Getting Along: Pedestrian Kindnesses

News broke yesterday that the ban on sidewalk riding in Lincoln business districts may be removed, in favor of increased enforcement against reckless riding. (See: “Bikes may be allowed on downtown sidewalks,” Lincoln Journal Star, 9/6/2016.) There are reasons to celebrate this news: For one, who among us can remember the exact boundaries of areas included in the sidewalk-riding ban? Who wants to get a ticket – as Lincoln cyclists have – for slowly rolling down the sidewalk less than a block to park at a bike rack? And shouldn’t we want to make it as easy as possible for the users of our forthcoming bike-share system to get going from a dock? There are reasons to be wary, too – largely, that sidewalk riding can be unsafe for both pedestrians and cyclists, especially in business districts.

Read the comments on any article regarding cyclists on sidewalks or trails, and one theme becomes clear: In the absence of cars, we are pedestrians’ greatest menace. We travel at 3-5x the speed of people walking. We’re largely silent. In a collision, we have speed and helmets in our favor. A bicyclist is to a pedestrian as a motor vehicle is to a bicyclist, so consider this Golden Rule: Treat pedestrians the way you want drivers to treat you.

People speak of motorists and cyclists and pedestrians as separate groups, when in reality any one of us can be all three in a single day. A relatively small number of Lincolnites are cyclists, but every motorist is a pedestrian – and you can bet that once that pedestrian you buzzed on the trail gets in her car, she’ll return the gesture to the next cyclist she encounters on the road. Our public perception as cyclists is shaped by every encounter on the trails and sidewalks, every day. Is it unfair? Sure. Motorists break laws, kill, and maim daily, on an order bicyclists could never match, but no one questions their being on the roads. Remember how every single person can be a motorist, cyclist, and pedestrian? No matter how they get around, some people are jerks and scofflaws. It is unfair to paint all cyclists as such based on the behavior of those few, but that is what happens. Some cyclists will be reckless, and those will be the ones people notice. You cannot help this.

All you can do is your best: Be kind. Be courteous. Be predictable. When you share a space with pedestrians, look for ways to send them on with a memory of a good encounter with a cyclist. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Announce yourself before passing. Any sound works, but the cute ding of a bike bell or a “Good morning!” can be gentler than the “On your left” that really only fellow cyclists understand. Bonus points if you can make your sound far enough in advance to give the person time to process and react to it.
  • Consider your space and your speed when passing. Give them as much as you possibly can. The faster you are going, the more space you should give. The less room you have, the slower you should pass.
  • Sometimes the most considerate behavior toward a pedestrian is to join them as a pedestrian. Story time: The last leg of my daily commute involves a skinny stretch of sidewalk between 27th Street and the Sunken Gardens (pictured below). Last week, I was in this channel between 40+-mph traffic and poky bushes when I came upon a family walking toward me – a mother and a grandmother, each holding an infant, with a toddler walking between them. Remember how you want to give as much space as possible? There wasn’t any here. The only appropriate speed differential for passing this family was none. They cowered over by the bushes, anticipating a close pass, and were surprised when instead I hopped off my bike and walked along the 27th Street edge.   unnamed
  • Be a human. Smile! Wave! Greet people! Give a nod! Whatever communication style suits you, use it to acknowledge the people in your vicinity. Bombing down the trail ignoring everyone will just make you look like a dour Tour de France wannabe, when in reality you shouldn’t even be going for KOMs there.
  • And speaking of KOMs, this should go without saying: Don’t chase PRs and KOMs/QOMs on the trails, and especially not on sidewalks. Save your speed-record attempts for less populated areas.
  • This goes for cyclists, but also for everyone: Be predictable, and communicate. If you’re going to deviate from a straight path of travel, look before you move. You can even use hand signals.

Once you start spreading kindness around out there, you’ll find that it’s both addictive and contagious. Sometimes you get a nice smile or “thank you” or “good morning” in return; sometimes you can even have a nice chat with someone at a light. Pedestrians and cyclists have more in common than not: We’re all outside, moving on our own power for enjoyment and exercise. You probably also drive a car, and so do they. You know what it’s like to be a vulnerable road user, so show pedestrians the care you’d hope to be treated with. Once they get in their car, they might just return the favor.

4 thoughts on “Getting Along: Pedestrian Kindnesses

  1. Joe Billesbach

    Another great article!!! Puts a great perspective on it! Thanks Sarah!

  2. Steve Clements

    Well done. I often forget that I can startle a pedestrian in a manner similar to how a car or truck can startle me.

  3. Jason L. Berlowitz

    This well-written perspective opened my eyes to this issue. The way that the Lincoln paper couched it, I was completely against it, as we do not need the increased potential for altercations, nor the bad publicity that this is already getting.

    Now that I can see this framed as a more reasonable approach to loosening restrictions and actually making them more enforceable, I see the logic behind it. This will be a tough sell, but a little bit of reasoned thought should bring a few minds around.

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