It’s Time to Re-Think Walking Against Traffic

walking against traffic

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 that 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.


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By Wandering Justin

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


  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 .

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