By Mighk Wilson, Smart Growth Planner, MetroPlan Orlando
It seems that whenever the topic of pedestrian safety comes up, some people start talking about bicyclists. This is unfortunate both for bicyclists and pedestrians. Bicyclists are not just fast-moving pedestrians. They are vehicle drivers, whether they recognize that fact or not. Bicycles were both commonly and legally defined as vehicles well before the automobile was invented. Before the bicycle was invented, the term vehicle was used to describe horse-drawn conveyances.
It’s true that many bicyclists travel on sidewalks, but that is actually a major part of the bicyclist safety problem. From both a safety and mobility perspective, bicyclists fare best when they behave, and are treated as, normal, law-abiding vehicle drivers. Sidewalks are designed and intended for pedestrian speeds and pedestrian maneuverability. Except for the occasional runner, pedestrians travel between 2 to 4 miles per hour. Most bicyclists travel at 8 to 15 mph, with some moving as fast as 25 to 30 mph with a tailwind or downhill slope. The turning and braking characteristics at those speeds are much closer to those of a motor vehicle than of a walker.
Bicyclists who travel on sidewalks and crosswalks instead of the roadway will benefit somewhat from the Best Foot Forward campaign. A bicyclist on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk has the same rights and duties as a pedestrian (while a bicyclist on a roadway has the same rights and duties as any other vehicle driver), so if motorists do a better job of scanning for and yielding to pedestrians as the law requires, bicyclists who use sidewalks should be involved in fewer crashes too.
Where’s that Driver Looking? Drivers typically have their attention focused on other areas of concern — like conflicting automobile traffic. When they do scan for pedestrians, they look for them immediately at the curb — not 20ft away, traveling at 20ft per second.
The best way to improve bicyclist safety, though, is through bicyclist training. Well-trained bicyclists understand which behaviors lead to conflicts and crashes, and which ones minimize them. About 45% of bicyclist/motorist crashes involve a bicyclist traveling against the flow of traffic, either on the sidewalk or the roadway. (Traveling against the flow has been shown in a number of studies to be four times riskier than traveling with the flow. This is because turning motorists don’t expect vehicles to be traveling in that direction and often fail to scan that way.) Another 25% involve cyclists going with the flow, but running red lights, stop signs, traveling at night without lights, or failing to yield as any other driver is required. About 12% involve a law-abiding cyclist going with the flow of traffic on the sidewalk or crosswalk who is struck by a turning or crossing motorist; 6% involve intoxicated cyclists. Only about 8% involve a law-abiding cyclist on the roadway, and most of those crashes can be mitigated by teaching cyclists defensive driving techniques.
Many bicyclist injuries not caused by crashes with motor vehicles involve hazards along sidewalks, such as utility poles, protruding landscaping, drop-offs along pavement edges, benches, and other perils.
Training bicyclists to move off of the sidewalks and onto the roadways will help not only the bicyclists, but pedestrians as well. Because they’re so quiet, bicyclists who pass from behind often startle pedestrians, and may even crash into them. Such crashes normally go unreported unless there is a serious injury. Some local governments prohibit bicyclists from using sidewalks for this reason. Bicyclists on the roadway must also remember that they are required to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks in the same manner as other drivers.
Understanding root causes is essential if we are to improve safety. The root causes for most bicyclist injuries is bicyclists behaving as pedestrians-on-wheels or violating the rules for vehicular movement.
More information on bicyclist crashes and safety strategies:
Orlando Area Bicyclist Crash Study: A Role-Based Approach to Crash Countermeasures