Recently a woman, incensed that bicyclists through her neighborhood were yelling "Lock them up" as they passed, wrote a letter that eventually found its way to the St. Petersburg Bike Club.
While the ride that day was not a club-organized one, as president, I asked her to call me because, fair or not, bike riders in bright riding kits are automatically thought to be club members. She did call, and we talked for about 30 minutes.
Responding to what she heard, she had hollered at the cyclists, "Don't yell at me. I live here." She said a cyclist responded with something to this effect: "If you don't get off the road, we'll run you over." The woman was walking two small dogs, so I asked if perhaps the dogs had tried to chase the cyclists. Even small dogs can get entangled in the wheels and cause a serious accident. Maybe the cyclists were telling her to lock the dogs up. But she assured me that the dogs cowered as the cyclists passed, and never posed a threat.
Thanks to social media, I was able to find the woman who had exchanged words with the dog walker. Dr. Lauren Archer is a respected surgeon in St. Petersburg and a Naval reserve officer. I've ridden with her many times and have never witnessed such an attitude from her. She told me her version of events, which was corroborated by the cyclist who rode behind her that morning.
What Archer yelled wasn't "Lock them up," and she didn't direct it to the woman. Rather, she used a common call among cyclists riding in a group: "walker up." It's meant to alert riders behind that there's a pedestrian in the street. At the same time the cyclist may wave her hand one way or the other to indicate where riders behind should move to avoid the walker.
We'll also call out "rider up" when gaining on a slower solo cyclist. We might also call out "on your left" to alert the solo rider or walker as we approach. You'll at times hear "car up," "car back" or "car left (or right)." We also call "slowing" or "stopping," as we don't have brake lights. However, we recognize that for pedestrians "walker up" is also a warning to them, which is especially helpful if they have their backs toward the cyclists. No one wants to be surprised by bike riders' sudden presence.
While cyclists are often on the losing end of crashes with cars, with pedestrians, both parties risk serious injury in an accident. In fact, it's fair to say that while in a car-bike accident, the latter always loses, in a bike-pedestrian accident, the walker is at greater risk. Pedestrians have died in accidents with cyclists. So we need to be cautious when we see a walker, especially one with dogs, which sometimes react aggressively to bicycles.
The particular street where this incident occurred has a common set of problems. It's narrow, cyclists make a series of turns through the neighborhood, and there are no sidewalks. Add to that cars pulling out of driveways, lawn-maintenance trailers, school buses, chaotic yard sale traffic, etc., and neighborhood streets pose challenges, even though cyclists are likely going slower than the typical 25 mph posted limit.
While cyclists should always ride in the direction of traffic, on roads without sidewalks Florida law requires pedestrians to walk toward traffic. Seeing oncoming traffic, they might be able to move out of harm's way should a vehicle come too close. I learned this the hard way when, at age 12, I was struck by the extended side mirror of a passing pickup truck while I was walking with traffic.
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The greatest danger to pedestrians and cyclists is at intersections. On quiet neighborhood streets, pedestrians don't always look behind them for a vehicle turning into their path. And bikes are quiet vehicles. On busy streets, where sometimes both parties seem to think traffic signals are mere suggestions, accidents are more likely. If a pedestrian ignores the "Don't Walk" sign, a cyclist could be upon them seemingly without a sound. And if a bike rider runs a red light, he endangers a crossing pedestrian.
But even if all parties are trying to be careful and respectful, intersections pose risks. Cyclists shouldn't switch from navigating the road to using the crosswalk, as if that gives them special dispensation from the red light. And sidewalks are not easily shared by bikes and pedestrians. Many accidents occur there between the two groups, though rarely fatal. In fact, some cities outlaw bikes on busy downtown sidewalks.
I have no doubt the woman I spoke with thinks she heard something other than "walker up." And what Archer then said in response was misinterpreted by the woman. "We live here, too," Archer said. "Just trying to keep you from getting run over," meaning that by calling out "walker up" she was trying to protect the woman and her dogs.
But perception is reality for many. Cyclists need to mindful of the most vulnerable of road users: pedestrians. And maybe after "walker up," the next words should be "good morning!" or a friendly wave.
Bob Griendling is president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.