Bicyclists, Pedestrians, Motorists: Can it Ever Work?

A peculiar sight, seen from the safe vantage of the pedestrian bridge over Henley Street: A middle-aged man on a bicycle, wearing a backpack, chased a northbound car, angrily shouting and banging his fist on the fender, swerving as he did. It was astonishing, a 21st-century Ben Hur moment.

It went on until the car accelerated into the tunnel to the interstate. The bicyclist swerved back onto Henley and vanished near Summit Hill.

What it meant was unclear. Just another skirmish in the bike vs. car wars, which have been escalating lately, with further involvement of a third insurgent faction, pedestrians. Non-motorized transportation hasn't been this popular since before World War II. That's probably a good thing, but it's also the reason for the friction.

There's one thing, and maybe only one thing, that we're all sure about and on which we can all agree: Those People think they own the road. Those People flout the laws, and ideals of courtesy, and prospects of mutual safety, and they have no respect for those who use some other means of transportation.

***

Everyone carries around their own complex idea of what's legal, and safe, and polite. Chances are, yours are slightly different from everybody else's. Some motorists will happily yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk if they're downtown, but will be startled and irritated with the same prospect on Kingston Pike. Some bicyclists will stop at stop signs, but will run a red light if there's nothing coming. Some pedestrians would never cross in the middle of a block, but might defy a red hand if it looks safe.

Your own complex set of rules for what you think is right and fair concerning motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians may be as individual as your fingerprint.

Everyone also carries his or her own individual set of opinions, experiences and resentments.

One thing bicyclists and pedestrians and motorists have in common is that when they complain about the other, they do so as if it's just one person, one who can be judged harshly by his inconsistent behavior. Moreover, they may assume that you represent the others in your transportation group and can speak for the miscreants in that group and then convey the criticism.

Motorists say bicyclists are arrogant and dangerous. Bicyclists say motorists are arrogant and dangerous. Both sometimes have issues with pedestrians. Pedestrians also have issues with them.

***

At this point, some full disclosure is in order.

I'm a bicyclist, if kind of a weird one by modern American standards. I've rarely cycled recreationally. I own no cycling togs, and have never had water bottle mounted on my frame. Still, for about 25 years, I commuted to work mainly by bicycle, about 12 miles a day, partly on bike trails, partly in neighborhoods, partly in commercial strips. I've ridden tens of thousands of miles, just within Knoxville. For years, it was how I was most readily recognized at parties. "You're the guy who rides a bike." My white Raleigh was the only bike parked on Gay Street or on Market Square. It doesn't stand out like it used to.

For what it's worth, the worst injury I've ever sustained in my life was in a bicycle wreck, my fault. It bought me a couple of days in a hospital and a long scar.

It could have been worse. Jeff Roth, whose death on Highway 321 in Blount County eight years ago put his name on a state law to protect bicyclists and on a foundation to promote cycling safety, was a friend of mine. We never cycled together—we were the same age, but he was a more athletic, better equipped, and frankly more safety-minded cyclist than I ever was. I've cheered everything that's been done in his name, especially the three-foot standard for passing a bicycle with a car.

I'm also a pedestrian. Last Friday evening, my daughter and I walked from Gay Street to UT's Clarence Brown Theatre for the opening of Monty Python's Spamalot, a pleasant 15-minute stroll I've made many times. We had a picnic supper in World's Fair Park on the way. If a meeting is within a mile of my office, sometimes even two miles, I'm most likely to walk to it. For me, it's just easier to walk out the door and down the sidewalk than think about unparking and reparking a damn car and dealing with traffic in between. Walking usually doesn't take much longer, and it's always more interesting. Considering our hiking culture, I don't know why others don't. The University of Tennessee, Happy Holler, Mechanicsville, even parts of South Knoxville—these are all places easy to walk to from Gay Street. At the request of the Transportation Planning Organization, I've led several annual pedestrian excursions to point out the pedestrian options.

But here's my dirty secret: I also drive a great deal. Every time I do my taxes, I do the math and realize how many hundreds of miles I've been driving over the year on freelance projects. I drive several times a month, especially when I have a reporting job that takes me into the countryside, or on weekends, when I do the family grocery shopping. Today I'm not a member of any bicycling or walking organization, but I'm a card-carrying member of the American Automobile Association. And I've been the driver in about four wrecks, one of which caused me significant injury. I have just been lucky that they've been wrecks with cars and trucks, never with bicycles or pedestrians.

Still, most of the mileage I cover in a typical commuting week is as a passenger on a KAT bus.

I have become an unreliable advocate for any one faction, or any one answer. But here's what I've concluded: Some people are jerks, some people are ignorant, and some people are dangerously careless. Whether that quotient is any higher among bicyclists or pedestrians or drivers remains unclear.

And we haven't gotten a grip on combining all these transportation options, in terms of laws and access options.

***

On a Saturday afternoon in January, an elderly couple was standing at the corner of Gay Street and Church Avenue, waiting for the light to cross to a show at the Tennessee Theatre. They were not up on the curb, but at the rounded corner, on pavement but out of the lanes of traffic. They appeared to be in their 80s, and maybe getting off the curb before crossing the street on old knees, in the required 20-second interval, made crossing Gay Street seem a little less daunting.

A young bicyclist in lycra came speeding down Gay, turning west on Church. He apparently wanted to cut the curve shorter than the cluster of older folks allowed him.

"You're in the street!" he barked in an angrily commanding tone to this couple at least three times his age. He could be demanding, maybe insulting, as any motorist ever is, for only one reason: He was going fast. His speed was the only source of his authority. He would never have to confront his minions, never have to answer a response.

More than in any other forum except perhaps the Internet, the faster forms of transportation offer a freedom to insult strangers, and maybe blow off some personal steam, or just register one's presence in a dramatic fashion. And then they can get away with it by running away. Feel bold and defiant for a moment. Then flee.

The same people would never make a similar gesture on Market Square. In half a century of walking around Knoxville, no pedestrian has ever flipped me the bird. Pedestrians don't moon, or blow horns, or shout insults at strangers. If they did, they'd have to be accountable for it.

Some car/pedestrian or bike/pedestrian hostility is so random that you wonder whether the transportation choice even has anything to do with it. Maybe it's just that some transportation choices allow an avenue for venting personal frustrations.

***

We resist blanket solutions with our variety. There are bicyclists who obey the traffic rules of automobiles, and those who don't. Judging by the Gay Street intersection I can see from my office window, the latter form a majority.

In certain neighborhoods, mainly children ride bikes, and a driver may happily offer them the same consideration given loose cocker spaniels. Suburban routes often see an athlete on a high-performance bike, perhaps one even fit enough to keep up with automobile traffic. But in town, bicycles present such a biodiversity of sub-species as to suggest some should be classified with different names. There are hipsters on old-fashioned one-gear Schwinns, perhaps with baskets. There are tourists on rental bikes, also one-gear models. There are teenagers on trick bikes, doing stunts on Market Square. There are the athletes who look like French racers, and hobbyists with expensive bikes with 21 or more gear ratios. There are earnest commuters, making no statements nor expecting to have much fun today, just trying to get there. In some poor and working-class neighborhoods, adults ride small bicycles, even kids' bikes, because it's faster than walking.

Some prefer to ride on the sidewalk, even if traffic is light on the adjacent street. Some prefer to ride in traffic, even if there's a parallel bike trail 10 feet away.

Can the same guidelines ever apply to all of them? Should we even use the same word for them?

Some individual bicyclists change with time. In my 20s, into my 30s, I pedaled hard down Cumberland Avenue and through Bearden on Kingston Pike, proud I could keep up with traffic. After a few more years, and a few more pounds, and a few more wrecks, I began riding more like a Dublin fruit-seller, much happier along the gutter, walking up the steepest hills, stopping now and then to let traffic pass.

The typical cruising speed of the fastest bicyclist on the road may be three times faster than that of the slowest bicyclist.

***

Even a specific, single issue as simple as bicycles on sidewalks is fraught with complication. After encountering a loon who risks near-misses with pedestrians but is timid about joining slow and light traffic in the street, an observer might readily ban bicycles from sidewalks forever. But would doing so force night-time or rainy-day cyclists onto main automobile thoroughfares?

***

Bicycle advocates have presented a consistent message that bicycles are, legally, vehicles, and obliged to follow the same rules as other vehicles.

But there are several footnotes to that standard, so many that one might question the basic premise. In Knoxville, as in most cities, bicycles are vehicles that are allowed on sidewalks and on greenways. Motorized vehicles are not. Motorized vehicles are allowed on interstate highways. Bicycles are not. Interstates were planned at a time when petroleum was cheap, American, and seemingly unlimited, and few adults rode bicycles. Interstates not only banned bikes, but sliced up the city, making parts of it much harder to navigate by any means other than automobile.

Bicycles are vehicles that do not require either a driver's license or vehicle registration. Both those facts make law enforcement problematic.

And all automobiles have rear bumpers and bright brake lights and turn signals. Brake lights in particular have been required for several decades, and they've evolved, mostly through safety-oriented legislation, to be brighter and bigger than they used to be. Since 1986, every car has to have a third brake light, centered and above the other two.

Bicycles, which are much smaller and less visible than cars to begin with, don't have brake lights at all. Most motorists who've been driving for more than a few years have been involved in a fender-bender or just a bumper-bumping, when one car isn't quite able to stop in time. It can be a much more serious issue when a bicyclist is involved. It's one logical reason motorists may always be uncomfortable sharing lanes with bicycles.

Bicycles are vehicles, yes, but vehicles that are unable to approach the speed limit, even in most neighborhoods. In weight, in top speed, in freedom from licensure, in visibility, and especially in vulnerability, bicyclists have much more in common with pedestrians than with motorists.

***

As a bicyclist, I've dealt with dangerous and illegal drivers. I know what a cup of ice feels like when it hits your face at 45 mph. (It's been a while, fortunately.) More often, people yell stuff, perhaps unaware that it's hard to discern what an accelerating yeller is yelling. It's always a very frustrating conversation. Once I think one young man shouted, "Your book sucks!," leaving me to wonder, which book? And what about it did he find so objectionable? I wanted to know, and shall never.

And more times than I could count, riding a bike, I've been cut off, had to brake too suddenly for a car that pulled right in front of me and stopped. All I can figure is that some motorists regard all bicyclists as obstacles that must be passed at all costs, even if the motorist is about to stop or turn.

Once when that happened, I hit the rear bumper of a Camaro, flew over my handlebars and sprawled face down onto the car's back window, alarming a carload of college girls.

The worst kind of driver is the one who's hostile. The second worst is the careless driver. The third worst may be the one who thinks he's being friendly, and makes up laws to help you. Sometimes cars with the right of way stop to wave me across, in effect demanding that I illegally run a stop sign—or, if I'm walking, to jaywalk. I never know how to respond. If they'd continued at speed, I could have crossed faster than dealing with the awkwardness of being sure of what they want me to do. Sometimes I'd go ahead and cross, just to gratify them. But on a couple of occasions, while doing so, I've crossed, only to be almost hit by another driver who's legally passing the extraordinarily polite driver.

***

As a driver, I have issues with bicyclists, and my decades of bicycle commuting don't always help me sympathize. Once I was driving a sick kid to the doctor, who'd said he could squeeze us in if we got there right away. I found myself on a winding two-lane road, with double-yellow lines, behind a cyclist—apparently a recreational one, judging by the athletic wear and lack of luggage. He would not yield. If he noticed the traffic backing up behind him, it didn't bother him much. I imagined what he was thinking, pedaling hard, 18 in a 45 zone. He seemed to have achieved a Zen state. He was perhaps chanting a mantra: "My glutes, my abs, my core, my glutes, my abs, my core …"

Once, a well-meaning acquaintance who's not a bicyclist gave me a souvenir with the motto: "Keep calm and pedal on." But it just made me think of that guy. Maybe a bicyclist should be aware of problems he's causing to his fellow citizens, even if that knowledge renders him uncalm. And maybe, sometimes, he should not pedal on. Maybe he should pull over. Let the cars pass, and start again.

There's an assumption that no one needs to get there any faster than a bicyclist can. When my wife drove me to the ER after my bike injury, and my forearm was a bag of broken bones, I was grateful we didn't encounter a cyclist who was calm and pedaling on.

I'm told that some bicycle-rights activists stage events on the theory that even getting in the way increases awareness of bicyclists, and with awareness comes respect.

I first heard that theory in 1978. It seemed plausible then, but I have since concluded it has some psychological flaws. Things have not gotten better. It's been a long time since anything has been thrown at me, but my impression, just from talking with non-cycling motorists, is that they've gotten a lot more prickly about bicyclists than they were 30 years ago.

More bikes, more friction. Even in famously bike-friendly cities, there have been episodes of car/bicycle road rage that don't necessarily bode well for easy solutions.

***

And as a pedestrian, I've often been crossing a street with the light, even with a walk signal, and been forced to dodge a turning car, and, more than once, a KAT bus.

And I've been a motorist at that same intersection, which through a car windshield seems an altogether different place, wondering if those happy, ambling, oblivious pedestrians are going to let me turn or make me wait through still another red light. And trying not to apply that theory that a baseball game could last forever.

This seems to me a basic traffic-engineering dysfunction. The light for a pedestrian to cross is almost always the same light that tells drivers, who may have been waiting longer than the pedestrian, that they can turn Now. And their opportunity to turn is limited not just by pedestrians but by oncoming traffic. If they don't turn now, they may have to wait for another light and perhaps encounter the same scene over again.

Several years ago, many cheered the crosswalk timing lights added downtown, until we learned how inconsistent they are. Some allow a much-longer crossing time, per foot of road crossed, than others. The rule is that we're not to start crossing unless the walking symbol is glowing, but with most crossings, that's only a few seconds. With the heavily used Summit Hill crossing, it's on for literally three seconds per 90-second cycle. Sneeze, and you'll miss it. It's always flashing red by the time you get to the median. Does that mean you're supposed to wait there until the next light? These questions may have legal answers, but I've puzzled a few transit professionals with them.

I've been a bicyclist, a motorist, and a pedestrian. I have a general prejudice in favor of the more vulnerable forms of transportation. I believe we'd all be better off if more people walked or bicycled. But in terms of cars and pedestrians and bicyclists, there are a lot of gray areas.

I experienced a crisis of faith a few months ago. I was driving down Locust Street on a Saturday morning, crested the hill, and saw a green light at Clinch. And a guy with his young daughter walked right out in front of me. Deliberately—he didn't even start crossing until I was driving toward my green light. He was on the crosswalk, yes, but the big red hand on the sign was telling him Don't Walk. I wasn't going very fast, and was able to drive around them. To him, that wasn't enough. He shouted at me, "Yield to pedestrians!" he said. Perhaps he thought I should have stopped at my green light out of respect for the jaywalking habit he was teaching his daughter. I was, to him, part of the senseless enemy automobile machine.

Except in the case of the wandering homeless, it was the first time I'd ever encountered a situation like that. The second was just weeks later, I was driving up Church, waiting for the light at Gay. The light turned green, and just as I was easing on the gas, an affluent-looking young couple walked right in front of me. I gave them a toot on the horn. They held their ground and gave me a "What's your problem, old man?" look.

There's a widespread belief that pedestrians always have the right of way, and can walk in front of cars at any crossing, regardless of whether the car's light is red, green, or yellow.

Maybe it's prudent for drivers to assume that's so. If pedestrians believe it devoutly, they may die soon. I've checked with the authorities, including local pedestrian advocates. If I had hit them, and could prove that my light was green, I'd have the stronger case. But I might crawl into a hole and stop driving and walking both.

Maybe education can make things better, as we always say. Signal timings can be adjusted. Incremental improvements, like additions of bike lanes, will help.

For now, at whatever speed, everybody carries a complex set of rules in their own minds. That may be true even for judges and policemen—one's personal rules overlap with, but are almost never identical to, the rules established and codified as the law.

At least, that's my impression, but it's just one point of view. There are about 180,000 others in Knoxville alone, each slightly different from the others. That's what makes it troublesome, and sometimes interesting.


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