by Our Bicycle Lives

How wonderfully adaptable and multi-talented the human species is! Biology and daily life will tell you, though, that we are not programmed for multitasking and suffer serious lapses of attention when we try it. So it is surprising that 21st century cities have successfully bred a species who seems to have escaped natural selection: the absent-minded pedestrian. Most distinctive behavioural traits: rushes, phones, dreams and occupies the space without being (all) there. On the whole, distracted drivers put others at risk. But distracted pedestrians, at the bottom of the food chain and at the top of the casualty list, will be so at their own cost. Contrary to the general perception, it is more dangerous to walk than to cycle in London.

I am well acquainted with this species: in fact, I am part of it! When I stepped in front of a bus last spring, my first thought was: ‘Thank goodness I did this stupid thing as a pedestrian and I wasn’t on my bike!’ It’s a funny thing being a pedestrian – and even more so a distracted pedestrian: it creeps up on me unawares. I need only step off my bicycle and push it along a one-way street to become one. As I’ve written elsewhere, away from London I am a pedestrian. I walk everywhere. So I feel a certain kinship between us. We share the same vulnerability, and the same dreams: reclaiming the streets to create a liveable London. The pedestrians’ charity Living Streets is working towards ‘safe, attractive and enjoyable streets’. Cyclists would love that too! I see us as natural allies and while I can’t identify with the need to drive, I can easily put myself in pedestrians’ shoes. Literally. According to the 2011 census figures, 42% of households in London (and 58% in an inner-city borough like Lambeth) do not own a car. Pedestrians are everyone: my friends, my work colleagues, my neighbours. So we wouldn’t want to antagonise them, would we?

Walk Your Bike

Pedestrian or Cyclist?

All the same, pedestrians don’t half irritate us! There is no love lost between us, only too many near-misses. I am wary of their erratic behaviour and live in fear of a nasty crash that will leave both of us worse off (NB: beware of daughters of ex-Russian spies!*). Our road layouts clearly breed conflicts: pedestrians and cyclists share the margins, the sides of the road, be it the gutter or the pavement, the same bit of grubby, badly maintained tarmac. So it’s no surprise that we come into frequent, conflicting contact and that we encroach on each others’ precious space. Parks and commons are another bone of contention, pedestrians feeling threatened by cyclists’ speed, cyclists feeling cheated of these quiet green spaces.

We’re very good at sticking to our respective side of the fence. ‘I was almost run over by a cyclist once’ is a complaint I’ve heard over and over. I sympathise: it is frightening. Of course, most cyclists know what they’re doing and won’t collide with you, but you don’t know that. A few years ago, a pedestrian punched me, presumably because I had scared him. I was indignant: the traffic lights were green and I was not putting him in any danger. But that was beside the point: like one of the readers of this blog who recently commented on Slow Cycling, I heard a little voice inside me. And it said: ‘You are faster. You have a duty of care towards the more vulnerable, no matter what they do, so be careful.’ In the same way that a car driver has a duty of care towards me, no matter what I do. This, I believe, is little understood and is why some road interactions fail miserably.

For me, a pedestrian is the person I was a few years ago: a potential cyclist. And how better to encourage them than by being extra courteous? This is how you do it: do something that many cyclists and motorists consider optional, for example, stop at a zebra crossing. They hesitate, they can’t quite believe it, then their eyes light up and they grin at you. ‘Good work! Thanks!’ someone once shouted. It was my turn to look inordinately pleased, and I have never forgotten this stranger’s kindness when I expected ruthlessness. To quote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching: ‘If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given.’

*See Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969)