A pedestrian’s plea to bikers | The Triangle

A pedestrian’s plea to bikers

I took a vacation trip to scenic Northeast Ohio last summer. No, really! There are some nice places around Cleveland! One is Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where the reconstructed towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal is a great spot for walking, biking and wildlife observation. But that’s a troublesome mix.

As we were walking the towpath, we followed the conventions for Ridley Creek State Park: pedestrians to the left, into oncoming vehicular traffic and bikes, as vehicles, on the right. But we were yelled at. In Ohio the conventions are opposite: bikes, being faster, on the left and pedestrians on the right.

In game theory, this is what is called a coordination game. Either convention will solve the problem, so long as everybody follows the same convention — and so long as everybody acts predictably.

From the point of view of the bicyclists, it is important that the pedestrians act predictably. The bikes move a good deal faster than the pedestrians, and have greater momentum. Thus, bikers have to control their bikes to avoid where the pedestrians will be when the bikes get there. If the pedestrians are unpredictable, that will be hard to do. I assume that’s why bikers yell at me when I am not very predictable.

In particular, as a pedestrian, if you try to dodge the bicycle, you probably are more likely to be hit than if you do not. Dodging just makes you more unpredictable.

But there are a lot of reasons why a pedestrian could be unpredictable. Some of us are old and might stumble. Some of us are interested in observing or photographing wild things that themselves are unpredictable, such as birds and butterflies.

If I suddenly get a chance for a good photographic angle on an indigo bunting, I may need to move to the right spot very suddenly. If it’s a butterfly I’m after, they have evolved to move unpredictably, so I’m likely to be pretty unpredictable when I’m going after one. (In game theory, the evolution of the butterfly to fly unpredictably would be described as a mixed and evolutionarily stable strategy.)

Of course, when I am in my car, the shoe is somewhat on the other foot, but not entirely. I do have to try to guess where the bike will be and not drive there. That isn’t easy. Bikes are quicker and can pass through the traffic, often traveling faster than I do. That creates the same problem for me as an unpredictable pedestrian creates for the biker.

On the nature trails, I have often just get ready to photograph a butterfly only to have a bicycle scream past and scare the insect away. (On that score I must admit that joggers are even worse, and dog-joggers are the worst of all.)

Some bikers on the towpath told me that they liked that ride because there is a lot to see. Here’s a hint: The faster you go, the less you see. And if you really want to see what is there, stop a while.

As a pedestrian, I have been struck by a bicycle on Drexel University’s campus. The biker left the scene of the accident, which is a crime. The injury was minor, a bruise on my hand, and was unreported; but according to one study, about 1,000 injuries to pedestrians from bicycle collisions are reported per year, and while deaths are uncommon, some occur every year in New York City and in other cities such as Philadelphia.

The victims are mostly old geezers like me — no mystery since, as I observed above, we are more likely to be unpredictable and, further, injuries are more likely to be fatal as one gets older.

Here is my appeal to bikers: You have often appealed to motorists to “share the road” with bicyclists. OK, but try to make it a little easier for us by not being unpredictable as you seize your opportunities to beat the traffic. And if you insist on riding on the sidewalks, pedestrian walkways and trails, please share the walkways with as much consideration as you ask of motorists when you are on the road.

Slow down, damn it! The seconds you save on your way to class could end the life of some old geezer like me.

Roger McCain is an economics professor at Drexel University. He can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.