Preston Street, the right-turn lanes disappear and this becomes the right-hand through lane.

As I rode in the middle lane of Liberty Street near 1st Street, a pedestrian on the sidewalk shouted, "Get out of the street!" I smiled at the absurdity of it. I was riding at 21 mph, keeping up with most of the traffic. No vehicles were waiting behind me; as usual, 90% of the traffic drove in the lanes to my right, and the remaining cars chose to pass me on the left. Had I attempted to ride at that speed on the sidewalk (even if that were legal), I would have terrorized any pedestrians including the one who would have me get off the street. My riding on the street created no possible inconvenience or hazard for the person on the sidewalk. What motivated him to show disdain for my riding on the street?

Would he have shouted had he seen a bicyclist near the right-hand curb? I don't know. A construction worker in a building shouted at me to get out of the traffic lane on Muhammad Ali Boulevard one morning a few weeks ago. Again, I could not conceivably have been causing him any difficulty or delay. Again, no traffic was "stuck" behind me. A few years ago, a man standing at a bus stop on Frankfort Avenue shouted at me to get off the road. That time, I was riding far enough to the right to allow overtaking vehicles to pass me easily. I stopped and asked him why he thought I should not ride on the road. "You slow down traffic," he said with certainty. (I disagree - a topic for another post.)

Kentucky averages 53 pedestrian deaths per year due to car crashes. I have never heard of a pedestrian in Kentucky killed by a bicyclist. (If you know of one, do tell - I don't want to spread misinformation.) Pedestrians ought to appreciate people using bicycles instead of cars to get around. Even if I did slow traffic, thoughtful pedestrians should celebrate that, rather than berate me for it. Faster traffic increases the number and severity of pedestrian crashes.

In fairness, many pedestrians have shouted encouragement as I rode hard to keep up with the traffic lights, asked me about my unusual bikes, or said, "Cool bike, mister!" They have thanked me for yielding to them in crosswalks and commented on my bright headlight. Sometimes we will nod or wave to one another.

Somehow, though, I feel that the pedestrians who take offense at my riding in the street reflect a widespread notion that we need to address. That notion says that speed trumps safety, civility, patience, and diversity. You have a right to the road only if you can maintain the speed limit. If your finances or beliefs or preferences compel you to travel somehow other than by private motor vehicle, you need to stay out of the way of the cars - the legitimate road users. Even when a bicyclist keeps up with traffic and takes pains not to delay motorists, the notion holds. People tend to reject information that challenges their preconceived ideas.

Roads and intersections and traffic signals designed to accommodate bicyclists make our lives easier and safer. I celebrate any improvements in these facilities. Still, if we really want to make bicycling a viable option for a broad swath of our society, we need to overturn this prejudice that makes even some pedestrians look askance at bicyclists on the streets.

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