Shutterstock

A spate of injuries and deaths have forced cities to reassess how pedestrians and cyclists interact.

Last month, Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein was running on a path in Philadelphia. As she approached a curve obscured by bushes, a cyclist slammed into her. "I just remember seeing him, and all of a sudden I was on the ground," she says. She spent the night in the hospital, recovering from a head wound that reached the bone and required three layers of stitches.

"I think what happened is our heads hit and then something on his bike must have punctured my forehead," she says about the accident. The city path divides for pedestrians and bikers in certain areas, but not where she was hit.

It’s hard to know if collisions between walkers and cyclists are truly increasing and who’s to blame. They’re certainly generating more attention lately, along with vitriol toward two-wheelers.

Crashes have ignited controversies in New York, Toronto, and London. In Philadelphia, bicycle/pedestrian collisions killed two pedestrians and left another with a fractured skull in 2009. This spring, a San Francisco biker struck a 71-year old pedestrian as he crossed the street. The man died a few days later.

The death revived the argument between cyclist defenders and critics.

Cyclists flout the rules, say detractors. They ignore red lights and signs. They ride against traffic. They pedal on sidewalks where pedestrians aren’t expecting them. And they accelerate to death-defying speeds – as in Zuckerman Bernstein’s case, she says – making quick halts impossible. Police need to ticket cyclists more, say critics, and cities should try to educate bikers on road rules.

Some even call for licenses for the helmet set. 

"I know that it would cut down on cycling. But I do think that cycling in the city comes with a responsibility because it’s a moving vehicle," says Nancy Gruskin, founder of the Stuart C. Gruskin Family Foundation, named after her husband who died after being struck by a food delivery cyclist

"If you have enforcement that dovetails with a good marketing and public relations campaign, I think that can really work,” she says – something like the “Click It or Ticket” campaign.

Many bike supporters counter that cars are the road’s greatest menace. And if that’s the case, the more bikes, the better. They take vehicles off the street and force drivers to slow down. Cycling licenses would discourage potential bikers, these advocates argue. If the roads were safer for bikers – because of bike lanes, reduced speeds or better enforcement of driving violations – there would be fewer conflicts with pedestrians and vehicles.

"I think when you’re on a bike, you’re so accustomed to watching out for cars and yourself, you forget there are people on the street that are more vulnerable,” says Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group.

Stampe may speak for walkers, but she’s clearly not anti-bike. Pedestrian advocates and their cycling counterparts often collaborate on issues. Likewise, many local safe streets organizations support both groups. 

In other words: it’s hard to imagine too many harsh bike critics in established pedestrian organizations.

For now, cities are responding to complaints with a variety of approaches. In New York, Gruskin’s organization launched 5 to Ride, which teaches restaurant delivery cyclists safer biking rules, like "stop at every red light." This spring, San Francisco was developing a cycling school for first-time violators.

But there’s one thing almost everyone can support: bikers should be leading the way in taming their own.

"The worst thing for a cycling advocate is to see some other cyclist dangerously blow through a red light. It’s just the worst PR,” says Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks. 

More savvy groups are focusing on education, says Bricker, who previously led an Oregon-based biking organization. But in general, advocates "need to do more."

As for Zuckerman Bernstein, she’s on-edge around bikers. She says she’ll never run on the same city path again. "I’m still having headaches, but it could have been a lot worse," she says.

Photo credit: SVLuma/Shutterstock

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of a cyclist on the streets of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
    Equity

    Can Historic Preservation Cool Down a Hot Neighborhood?

    The new plan to landmark Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood aims to protect more than just buildings: It’s designed to curb gentrification.

  2. A cat lays flat on a bench at a park on the outskirts of Tokyo.
    Life

    Why Don't Americans Use Their Parks at Night?

    Most cities aren’t fond of letting people use parks after dark. But there are good lifestyle, environmental, and safety reasons to reconsider.

  3. Rows of machinery with long blue tubes and pipes seen at a water desalination plant.
    Environment

    A Water-Stressed World Turns to Desalination

    Desalination is increasingly being used to provide drinking water around the globe. But it remains expensive and creates its own environmental problems.

  4. a photo of a woman covering her ears on a noisy NYC subway platform
    Life

    My Quixotic Quest for Quiet in New York City

    In a booming city, the din of new construction and traffic can be intolerable. Enter Hush City, an app to map the sounds of silence.   

  5. Design

    What Cities Can Do to Help Birds and Bees Survive

    Pollinators—the wildlife that shuffle pollen between flowers—are being decimated. But they may still thrive with enough help from urban humans.

×