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.
- 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.
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.
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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