Sorry Dan Walters, Everyone Already Deserves Safety — Even Cyclists

Sometimes you just gotta ride on the sidewalk. Photo by Karoly Czifra/flickr
Sometimes you just gotta ride on the sidewalk. Photo by Karoly Czifra/flickr

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee had a nasty exchange with a bicyclist riding on a sidewalk, and now he’s disgusted that bicyclists want to feel safe while riding. “If bicyclists want respect and safety, they should act like they deserve it,” his headline stated in yesterday’s Bee.

I’m very sorry Mr. Walters’ colleague, Hilary Abramson, had such a horrible experience after being hit by a bicycle on a sidewalk, but that hardly means that nobody on a bike deserves respect or safety.

Walters concludes from these two incidents that the three-foot passing law that went into effect yesterday “should be matched by one that absolutely prohibits bicycles on sidewalks statewide with stiff fines for violation, and another that makes hit-and-run bicycling just as much a crime as hit-and-run driving.”

Walters and his colleague apparently didn’t listen when it was pointed out to them that maybe people ride on the sidewalk because they don’t feel safe in the street, a problem the three-foot law is intended to help address.

Maybe he’s just steamed because the bicyclist he lectured about riding on the sidewalk wasn’t patient enough to spend time discussing the issue with him.

Maybe he should have glanced up at the signs around him; he may have seen that many of the sidewalks “around the Capitol,” where he confronted the cyclist, are designated bike routes.

I’m tired of hearing that people on bikes are jerks that don’t deserve respect. I’ve been yelled at, honked at, lectured, and almost run over by people driving cars, more than one of them doing illegal and dangerous things like talking on cell phones. I can’t pretend I am always patient myself when interacting with drivers while I’m on my bike.

But I’ll try to be patient with Walters:

  • I would never claim that all people are angels on bikes but, I hope we agree, neither are they in cars. Cyclists and drivers and pedestrians all bend and break laws. Our behavior is more similar than different. The difference is cars’ speed and mass, which combine to make a whole lot of dangerous momentum.A cyclist colliding with a pedestrian is bad, but it’s no equivalent to car colliding with a bicycle. Take a look at these statistics for the U.S.: all traffic fatalities: 29,000-39,000 each year. All pedestrians killed by cyclists: about six each year. It’s big news, often national news, when a cyclist kills a pedestrian, because it doesn’t happen very often.

    That bike hit-and-run experienced by Abramson was horrendous. There’s no excuse for it. But people are hit by cars every day, and many aren’t around to speak of it.

  • What Walters calls “arrogance” when bicyclists “cut in and out of traffic, blow through red lights and stop signs, and imperil pedestrians by careening down sidewalks” may be anything but. Bikes “cut in and out of traffic” for a lot of reasons: to avoid potholes and broken glass that car drivers can’t see and aren’t affected by; to avoid cars cutting them off and car doors opening suddenly in their path; to change lanes to make turns. These are all legal maneuvers, and yes, bicyclists ought to be able to feel safe enough on the road to perform them.
  • While some bicyclists “blow through” red lights and stop signs, car drivers do too, and with much more dangerous results. But certainly not every bicyclist runs red lights.Besides, many of those who choose to cross against a light do it cautiously and after making sure that there isn’t any cross traffic. That may irritate drivers, but it’s hardly a danger to them, or to anyone else. Of course it’s not legal. But there are many cases where stop lights don’t even detect that bikes are there, and therefore won’t turn green for them no matter how long they wait. Thankfully engineers have finally begun tackling this issue.
  • But insisting that every single bike stop completely at every single stop sign, even when there is no cross traffic, is just silly. Yes, I am quite aware that is what the law requires in California. But these traffic control devices were invented to control the flow of heavy vehicles, the drivers of which cannot see around corners or maneuver quickly the way bicyclists can. If you disagree with me, I suggest you take a bike ride on a quiet street that has stop signs at every intersection, and see whether you’re still stopping after the fifth or sixth block.
  • Walters says: “If bicyclists want to be taken seriously, they should also be paying some of the cost of marking bicycle lanes and building bike paths, rather than making motorists pick up the tab, as [a] pending bill would do.”
    Sigh.
    There’s a lot to unpack here.
  1. Many drivers, including some newspaper columnists, believe a common fallacy that their gas taxes (and other car-specific fees) actually pay the full cost of building and maintaining roads. They don’tRoughly half of car infrastructure is paid for by general sales taxes, which everyone pays at the same rate, whether they have a car or not. Sales taxes from cyclists and from people too poor to own a car are already subsidizing drivers’ freeways.
  2. Building bikeways benefits everyone, including drivers, by creating safe routes that people can ride instead of driving—cutting down on congestion, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, noise, etc. This includes trips to work, to schools, and shopping as well as recreational rides that just keep people healthy.
  3. Many bicycle riders, like myself, also own cars. If a motor vehicle fee is approved by local voters (see #4), every car owner would pay the same fee, whether they own one bike or many.
  4. Voters would have the opportunity to approve, or reject, any proposed motor vehicle fees aimed at building and maintaining bike paths.

Yes, those of us who ride bikes would like to be taken seriously, and treated with respect. It can be hard to hear some of the cynicism and derision aimed our way, even it if is true that the so-called “bikelash” may be a mark of our progress.

But it’s a different story when we are physically threatened. Like every other road user, bicyclists want to feel safe while we are on the road.

I’m grateful to Dan Walters for helping raise awareness of the new three-foot law, and also for giving me the opportunity to respond to some common misconceptions about bicyclist behavior. If the outcome of his provocative article is that some drivers and some bicyclists practice safer behavior, then everyone wins.

  • wildstar

    Walters is a total cave troll, but I wouldn’t play the car drivers suck too game. Yes, they do, but that’s not the way to win anybody over, IMO. It makes it all a zero sum game and gets me down about humanity. In my everyday life around DTLA I see just as much idiocy from both bikes and cars. You’re also making a lot of excuses for cyclists who break the law. While some of the laws don’t make sense from a biking perspective, running red lights because they feel like it isn’t good practice. Stop signs aren’t, and shouldn’t be, optional, at least in our mixed modal world here in LA.

    I do agree with him on one point – bikes shouldn’t be on sidewalks (unless they’re separated like you see in cities like Munich). Having lived and rode for years in east coast cities like Boston where pedestrians will hound you off the sidewalk and the police will ticket you, you get into a road only mindset and it just make sense. Pedestrians first. Bikes on the sidewalk create a kind of chaos, and can also be dangerous for cyclists. Drivers don’t expect a bike to be flying down the sidewalk when turning out of a lot or garage, when it can be difficult to see.

    I also think the more bikes that are in the street, the better off all of us who ride will be. Drivers will get used to it, people will become better cyclists. Yeah, it’s scary, but as shown worldwide it’s way to do it.

  • BJToepper

    One wonders whether Walters would benefit from a bicycle ride around Sacramento, just as his comrade-in-snide, Courtland Milloy, did after a similar Washington Post editorial in July. Perhaps it should be a rule: you may not comment on cycling unless you have ridden a bicycle in traffic recently.

  • I’ll respectfully disagree with you regarding a blanket no riding on”sidewalks. My commute to work involves a couple hundred of yards on four lane Culver Blvd right near the 90 in LA. Cars routinely go 55 to 60 on this stretch (it’s as wide as a highway), speeding to work and after several frightening brush bys I’ve taken to riding the sidewalk. The sidewalks are frequently entirely empty as there’s not much to walk to. This feels incredibly safer for me, and everyone in general.

    Another example is heading east on Washington in Venice. At Venice, the bike lane drops you off on to a Washington with no bike lanes, shitty pavement, and drivers jockeying for lane changes as they try to enter the In-N-Out Burger and Costco parking lot. Again, after being honked at, continually passed too closely, and actually getting bumped by a car I’ve taken to riding the sidewalk for two blocks until I can cut south.

    Now, in high ped areas like downtown Santa Monica, downtown LA, etc. — yeah, no bikes on sidewalks makes sense. But in the suburban sprawl that is LA, many sidewalks provide a safe haven from the high speed multi-lane streets. I absolutely don’t like riding on them, but I feel it’s better for my health and well-being.

  • wildstar

    Yeah, I can totally agree with you on those cases, and I imagine it’s quite harrowing. Washington would seem to be wide enough for a protected bike lane. In my previous locations where I lived, there were no roads where going 55 is even an option really within the city on normal roads. My riding experience in LA is almost all downtown (except on ciclavia).

    I would argue for more targeted rules, but that seems less efficient in education and rollout? Could DTLA even have their own laws regarding riding on sidewalks?

  • I think high car speed is a big issue…that was one of the big adjustments for me moving from Chicago to LA (where generally 30 mph is tops, with quite a few 25mph streets).

  • Wanderer

    Folks, putting a picture of a young child riding a bike on the sidewalk is putting your thumb on the scales of discussion. Nobody’s questioning children riding on the sidewalk. What’s being questioned is fast moving adults zipping through the sidewalks of commercial districts, often terrifying pedestrians (especially elderly ones);

    Since it seems necessary to say this every time anyone says anything that’s not competely laudatory of every bicyclist: The failings of bicyclists do not justify bad behavior by auto drivers; The failings of auto drivers do not justify bad behavior by bicyclists. Two wrongs still don’t make a right.

  • jennix

    Two comments:

    Cycling on the sidewalk is completely safe and reasonable so long as it’s done carefully, and that’s what the law says in the City of Los Angeles.

    The Idaho Stop is an idea which is both safe and realistic, and should be adopted in California law. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idaho_stop

  • OriginalGabriel

    Here’s the email I sent Walters in regards to his article:

    Mr. Walters, the two stories you used in your article to denigrate all cyclists reminded me of two stories that I’d like to tell you. In regards to the story about your friend, Ms. Abramson, I am reminded about a story of a friend of mine. It was late, and he was riding his bike in the bike lane, wearing a helmet, and with both front and rear lights; the next thing he knows, he is waking up in the Emergency Room at UC Davis. A motorist had drifted into the bicycle lane and struck him from behind, leaving him for dead on an empty street (while there was an anonymous call to 911, police never followed up with the caller). In regards to your encounter with a cyclist telling you to mind your own business (with f-bombs), I am reminded of a similar incident that happened to me. I was riding southbound down Alhambra, in the bike lane, when a northbound motorist, distracted by the phone conversation he was having (without a hands-free device), turned left and came within inches of hitting me; I yelled out “get off your phone” and continued on my way. The motorist ended up following me, cutting me off, and unleashing a tirade of insults, and curse words, justifying his illegal behavior by stating that he was a “family man”, and was “talking to my children”, and that I need to “get on the sidewalk”.

    Why do I bring these two stories up? Because these two stories are exactly the same as the two stories you told in your article; two stories of road users (regardless of their mode of transportation) breaking the law, and reacting poorly. Just as there are cyclists who break the law, there are motorists who break the law; and while recent studies show that a higher percentage of motorists break the law than do cyclists, in the media it is “all cyclists” who break the law (just because a minority do), while it’s “an individual motorist” who has broken a law (even though a larger minority does). The prejudice is overwhelmingly common regardless of city, state, or even country.

    Now, regarding cyclists “making motorists pick up the tab”, this has been disproven so many times it is comical to still see it brought up. Roads are not paid for in full by motorists; actually, in 2010 (the most recent data available), motorists fees in California contributed to only 22.7% of road costs (most of that going to interstate highways, which cyclists and pedestrians can’t use), which leaves the vast majority to be paid for with State, and local taxes, and Federal grants … all of which cyclists (and pedestrians, for that matter) pay for. So, in reality, it’s the motorists who are getting the handout, not the cyclists.

    So you’re right; fair is fair, with privileges come responsibility, and receiving respect means acting like you deserve it … regardless of your mode of transportation.

  • James

    When I lived in Portland and visited, SF, Berkeley or Oakland I was struck by how how fast traffic moved. It always seemed that people drove 10-15 mph faster than on similar streets in Portland, despite the usually high pop. density and worse congestion. Clearly decades of “performance” minded traffic engineering mad made its mark and turned the bay area’s central cities and the surrounding streetcar sprawl into something far more hostile than I was use to. I can remember the first time I rode my bike from the Emeryville station to Berkeley. For the first time in a decade I was scared onto the sidewalk. Chicago never did this to me, nor Toronto, but Berkeley scared the shit out of me. Things are even worst in southern california and sacramento. My local bike lanes in Huntington Beach are striped intermittently on streets with vehicle speeds of 50-65 mph. I don’t ride on the sidewalk (years of living in hell has toughened me up considerably) but the vast majority of cyclists I observe in northern OC and Long Beach are on the sidewalk. They are so poorly designed (and always fail us at intersections) and place you a few feet from or in front of highway speed traffic that few are brave enough to try. This piece of shit columnist should try taking the lane around here and then tell me what he thinks of sidewalk cyclists.

  • Alicia

    often terrifying pedestrians (especially elderly ones);

    I “terrified” an elderly pedestrian once. I was going no more than 5-10 mph and I signaled my presence, but that didn’t stop her from yelling at me. Using subjective feelings of fear isn’t always the best barometer of actual safety. I’ve also “terrified” lots of people who are walking along with headphones in both ears and don’t hear me coming.

    Personally I do not want to ride on any road with a speed limit of over 40 an hour. Most of the time I plan my route through side streets and avoid arterials, but when I have to ride along a higher speed arterial road, I use the sidewalk.

  • Wanderer

    My semi-disabled wife, who does not walk around wearing headphones, could tell you how many close calls she’s had with bicyclists on sidewalks. Your dismissive attitude towards this is not appreciated. Sidewalks, especially in crowded areas, are not the appropriate location for cyclists. There need to be safe ways for cyclists to travel on high speed arterials, but not at the expense of pedestrians.

  • Alicia

    I don’t know what it’s like in your community, or how crowded the sidewalks are. If you could clarify, how many bike/pedestrian collisions occur in the area where your wife walks?

    There need to be safe ways for cyclists to travel on high speed arterials, but not at the expense of pedestrians.

    In the long term, yes. But in the meantime, there will be plenty of political wrangling before that’s going to happen in most places.

  • Jim Brown

    I just spend the morning with Hilary Abramson, being interviewed on Capital Public Radio and talking afterwards, and she described how the bicyclists stopped to try to help her. The meme that this was a hit-and-run is ridiculous and needs to stop. In fact, Mrs. Abramson told me she did not agree with Walters’ column — I hope she tells him directly.

  • Kelly

    Amen, brother. I moved to California from the PNW too. I had never been afraid cycling until I came to California. Not only do the cars move too fast, but the people are hostile and will honk and hit.

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