If you’re a cyclist in London, it was hard to miss the news recently of cyclist Charlie Alliston and his conviction for hitting and killing a pedestrian. The news was a hot topic amongst cyclist circles, though mainly because of the disproportionate charge and media attention compared to when motorists hit pedestrians and cyclists. Motorists are indeed worse than cyclists, both in the frequency with which they cause crashes and bodily harm, but also the scale of damage they cause when they do it. You can find many articles and discussions about this, including this post that compares this case with coverage of vehicle crashes.
But this case caught my attention not only for that reason. In the follow up to the news, I didn’t really see much rational discussion of the responsibility that cyclists have to be safe both for themselves and others. I say rational, because in contrast to the many cyclists pointing to the damage motorists cause, there are also plenty of people who used this case to chastise cyclists. Just like all motorists don’t speak for one motorist who causes an accident, it doesn’t make sense to ask all cyclists to speak for the behaviour of one. But, I was struck by the words of defense both by Charlie Alliston himself, but also others talking about the case, particularly in this article.
As both a cyclist and a pedestrian, I can understand perspectives on both sides. As a cyclist, it’s incredibly frustrating when you have the right of way and pedestrians dart into the street in front of you not paying attention. As a pedestrian, it’s incredibly frustrating to think you have a clear path across a road and then for a speeding cyclist (or motorist!) to suddenly come charging at you forcing you to run more quickly across or to jump back. In both cases, heated words often come from both sides.
A few days ago, I was on my regular cycle commute on a smaller residential side street. I was not cycling that quickly and took note of a woman walking on the footpath talking on her mobile phone. It quickly became clear to me that she was about to step into the road without looking for cars or cyclists. She stepped down just as I was about to approach and I immediately hit my brakes, started ringing my bell like crazy and shouting “watch out!” Startled, she turned her head to see that she had just stepped into traffic (there were other cyclists around me), apologised and quickly jumped back on the footpath. What if there had been car traffic there? That street gets a lot of lorries, as it’s next to a large construction site.
The number of times a day I see pedestrians doing incredibly stupid things like that astounds me. I’ve seen parents do it with children in tow, ‘busy’ people rushing to catch a light that turned red long before, lots of people distracted by mobile phones, people darting out from behind parked cars and people who (understandably) don’t have patience for light signals that, favouring vehicular traffic, force pedestrians to wait long cycles. In this particular case, there was no chance of collision because I had been going slowly and had alerted her before she had gone too far into the street. No matter how in the wrong she was, though, if I had hit her, she would have been more hurt than I would have.
As a cyclist (and when I’m a motorist), I understand that I have a responsibility as the larger and faster of the modes of transport to act in a way that minimises risk for harm. I have the potential to hurt someone, so I should take responsibility to be careful. When I was learning to drive as a teenager, we were taught defensive driving, which is to assume that even if you do all the right things, others might not, so you have to be ready to accommodate their actions and stay safe.
I am more cautious around pedestrians and other cyclists than many. It means my commute takes a tiny bit longer than someone else’s. But, for me, getting to work isn’t a race and I’d much rather not piss off others on their commute (or worse, hurt them) than get to work five minutes more quickly. Too many cyclists I see cycling around me don’t seem to take much care for others around them, whether they be other cyclists or pedestrians. Whether they see the commute as a race or they just have other things on their mind, considerateness isn’t common from cyclists in London.
As part of the defence argued in the article, it says that the cyclist was going 18 mph, which they think is reasonable (because they’re comparing to a car) and they claim that going any slower would be more dangerous. I have a speedometer on my cycle. My speed on my commute ranges between 10 mph to 17 mph and I usually aim to keep it between 12-15mph. I am absolutely not in more danger because I go those slower speeds. In fact, I am faster than many other cyclists and see many near-collisions by the faster cyclists who weave in and out of tight quarters around cars and other slower cyclists. Many cyclists cannot go that quickly, whether that’s due to physical ability, physical build, type of bicycle, type of clothing, age, desire not to sweat (this isn’t a gym or a race, after all), etc. The incident in question happened near Old Street. I cycle there every fortnight or so. It is not an area where you cycle quickly. There are so many pedestrians on narrow footpaths, so many construction sites with barriers sticking out and a lot of vehicle traffic.
You should not have to rely on the wits and speed of others around you, let alone those using slower and smaller modes of transport, to ensure everyone is safe. Let’s not even get into the fact that this guy was riding a fixie without a front break. No one follows all the rules. Pedestrians cross against lights and jaywalk. Cyclists cycle through red lights. Motorists speed. People make mistakes, things move quickly, situations are not always clear cut. But, as the bigger entity, cyclists (just as with motorists) should take responsibility for their own actions and not try to blame the victim. If you choose to cycle quickly, without appropriate brakes in an area that has a lot of pedestrians, then you take responsibility if something goes wrong.