It’s Time to Re-Think Walking Against Traffic

walking against traffic

UPDATE: June 28, 2023

I get a LOT of comments on this post. Very few people leaving comments, though, seem to make it to the ultimate conclusion. I get it — it’s long and there’s a lot of links. Here’s what I ultimately hope people take away from it:

  • This post is from the perspective of a cyclist. People walking against traffic on multi-user paths and roads without sidewalks are a problem on nearly every ride for me, and other cyclists have similar experiences.
  • Drivers are a hazard for cyclists and pedestrians alike.
  • We need better infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, electric scooter riders, inline skaters, etc. to protect them from drivers.
  • I’m unconvinced that, when viewed in the context of all the non-car transit options, that having pedestrians walk against traffic is the best option for all users. (“All users” is a key phrase here.)

OK, onto the entire article, then.

Every single time I ride my bike on streets that don’t have sidewalks, I encounter people walking against traffic. This has the effect of pushing me out into traffic that might be overtaking me or coming my way on the opposite side.

Even worse, one some less-traveled streets, a walker (or a group of them) will not yield space and force me across the centerline like you see in this video.

So Why Are People Walking Against Traffic?

Two reasons: 1) It’s actually the law in many places and 2) back in the ol’ timey days when people had to crank-start their cars, it might’ve been OK. Here’s a quote from the LA Times:

Paul Snodgrass, a highway safety specialist for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, sees it differently, however. The idea of walking against traffic, he says, is “an old country adage” stemming from a time when the nation was much more rural and crisscrossed with country roads featuring far fewer cars and a lot more pedestrians.

This is also a practice that makes pedestrians feel in control of the situation. Their argument goes like this:

“I can see the cars and take evasive action. COMMON SENSE!”

If a car is coming at you at 40 mph and makes a last-second swerve, do you REALLY think you can avoid that in time? Look at the guy in the video again: He has a cyclist coming toward him — the cyclist is ringing a bell and flashing a 600-lumen light at him. Does he look agile or aware enough to evade a car?

After cycling tens of thousands of miles and being around runners who have put in as many miles, I can tell you with certainty that not one of us has ever avoided a car at the last second when facing traffic. This alleged “common sense” doesn’t hold up under any scrutiny.

The practice of walking against traffic isn’t solving any problems, and it’s probably creating other hazards.

Reasons Not to Walk Against Traffic

Rolling Right Turns

American drivers love rolling through stop signs. Just go to an intersection of any size. Observe.

Only a tiny fraction will come to a full stop before going straight, turning left or turning right.

And those right turns are a frequent cause of near misses. When a driver rolls a stop sign while taking a right, they’re not going to see a wrong-way walker and the walker has no time to adjust. 

Inconsistency Leads to Confusion on Other Infrastructure

Also, most multi-user paths have everyone (cyclists, runners, walkers, scooters, whatever) on the same side of the path if they’re going in the same direction. I’ve encountered more than a few people walking on the wrong side because they think that’s where they’re supposed to be. This guy on a skateboard is a perfect example.

The keys to traffic safety for everyone are consistency and predictability. Telling people “ride with traffic, walk against it, except for these few situations here, here and here” makes the situation less-predictable for all involved. (NOTE: I also get irate at cyclists who ride against traffic.)

More Moving Points to Track

Here’s another factor: If you have cyclists and pedestrians going opposite each other on the same side of a street, you introduce more moving points for everyone to track. This is especially difficult for drivers and cyclists to track since they’re moving at a higher speed.

Again, we also have to consider a few other factors: 1) the proliferation of electric scooters/eBikes and 2) the likelihood that they’re going to ride opposite traffic because they think it’s safer because they also want to be able to watch oncoming traffic. This is a recipe for user conflict and accidents.

What Do Pedestrians Think?

It varies. But there are a few refreshingly intelligent answers in this Quora thread, including this one:

Having walked more than 60,000 km in all kind of roads (I am 63), when NO sidewalk and escape route is available (as in many country roads), walking by facing the traffic will only help to witness your own injury or death.

Assume that you walk opposite to traffic at a speed of 5 km /hr against a car moving at 45 km/hr. The combined speed of approach is 5+45= 50 km/hr. Walking with the traffic at the same speed, the combined speed of approach is 40 km/hr.

Speed of 50 km/hr equals to 14 m/sec. 40 km/hr equals to 11 m/sec. It means that a reckless or careless driver/rider will have more reaction time and distance available before hitting you when you walk with the traffic, and he will hit you with 10 km/hr less speed. Those 10 km less (or 20+ if you are jogging or running) may prove crucial for your survival.

I’m not convinced there will be a huge difference in impact as he asserts. But the guy has definitely put in the miles to otherwise have some credibility.

Is There Any Research?

There’s a Finnish study that some articles cite. The study is weak, though, for a few reasons:

  • The sample size is small
  • It doesn’t address how walking against traffic impacts other users
  • It’s old, predating the increase in outdoor recreation caused by eBikes, motorized scooters and increased bike sales. It also predates a large spike in smartphone use. These factors combined make it outdated.
walking against traffic
I found this on a government website about a study about walking on rural roads. It somehow concludes that this is a good practice. I don’t see how this looks right to anyone.
  • It also says the impact is greater on primary roads versus secondary roads. Here in the US, primary roads are signaled and most have sidewalks. It’s secondary roads where our problem is greater.

The reporters who covered this issue acted as stenographers — they dutifully took down notes but didn’t dig deeper. Maybe results would’ve been different had they been cyclists or runners themselves. But that’s not how it shook out, as usual.

That there’s not more research into this in the U.S. is typical: Culturally, we just don’t give a shit about pedestrians or cyclists. Cars are king. (Side note: The overwhelming majority of issues I have with people walking against traffic occur in Paradise Valley, which is a blueprint for municipal hostility against cyclists. Its pedestrian infrastructure should also earn it notoriety. Absolutely awful.)

Also, nearly every quote in news articles about walking against traffic focuses solely on runners. It doesn’t factor in any impact on other users. That would be great if bikes didn’t exist. Bad news, though: We do. 

Aside from omitting cyclists from the equation, the practice of walking against traffic assumes that the pedestrian is going to walk in a way that’s safe for everyone. I have way too much video footage to the contrary.

We can’t trust pedestrians to exhibit situational awareness. 

It’s an Old Practice and Outdated Law

Back in the Model T days, we didn’t have nearly as many people on bicycles. We didn’t have runners. We didn’t have electric scooters, eBikes and the plethora of other devices that are common on roads, bike lanes and sidewalks.

Cyclists see wrong-way walkers as wild cards, an unpredictable variable that adds even more chaos to an environment where we deal with distracted drivers and open hostility. 

walking against traffic
Walking againt traffic might’ve been a workable solution at one point. But we need to find better ways to keep cyclists and pedestrians safe from cars.

In light of our current road situation, it’s time to remove the variable and quit giving pedestrians false confidence that walking against traffic is safer.

UPDATE: As I was riding today, it occurred to me that cars and drivers are the real problem. Cyclists are worried, above all, about getting hit by drivers. People walking the wrong way increase their odds of being hit by drivers by moving us closer to vehicle traffic. Pedestrians are worried about getting hit by cars, so they want to see them coming so they can get out of the way (whether they actually can or not is subject to debate).

So clearly, the real answer here is to invest significantly in updated infrastructure. That means more protected bike lanes. That means more sidewalks. Another part of the equation is stopping the practice of letting drivers off the hook for injuring and killing cyclists and pedestrians.

Final Thoughts

I know this is going to bother a lot of people. Most cyclists, on the other hand, will agree, along with the plurality of serious runners. That’s because the “common sense” people love to chirp about is no substitute for tens of thousands of miles of experience running or riding. It’s a dressed-up way of saying “my gut instinct that I’ll stick to no matter what.”

The more time you spend navigating cars and pedestrians walking against traffic, the more you’ll realize that wrong-way walking isn’t solving anything.

The only viable argument is that it’s currently the law in many places. That doesn’t mean it’s smart, though, and it’s time for jurisdictions to revisit it. And that’s what I’m asking — for city planners to start researching this practice considering the scope of other users, from cars to bikes to skateboards. If it turns out to be right, then we stick with it. But let’s not keep doing things because we’ve been doing it that way for a long time.

 

This post just might contain affiliate links. Fear not, they’re non-spammy and benign. Hey, I have to keep this thing running somehow!

By Wandering Justin

Writer. Traveler. Gastronomic daredevil. Fitness fan. Homebrewer. Metal dude \m/. Cat and dog lover.

21 comments

  1. I still believe pedestrians walking against traffic ***on the right side of the road*** is safer for them cars and bicyclists.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. So you’re in Arizona? Do you know the Kieransbullshit blog?

  2. You’re welcome. Yes, I’m from Arizona — every ride is a sweatfest from May to September. 😀 Can’t say I’m familiar with that blog. I’ll have to check it out.

    That could be down to the infrastructure where we live and ride. But here, people walking against traffic are my number-one cause of near misses. I’ve thought about doing a monthly compilation of my camera footage. Unfortunately, I am REALLY lazy about sifting through the clips.

    And thanks for YOUR visit!

  3. I hear your frustration, but I think you are wrong. Much of your frustration appears to come from the presence of pedestrians on roads–regardless of which side they are on–as well as some of their inconsiderate behavior. Switching sides would not solve the problem. In the first video you posted, the same person walking the other direction on that side of the road would have caused the same problem for you. The biggest issue here is that pedestrians on roads are a hazard. We need pedestrian lanes, i.e., sidewalks, to separate vehicles and bodies. That’s the only real way to solve this. The question of direction is a very low-level attempt to make it safer for pedestrians when that option is not there.

    You say that a pedestrian would not have a chance to get out of the way if a car is coming at them at 40 MPH. That’s certainly true if they do not try until the last second, but if you see that the car is not moving over before they get to you, you have a possible few seconds to move off the road. I know; I’ve done it. I am convinced that I am better off being able to see what is coming toward me.

    The Finnish study you cited is less than 10 years old. That is not too old to be relevant. There is also a Taiwanese study from a couple of years ago with a much larger sample size that also supports the idea that facing traffic is safer for pedestrians (less likely to be hit and less likely to suffer severe injury if hit).

    It is not clear to me in all this, however, if this is best for those on bikes. You might be right that the outcome for bikers would be better if pedestrians were on the other side of the road, but I would need more convincing for that. But it is clear that for me as a pedestrian, facing traffic offers me a somewhat greater chance of getting back home in one piece.

  4. My thinking right now is that there should be better pedestrian and bike infrastructure. That’s really the solution rather than getting pedestrians to move with traffic.

    One of the effects of having them walk against traffic, though, is that they continue that habit on multi-use paths were cars aren’t present. That’s a problem.

    About this: “You say that a pedestrian would not have a chance to get out of the way if a car is coming at them at 40 MPH. That’s certainly true if they do not try until the last second, but if you see that the car is not moving over before they get to you, you have a possible few seconds to move off the road. I know; I’ve done it. I am convinced that I am better off being able to see what is coming toward me.”

    I’ll bet I’ve dodged salmoning pedestrians way more often. I’ll also point out that it doesn’t address pedestrians being hit by drivers turning right. (That’s the biggest problem with cyclists going against traffic.)

  5. Walking , running or biking against traffic is a terrible practice . Most people who drive are sober and in control thus coming at oncoming traffic is abrupt giving less response time for safe passing . This is especially true cresting a hill or coming around a corner or curve in the road . The recommendation to the Walker / runner is to move with traffic in those cases . The switching from one side of the street to another is just another complication to confuse matters more . As a. Avid walkover and driver I have experienced moving with traffic to be the safest practice for all .

  6. Thanks for your thoughts. I have to disagree. I am 55 now and on my 13th birthday while traveling against traffic, I fell into the road. I saw a car in front of me and quickly rolled to the side. I guess I probably would’ve done that if I was on the other side of the road also, but maybe not as quickly. Also, you stated that cars travel a lot faster now and maybe it doesn’t matter now however bikes travel a lot slower. If people are walking against bikes they see them coming and move over. At least that’s what I do.

  7. Boy is the reasoning in this ‘blog’ ever flawed. You have little chance to get out of the way of a car approaching at 40mph, so you might as well walk with traffic and have zero chance of getting out of the way! How about this then: I show you two guns, I tell you one has a full chamber of 6 bullets, and the other has only 5, which should I point at you and fire? Anyone would take the 5, at least you have a chance. BMC Public Health conducted a study of 14,382 pedestrian vs vehicle accidents between 2011-2016, of that number 10,749 involved people walking WITH traffic and 3633 walked against. Also the most fatalities and severe head injuries incurred with those walking with traffic (obviously because those walking against can at least try to get out of the way). Your bike is considered a motor vehicle, so yes you should move onto the roadway, where you belong. The worst part is seeing mothers pushing strollers with traffic, I thought mothers were suppose to protect their children, but then by your reasoning you have no chance anyway so might as well close your eyes and hope for the best.

    Study: https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-7588-1

  8. I appreciate that you mentioned the BMC study, and I’ll be sure to have a look at it. Your gun analogy, though, is patently ridiculous. A few other points from my first look:

    1. Per the study “Our study is not without limitations. Similar to other studies that have relied on police-reported crash data, one major limitation of our study is that some crucial variables were unavailable. For example, data on intoxicated pedestrians were unavailable; alcohol use by pedestrians may play a role in injury risks, but such data were unavailable in our study. Research [31] has suggested that alcohol increased pedestrian crashes and the resulting injury severity; Fontaine and Gourlet [8] further indicated that intoxicated pedestrians were overinvolved in crashes while walking along streets.” The study also cited age as a factor, which is a vector for poor situational awareness.

    2. The study doesn’t cite any statistics on bike/pedestrian crashes, injuries and near misses (the last one is hard to track, I admit). It also doesn’t provide context for road type and the type of pedestrian/cycling infrastructure. Cyclist/pedestrian interaction is the main point of this post.

    3. It’s a study of crashes in Taiwan. I’d like to see a study more applicable to U.S. infrastructure, traffic law and driving habits.

    4. “Your bike is considered a motor vehicle, so yes you should move onto the roadway, where you belong.” Ummm, I always ride in the roadway. Bikes like mine are not meant for tootling along on a sidewalk. What made you think any differently?

    5. You should have also noticed these important lines toward the end of my post: “So clearly, the real answer here is to invest significantly in updated infrastructure. That means more protected bike lanes. That means more sidewalks. Another part of the equation is stopping the practice of letting drivers off the hook for injuring and killing cyclists and pedestrians.” Can we agree on that?

    I think it’s less that my reasoning is flawed and more than I’m bringing up something that you simply don’t care about. Wrong-way walkers are an ongoing problem for cyclists, on roads, multiuser paths and bike-specific infrastructure alike. If you’re not a cyclist, it’s probably something that’s not on your radar. That’s fair. But it’s definitely an issue for cyclists.

  9. (I hope this message doesn’t double post. It didn’t appear after I posted it, so I’m trying a second time.)

    I also have to strongly disagree with this article. All resources I can find online aside from this post indicate that walking against traffic is safest.

    In some of your replies to others here you’ve made a point that others are only talking about very specific situations and not thinking about the wider picture, e.g. “is there some reason you think what happened to you when you were 13 applies universally to all infrastructure and situations?”

    Well, let’s look at your own example. “If a car is coming at you at 40 mph and makes a last-second swerve, do you REALLY think you can avoid that in time?” Isn’t that an awfully limited specific scenario? Suppose the car was coming at you at 30 MPH, or 20 MPH, or 10 MPH. Suppose it’s a parking lot, driveway, drive-thru or parking garage. What about self-preservation in those scenarios?

    Suppose the driver is drunk and obviously swerving a half mile up the road, which you wouldn’t see at all if you were walking the wrong way!

    Suppose you spot an accident or other obstacle that could cause drivers to swerve or behave oddly, and it gives you a chance to adjust your walking behavior long before you get to where it could cause you trouble.

    Suppose the proliferation of electric cars means our vehicles get quieter and quieter, until they’re right behind you without your knowledge.

    Have you truly considered and addressed all of these scenarios?

    You downplayed another comment’s example of loaded guns, but let’s talk about the point he was getting at: it sure sounds like you’re saying that if a car swerves at you at 40 MPH, you’re dead anyway, so who cares if you’re facing it or not. Do you really, truly believe that in the great majority of cases, there’s NO action you could take to help slightly mitigate the damage even? I know that for specific circumstances, maybe there’s nothing that can be done. But have you really considered the multitude of things a person might be able to attempt? Dodging, rolling, leaping, running full tilt the opposite way, even simply bracing for impact to protect their head…none of these are even options if you’re facing the wrong way. You’re saying people should consider placing themselves in a scenario with zero options, rather than a few desperate unlikely ones? Or if you’re not saying that, what are you saying?

    Look at things from another point of view. Given the choice, while walking along railroad tracks, would you rather see a train coming toward you, or have one come up from behind you? If you’re at a driving or shooting range, would you prefer to keep the golfers or gunners in view, or is it safest to keep your back to them at all times (since, after all, getting shot in the head kills you either way)? And if the answer is different because surely no cyclists would be involved here, doesn’t that say a lot about the focus of this post?

  10. You obviously didn’t read the conclusion. Here it is for your convenience:

    “UPDATE: As I was riding today, it occurred to me that cars and drivers are the real problem. Cyclists are worried, above all, about getting hit by drivers. People walking the wrong way increase their odds of being hit by drivers by moving us closer to vehicle traffic. Pedestrians are worried about getting hit by cars, so they want to see them coming so they can get out of the way (whether they actually can or not is subject to debate).

    So clearly, the real answer here is to invest significantly in updated infrastructure. That means more protected bike lanes. That means more sidewalks. Another part of the equation is stopping the practice of letting drivers off the hook for injuring and killing cyclists and pedestrians.”

    What exactly do you disagree with here?

    Just curious, too: What’s your experience as a cyclist dealing with cars, pedestrians, electric scooters, etc.? Tell me your mileage over the last five years. What sort of infrastructure do you usually use?

  11. Your response dodges every question entirely. The point is that you criticized others for not thoroughly examining possible scenarios, while simultaneously not doing enough examination and reflection on further possibilities yourself. If the fact that you refuse to acknowledge the validity of such questions reflects some mild embarrassment at not previously considering such things, then that’s fine, it’s not as if this is a formal debate or anything.

    But it seems you are implying that your “update” at the end was meant to invalidate the entire rest of the post, that casual googlers and visitors are no longer allowed to critically examine the substance of the rest of the post. If it is somehow wrongheaded or no longer properly reflects your views on the subject, then perhaps it ought to be further edited or taken down. Otherwise, well…if someone sees a post that says “Dogs are bad pets; UPDATE: actually pet owners are the problem,” I think they’re allowed to continue to take issue with the first statement.

  12. I also noticed that you dodged my follow-up questions entirely.

    And no, the update doesn’t invalidate the rest of it. It shows where my thought process started and where it wound up. It provides context and nuance to the conclusion. Explain how it’s “wrongheaded” to reconsider infrastructure and practices that no longer work well. That’s what I’m advocating for — rethinking and improvement of how we handle non-motorized traffic.

    Maybe you’re not grasping this, but I’ve considered the other scenarios other people have mentioned. My opinions are just weighted more heavily in favor of cyclists.

    And seriously, exactly what makes you think you have any right to tell me what to edit or take down on my personal website?

  13. This is why I will walk on the grass in lieu of a sidewalk. It’s municipal property, anyway

  14. I agree with your article and I was taught to walk with traffic in kindergarten. It was explained to us clearly, that especially as a small child, being potentially blinded by oncoming traffic could cause you, the pedestrian to walk into traffic accidentally. Also, humans have necks that allow us to look over our shoulders, as our teacher explained, make a habit of checking your surroundings and if you think you may in the path of a vehicle, you have a better chance if you DON’T shorten the distance between yourself and the car unnecessarily. You have a higher chance of finding an obstacle in front of you, away from the incoming vehicle.

  15. I don’t understand why bikers or pedestrians show go with the traffic. Back in the dark ages I was taught to ride my bike against the traffic so I could see what was coming at me

  16. It’s not just about what *you* see. It’s about what *drivers* see. Drivers turning right into bikes riding against traffic is one of the most-frequent causes of bike/car crashes. Riding against traffic is against the law for that reason in many jurisdictions. That also means if you’re riding against traffic and get hit, the driver won’t get cited or prosecuted, and you certainly won’t win a lawsuit against them.

  17. Lol this author must be a rage bait troll or a complete moron. Other commentators have already tried convince him with logic.

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