The Phantom Menace

Streetsblog has a good interview with Manhattan D.A. candidate Leslie Crockett Snyder on the subject of “traffic justice.” The piece notes the following:

Snyder said that the biggest traffic safety complaint she hears from community leaders these days is not about reckless motorists but “bicyclists being dangerous” and “messengers running us over.” If she is elected DA, she invites livable streets advocates to educate her on the issues and “meet with me regularly and make sure I’m staying on top of it.”

This incredibly oft-repeated idea — that cyclists are some grave threat to the lives of pedestrians, not motorists — is one of my greatest sources of irritation, and also puzzlement. I don’t have the NYC stats at hand, but in London, for example, from 2001 to 2005 there were 535 pedestrians killed by automobile. The number killed by cyclists? One. (the injury numbers are equally skewed, even taking into account possible underreporting).

One obvious reason for this is that humans generally rely on an imprecise calculus for real and subjective risk (this book provides an excellent survey of risk analysis). Things that are novel or out of our perceived control invoke particular “dread”; so too do those things we can more easily remember.

In an endnote to Traffic (and you really should read the endnotes!), I quote a bit from what I thought was a good answer to this question, from Ryan Russo, of the NYC DOT. The endnote runs as follows:

In New York City, an undercurrent of public opinion says that bicycles are “dangerous.” Neighborhoods have fought against the addition of bike lanes for this very reason. Yet one could count the number of people killed by bicycles in New York City each year on one hand, with a few fingers left over, while many times that number of people are killed or severely injured by cars. When I met with Ryan Russo, an engineer with the New York City Department of Transportation, I could not help but hear the echo of several of the reasons why we misperceive risk. “It’s silent and it’s rare,” he told me, when I asked about New Yorkers’ antipathy toward cyclists. “As opposed to cars, which make noise and are prevalent. You don’t see it because it’s smaller, you don’t hear it approach because it’s silent, and you don’t expect it because it’s not prevalent.” A close call with a cyclist, no matter how less dangerous statistically, stands out as the greater risk than a close call with a car, even though—or in fact precisely because—pedestrians are constantly having near-hazardous encounters with turning cars in crosswalks.

Following that idea that one does not expect it because it’s “not prevalent,” this might key in to the idea that novel risks are perceived more intensely than the everyday, mundane risks (like those posed to pedestrians from cars).

There are other possible reasons. Pedestrians may not be cyclists as much as they are also drivers, so they may feel more a hostility to, or less kinship to, cyclists. People may not respect the legitimacy of cyclists as a form of transportation as much as they do automobiles. Maybe there’s something about the idea that cyclists are often found on sidewalks, and perhaps pedestrians view them as a more personal encroachment than cars, to whom the road “belongs” (I should point out that even when we’re talking about fatalities on sidewalks, cars are much more the prime offender). Another possible reason is what’s been dubbed here as “bikeism”; pedestrians may somehow deem the actions of cyclists as being part of their character, rather than to situational responses in the moment. Thus the action of one bad cyclists comes to taint all of cyclingdom, while the actions of many bad drivers are diffused into a sort of blameless norm.

I was actually talking about this a bit recently with Dr. Oz (yes, he of Oprah fame) on his radio show. In theory, cyclists and pedestrians would enjoy more collegial relations (and maybe they do; maybe it’s only the people call in to complain to the DA who don’t like cyclists) because, unlike drivers, they are not shrouded in thousands of pounds of metal. Pedestrians and cyclists can often make eye contact (an agent of cooperation), they can literally feel each other’s humanity. Then again, maybe this only perversely raises the level of antagonism; and, as I mentioned in Traffic, people are more likely to refer to cyclists as cyclists, where they often talk about a car instead of the person driving that car. With a cycle there is less chance of the actor being subsumed by the vehicle; does the anonymity of the “car as threat” thus make it less memorable, or, again, less personal?

To refresh, however, bicycles as an urban threat must surely be exceeded by any number of hazards, ranging from fatal slips down stairs to dog attacks. And they are vastly exceeded as a threat to pedestrians by cars. Cities would do well to run ad campaigns touting the benefits to everyone of cycling, and dispelling some of the falsehoods concerning risk (maybe a simple campaign, on bus sides, showing a car and a cycle, saying This is X Times More Dangerous Than This, or some such).

This entry was posted on Monday, March 16th, 2009 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Cities, Cyclists. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

24 Responses to “The Phantom Menace”

  1. Fritz Says:

    Locally (SF Bay Area California), some of us were discussing the ‘fairness’ of fining bicyclists for traffic offenses the same as motorists after a cyclist was fined nearly $400 for rolling through a 4 way stop sign (on a weekend when there was no other traffic…)

    Many police are reluctant to ticket cyclists because even they see that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Some localities have responded by fining cyclists substantially less than motorists.

  2. Peter Says:

    i witness cyclists of all stripes terrorizing pedestrians of all stripes almost every time i ride. part of this, of course, is a complete lack of bicycle infrastructure in San Francisco – one of the premiere cycling cities in the US, I’m told.

    so, for instance, san francisco has what’s called The Embarcadero — just a big/huge waterfront sidewalk ‘multi-use path’ if you will — stretches for miles. even on non-busy days it can have thousands of people on it – all moving in different directions at different speeds on all sorts of different devices – including bicycles. the catch is that walkers are constantly getting ‘snuck up on’ by cyclists zooming near, at, and around them from all directions all the time — sometimes the pedestrians get hit. so what should be a very comfortable walk turns out to be an exercise in terror. mostly, it all results in scraped ankles, bumped shoulders, bruised egos and whatnot — and almost all the injuries are on the pedestrian side of things, of course. But the high stress causes intense anger in pedestrians — as it should. Pedestrians are often scared sh*tless at the last minute and jump out of the way of an on-rushing cyclist — even if being approached from the back they may hear the cyclist at the last moment, turn around, and screach, “Ack!”, and jump out of the way — heart racing, now hating cyclists even more than they did just a moment ago. They’ll remember that next time they’re driving back in Ohio.

    the Embarcadero is an extreme case, but you can see much of the same on streets and sidewalks all over America — and some of the reasons you cited i would agree with.

    pedestrians are not blameless, either, but i’m a big transportation cycling guy, and we haven’t taken responsibility for this yet. hopefully that will change.

    and, of course, the City is to blame for most problems – no infrastructure. even green lights, say, on our main bike thoroughfare, Market Street, are timed for cars. so if a biker rolls through a green light at the tail end of the green — unless you’re hauling, the crosswalk will activate in front of you just as you are arriving — it’s bike-on-pedestrian crash city. we need longer yellows, or a delayed crosswalk signal.

    p.s. bikes are not legally permitted on the SF Embarcadero, but many of us still ride there because the bike lane is completely inhospitable to humans not in a car.

  3. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    Peter makes a good point, and it reminds me of something Aaron Naparstek at Streetsblog has said to me before; namely, the irony that “alternative modes” (not that pedestrians can be truly thought that in NYC) are left to fight over small scraps of space (with all the tension that entails), while cars — which transport fewer people on any average NYC street — enjoy wide lanes and superfluous space. And while we’re on it, there’s absolutely no reason why a street like Second Avenue in New York City should not lose an entire traffic lane, for either bikes or more space for pedestrians. Generally the extra capacity leads to higher speeds, higher speed differential, excessive (and dangerous) lane changing, etc.

  4. Brent Says:

    I find it ironic that “bicycle lanes” are soon taken over by runners, walkers, skateboarders, inliners, perambulators, dogs, and everything else non-bicycle, even when perfectly good pedestrian paths run alongside. Heaven forbid that cyclists should be “terrorizing” pedestrian traffic on a roadway designed especially for them!

  5. MarvinK Says:

    We have a lot of multi-use paths in our area… with a clearly posted 15mph limit. The only thing worse than cyclists thinking they are training for the Tour de France or Ironman events are dogs of their leash.

    Seriously… there are kids on the path (on bikes or walking). If you’re too hardcore to slow down for kids and old ladies–find a less traveled road with a decent shoulder. Those paths aren’t for you.

  6. electric Says:

    And the runners all seem to travel against traffic… why? is it safer to travel against the flow of traffic? I know it’s considerably more dangerous to travel on the sidewalk with a bicycle. Accidents on sidewalks account for many of the cycling/car crashes. “They also found that wrong-way cyclists riding on sidewalk-like bike paths were about four times more likely to clash with cars while crossing intersections than were those riding with traffic.”

    I’m thinking it’s more dangerous to travel the wrong way. Drivers expect traffic to come from certain directions. Do runners think they’ll be able to jump clear if somebody swerves at them in the last second? I’m not sure about the reaction times involved but I’d be impressed if runners could dodge a last minute swerve by a car traveling 50km/h.

    FYI, the link to the book on risk analysis is broken.


  7. mightysinetheta Says:


    It is considerably safer for runners and other pedestrians to go against the flow of traffic, particularly when it comes to bikes and pedestrians. As is mentioned in Peter’s comment, a lot of problems occur when bikes “sneak up” on pedestrians. By having pedestrians moving in the opposite direction they can see bikes approaching, and aren’t surprised by close encounters with bikes.

    This also works at night, when runners (without lights) are far more likely to see and get out of the way of a bike than the other way around.

  8. David Schloss Says:

    About Peter’s comment. There’s a dedicated bike lane running up the entirety of Embarcadero in San Francisco. It runs with traffic on the Embarcadero side and doesn’t end until the road gets up to the split just past the aquarium (IIRC). One of the big problems there (and I agree with his comments on the lack of cycling infrastructure) is that cyclists don’t always use the bike lane, and that it doesn’t run both directions on the same side of the road.

    I’ve ridden there many many times, and walked there many many times, and it’s astounding how many cyclists don’t use the dedicated lane.

    The main cyclists I see there acting as a hazard to pedestrians aren’t locals, they’re tourists using the “facilities” of the very wide sidewalk there, including a bike rental facility that doesn’t tell people that bikes are designed to ride on the road.

    Many of the tourists would be hazards on a bike regardless of what city they’re in. :)

  9. jon Says:


    (1) the number of pedestrians *on pavements* (sidewalks if you are in US) killed by cars is pretty huge, versus the number (on pavements) killed by cyclists (which most years in the UK is <1). You could read this as implying that cars are too dangerous to use in cities, or very slow and heavily enforced speed limits are needed :-)

    (2) the problems pedestrians have is because they are not used to cyclists inhabiting the same space. Many pedestrians walk into the road before looking to see if anything is coming, because cars are usually several feet out, and in any case make lots of noise. Many cyclists don’t seem to throttle back when the ‘shared’ spaces get busy. I’ve cycled on the The Embarcadero too (once and I was lucky that it wasn’t too busy that day – but think I cycled across the GGB on the wrong side :-( ‘cos a few people told me off (sorry). In places when there are a lot of cycles, and a lot of cycling on pavements (e.g. China) there are very few conflicts. It seems that everyone (on a bike or feet anyway) seems to accept the rights of others (very civilised). (Car drivers in China just expect everyone else to get out of the way :-)

    Is the ideal solution that every form of transport gets a unique carriageway? I think I’d argue its that people ought to be a bit less sensitive and learn to accept others who do things differently, motoring in particular does not seem to afford tolerance…

  10. jack Says:

    Interesting, comments #4 & 5 confirm my experiences daily. Joggers often run in groups on the wrong side of the street making staying to the right on a bike harder and more dangerous. I suppose they prefer to see when autos are heading toward them rather than from being blindsided from the rear.

    On cycling paths, runners usually jog 2 to 3 across on cycling paths even though a jogging path is parallel. Another problem are runners (and now more cyclists) wearing iPods and can’t hear verbal warnings. The joggers often make abrupt left/right turns without looking first.

    Then there’s all the dog walkers who find leashes too restrictive for their precious one which loves to run diagonally across paths…

  11. Su Says:

    Many years ago as a child, the safety officer told us that when you’re on a bicycle you are classified as a vehicle and must travel on the road in the same direction as traffic. A pedestrian, whether running or not, should be on the sidewalk and walking in the opposite direction to vehicular traffic.

    I don’t know if this thinking is outdated (at least in regards to the pedestrian guidelines) but I still follow these rules and it would explain the jogger behaviors noted above.

  12. Nick Says:

    I’ve never seen any evidence that walking facing traffic is any safer than walking with traffic. However, in many states pedestrians are allowed to use the roadway when there is no sidewalk, but they are required to yield to motorists. Facing traffic means they see cars sooner and can yield sooner, which means motorists don’t have to slow down as much.

    One of the things you find when you study the politics of traffic is that “safety” and “convenience” are used as synonyms.

  13. Nick Says:

    I’m in Washington, DC. In the spring of 2008 the Washington Post reported that a pedestrian had been killed in a collision with a cyclist. The story didn’t offer any details about how the collision occurred, but it did mention that according to their archives the last similar accident was in 1982, 26 years earlier.

    To put that number in perspective, in a typical year slightly over 400 people are killed in automobile accidents in the Washington, DC, area. In between those two fatalities approximately 10,000 people were killed by automobiles.

  14. MikeOnBike Says:

    Regarding the Embarcadero bike lane. It’s been a while since I’ve been there, but I recall the bike lane being really narrow, probably narrower than state/national standards require. And I remember tour buses just barely fitting in the adjacent lane. “Bike Sliver” might be a better description, which might explain why cyclists don’t use it.

  15. MikeOnBike Says:

    MarvinK said “If you’re too hardcore to slow down for kids and old ladies–find a less traveled road with a decent shoulder.”

    Why must it be less traveled and have a decent shoulder? How about “find a road”?

  16. David Hembrow Says:

    A lot of odd stuff here. One of the first things I noticed when visiting the Netherlands is that unlike in the UK, people here are not paranoid about bikes. Cycle through busy shopping streets and people with children are not snatching them away from the “dangerous” bicycle.

    At the same time, we have no speed limits on cycle paths here. Plenty of “hardcore” cyclists ride at extremely high speeds on cycle paths on busy commuting routes and between towns. That’s what they are for. It is what they are engineered for. No-one has to “find a road”.

    There should be no confusion between places that children play and busy routes.

  17. N Says:

    Also odd to hear “pedestrians are allowed to use the roadway when there is no sidewalk” ! pedestrians should have every right to the road at any time, whether there is a footway or not.

    “but they are required to yield to motorists.” – what!! Abosuletly insane priorities.

  18. Steve Says:

    In the press, and among ordinary folk, there is a lot of equivocation on “safety” and “dangerous.” Nick (12) pointed out that “safety” and “convenience” become synonyms; at least, people often weigh convenience issues of cars/drivers equal to safety issues of pedestrians & cyclists.

    I’ve observed that a lot of “anti-bike” people (and it’s staggering to think they exist, but they do) call bikes “dangerous,” meaning that they are dangerous to the cyclist. Just do a google news search of “bike” and “accident” and look at the reader comments, even on articles about fatal accidents, where you’d suppose there would be an outpouring of sympathy. You’ll see a lot of comments about how bikes should be banned from roadways because they (the bikes) are dangerous… presumably to their riders. The cars, of course, are merely there, like bad weather, or inevitable resident beasts of prey whose lairs have been incautiously invaded by idiot bikers who have no sense of self-preservation.

    I’m not sure where the ire comes from, exactly. I’d like to think it’s that drivers don’t want to have to add another hazard to attend to, and want to be good & not run down a cyclist.

    But it really just seems like another instance in which the convenience of drivers is weighed against the safety of bikers, and convenience wins, even though the loss to convenience is, say, a matter of seconds lost in a trip, and the fractional effort it takes to turn a steering wheel and push on a brake pedal.

    So why would someone get so angry about making such a small sacrifice for someone’s safety?

    Maybe driving is deeply alienating. Most drivers are alone. Their only way to communicate with other drivers is through obstructed eye contact, a horn, and lights to flash. Hence, the angry monologue inside the confines of the car… something like commenting on a blog, but with no hope of response.

  19. Adam Durand Says:

    I love this essay. Thank you!

  20. Eric Says:

    In the 1890s, when roadways weren’t generally paved and instead were deep mud in the winter, many cities had sidewalk ordinances that made bicycling on the sidewalk illegal during certain parts of the year or certain parts of the day. Although newspapers had plenty of accounts of people killed by runaway horses, these were normalized as “accidents.” Crashes involving “scorchers” (speedy and reckless bicyclists) and pedestrians almost always blamed the scorcher (which is not to say that scorching wasn’t a real problem) and often generalized this behavior to bicyclists generally.

    Even if the terms in the conflict have changed in a little over a century, it seems to me that the structure of the conflict and supposed threat remains strangely persistent.

    In the early auto age, autoists were also sometimes demonized. So at least part of this is numbers: Where and when bicycling is common, bicyclists aren’t available to be demonized; where and when they are few, they become an Other, and attract disproportionate rage and fear.

    Finally, with @18, bicyclists do in fact enjoy a freedom and connection denied to autoists, so it’s not surprising autoists might be a little jealous!

  21. Katie Says:

    I’m a New York City pedestrian/sometime cyclist/occasional cab passenger, and I’ve never had a driver’s license. And I’ll say that while the complaint about safety doesn’t make sense in terms of result, I can make sense of it when considered in terms of the intention of the subject of the complaint. I’m hardly surprised that cars kill many more pedestrians than bikes (though I wonder whether one shouldn’t consider that in at least a few cases a car might have caused the death but a bike might have been a factor in the accident). But bike riders often exhibit more intentional disregard for the rules, and violate them more flagrantly, than the general population of cars do (cab drivers excepted, since in my observation they’re pretty bad offenders). I’ve never seen a car going the wrong way down a one-way street in Manhattan, but I sure see that a lot from bikes, which I especially hate when I’m on my bike and they force me to swerve into traffic. Even if a small rule violation or a little bit of inattention in a car is X% likely to kill someone, whereas a very serious rule violation on a bike is x/5% likely to kill someone, I’ll still feel more pissed off at the bike rider. They have a guiltier mens rea.

  22. Jeff Says:

    Great essay– and great book. I’m also a daily San Francisco cyclist who’s seen lots of people biking on the sidewalk along the Embarcadero while there’s a perfectly good bike line just feet away– and I agree with #8 that it’s mostly tourists doing this. It’s usually folks who might not have ridden a bike in traffic in quite some time and to them (and to lots of us frequent cyclists) the sidewalk seems to be a much safer place to ride. Traveling in Japan a couple of years ago, I noticed that most cyclists ride on the sidewalk all the time, no matter how dense with pedestrians it may be. But everyone seems to be comfortable with it; bikes expect pedestrians, and pedestrians expect bikes on the sidewalks. Seeing and riding this way first-hand over there, it made me realize that in the U.S. we think the bicycle is a very slow way to travel like a car, but in Japan (and many other places) the bicycle is seen more as a very fast way to travel like a pedestrian.

  23. Jeffrey W. Baker Says:

    Most of the comments here are incorrect. It is perfectly legal to ride your bike on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. That’s why it’s a “multi-use pathway”. The bike lane is a joke and a very good way to get creamed by a car lurching out of a garage or valet lot.

  24. Zero Energy Lifestyle Says:

    For the pro-cyclist campaign I envision a dark, angry, menacing car charicature (like from CARS the movie) with a whilte skull & cross bones “icons” for each death inflicted on sidewalks (the car has two tires on the walk way) and a winpy skinny litle “bicycle” with glasses and only one icon. wavy lines to makew it look timid next to a hefty lady pedestrian with a walker grocery basket on wheels that looks more formidable than the bicycle.

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