Safety is a feeling, not an absolute. The statistical reality is more or less safe. And the flow of traffic is both smoother and safer when the speed differential between travelers is reduced.
For the sake of this immediate column, let’s agree that a speed differential of three or more doesn’t feel safe. Next to a car traveling over 30 mph, the 10 mph bicyclist doesn’t feel safe. Reduce that differential to a factor of two, and now everybody is safer—and feels safer—even if nothing else changes.
Bicyclists need to understand that that same thing applies down. That is, a pedestrian traveling three mph just doesn’t feel safe sharing the lane with a bicyclist traveling 10 mph.
If we whiz across campus on our bikes at 10 mph we need to understand that we are a hazard to pedestrians, no less of a hazard than the car whizzing past us on the street at the speed-limit-plus-five.
Cyclists are making people feel unsafe. And that feeling is based in the aforementioned statistical reality—that safe traffic flows at a uniform speed. And since pedestrians are no more likely to jaunt at 10 than cyclists are to pedal at 30… We, the cyclists, need to slow down.
And we need to slow down a lot. Do I need to tell anyone who’s habituated to driving 5 miles over the speed limit that hitting a 20 mph school zone feels absolutely glacial? You know the feeling. Well, cyclists should strive to create that same feeling in ourselves, as we cycle across campus. Pedestrians are going about three mph. We cyclists need to top out at about 6 mph — the pace of a jog or brisk walk. If it feels too slow, you’ll know it’s right.
Yes, as always, there are multiple factors involved in the perceptions and statistical realities of “safety,” and I’ll take those up in the future. But we can’t magically widen the sidewalks. So we’ll have to do one thing that we do have control over—and that’s our speed.
Cycling will still be faster and easier than walking—so stop complaining already! If, compared to your regular pace, cycling across campus at 6 mph feels absolutely glacial, you’ll know that you’ve taken direct action to make everyone safer—our campus, our community, our people. Thank you.