The difference between pedestrians and cyclists

The difference between pedestrians and cyclists


*So far, all this is is an idea that I’m putting words to as they come into my head, and I’m hoping to open the floor to your thoughts on the matter, so let me hear your two cents in the comment section below.


Alan Davies mentioned something in his latest article for Crikey that got me thinking: aside from the obvious, what is the difference between pedestrians and cyclists, and what effect do, or more importantly, should, those differences have on how motorists treat them?

When I was a learner driver back in the day, it was drilled in to me that a driver has to give way to pedestrians at all times, no matter how unlawfully, foolishly or inconsiderately the pedestrian behaves.

I think we should be aiming for a road use culture where motorists are required to give extra attention to cyclists (and pedestrians) at all times in light of their greater vulnerability and the fact that some are children.

I figure that there is one key difference and one key similarity between pedestrians and cyclists. The key similarity is that they are just as vulnerable to injury and death at the hands of motorists. I don’t care what differences anyone can come up with. Nothing can trump this similarity. Pedestrians and cyclists are equally vulnerable to being injured and killed (mostly) at the hands of motorists. For that reason, and that reason alone, equal care should be taken around them, and that means that extra care should be expected from those with the potential for the greatest harm. That is the whole idea behind presumed liability (which I’ll leave at that for now).

As for the differences, I’m thinking mostly about how pedestrians and cyclists are seen differently on a moral level. Pedestrians are mostly neutral in the grand scheme of things. Probably because they have traditionally been kept apart. Subservient, in fact, but apart. They have been placed outside the concern of motorists, for the most part, and know that no matter what the rules say, if they step out of line, their family will have one less member. As a species they have learned, and act accordingly. They are not a concern. As a motorist, I do not need to get upset about them even when they mistakenly enter my world, such is the accepted hierarchy, the natural order of things. Their error in judgement was obviously a mistake, so I will get upset for a moment, but I will not go home and let my rage spill forth on the internet and shout at every pedestrian that I see while in my car.

Cyclists? They are intruders. They take the piss. They get in the way. They are unpredictable. They are scofflaws. They have no accountability. No regard. They dare to elevate themselves to the level of motorists. They are something that I, a motorist, has to deal with. I must change my behaviour in order to accommodate them, unlike the pedestrian. This shall not stand.

I find it odd that, even though at all but the most obvious pedestrian crossings that I come across, most drivers don’t even consider the fact that they legally have to give way to pedestrians. From what I have seen, pedestrians so often need to wait until there is a gap in the traffic in order to cross lanes that merge into others, even though they have priority. Here are two, which I pass through regularly enough:

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When some motorists do stop and let pedestrians cross, they seem to believe that they are doing a noble thing rather than something they are obliged to do, and have actually agreed to do as part of obtaining a driving license (I can identify that feeling in myself at times when I drive – not that we carry on about how great we are, but there is a feeling of bestowing kindness onto the pedestrian for recognizing that they exist. “I am a good person for stopping, because that person in front of me didn’t”, rather than, “I’m simply doing what I should be doing”). Rather than remembering that they have entered into a contract which includes submitting to the vulnerability of pedestrians generally, but also particularly at specific points on public roads, too many behave as if what they have received instead is a membership into an elite club where they reign supreme over all, given to believe that they are allowing pedestrians to pass at their discretion. Don’t get me wrong, most motorists aren’t terrible dickheads, but the belief has penetrated society on a deep enough level that almost everyone passively accepts this on some level.

But cyclists… those bloody cyclists.

Where does the fact that they are flesh and bone with hopes and dreams disappear to as people transition from pedestrian to cyclist? Where does the fact that cyclists are human and vulnerable sit on the scale of how important it is to treat them with due care versus how much you want to drive at the speed limit without diverging from your ideal path at all times?

Why do pedestrians get more respect – even tacit respect rather than actual respect (and that is another line of though that is interesting) than cyclists? Is it purely because they are not “in the way” as much? That pedestrians don’t threaten and infringe upon motorists claim to being the only deserving occupant of public highways? That there is an understanding that, if I let you cross the road, it is because I choose to and not because I have to? That I am good enough to allow it? Is it because cyclists dare to call themselves equals with motorists? That some cyclists show no special reverence for motorists? That they don’t pay rego?

And meanwhile, as we wonder what the difference is, both pedestrians and cyclists are being needlessly put in the hospital or morgue because of the way we have organized our society.

Should it matter that there are differences? What I mean is, how is the value of personal safety valued as compared to personal convenience? Even for pedestrians (or maybe especially), their world exists around the wants and needs of motorists. The rules have been set out. Pedestrians on the footpaths, motorists on the roads. Cross them only when the green man says so, and make sure it is safe before you do. If people are honest with what they believe (evidenced in how they react in a given situation), it is clear that if a pedestrian has been injured or killed, the view is usually that they should have been watching where they were going or it wouldn’t have happened. It seems that society has mostly accepted this arrangement, so the question of value doesn’t come up too often (though again, in places like NYC, it does, as pedestrians are routinely killed by motorists).

(It’s worth considering, however, that once cyclists reach a certain concentration levels, such as in places like Copenhagen, the same problems can arise between cyclists and pedestrians)

Cyclists tend to force the issue. They occupy the space in between, owning the vulnerability of the pedestrian and the rights of motorists, but also the same space. In the real world, while their vulnerability remains constant, the value of their personal safety changes with each passing motorist. There is a great amount of tension out there between not wanting to actually kill a cyclist (though many, many people will behave and speak like they do) and not really thinking that a cyclists presence really warrants them (motorists) being inconvenienced, even in their minds (eg, it is a common occurrence for drivers to accelerate past cyclists in order to get to the red light first – nothing gained except to alleviate the feeling that you’re not more important).

So I guess the question really comes down to this: given that cyclists are equally as vulnerable as pedestrians, or simply, vulnerable, do any actions of cyclists, from the worst, to those that are perfectly legal but compromise the dominance of cars on the road, have any effect on how much their safety is considered by those around them? Is there a question of giving them what they deserve, as in, I’ll consider your safety more because you are cowering in the gutter, or I’ll disregard your safety more because you are riding in the middle of the lane? Further, is it actually the same problem for pedestrians as cyclists, except that we have collectively controlled their actions to the point that they are not a real concern? Do we as a motoring society believe that in principle cyclists’ lives (and time) are worth as much as motorists, but that in reality it is really their choice as to how much they value it (because they choose to cycle rather than drive – ie, “well, you don’t have to put yourself in danger if you don’t want to…”)?

Anyways, get stuck in. I’m interested in hearing your perspectives.


Header image: source