Dealing With Pedestrians: A Helpful Guide

Written by Boston Biker on Aug 25

Walking in Boston is awesome. You can see the city as it was meant to be seen (on foot). You can get around very easily, combined with public transportation is can be a healthy and enjoyable way to live play and work in Boston. But I have noticed that some people don’t seem to understand some simple and very useful tips that will make their walking experience here in Boston much more enjoyable (AKA: they have no fear of death). The following guide should be read as “cyclist illuminates some best practices for dealing with walkers” it should not be taken as some sort of road bible that will teach you everything you need to know. Your brain is your most important piece of safety equipment, use it.

Before this turns into an Us vs Them kind of rant I want to say a couple things:
1. I love pedestrians, every person walking is one less person in a car, if you have a choice between cars and walking, WALK!
2. Bikers need to be very careful not to hit pedestrians, just because the pedestrian is doing something silly doesn’t mean that it wont hurt a lot if you run into them with your bike.
3. I honestly want more people out walking, I just want them to not get hurt, or hurt me.


I ride in this town a lot. I ride in the financial district, Dot, Allston-Brighton, points south north and west (sorry east Boston I almost never get over to you on my bike). And I see the same silly things over and over again. I am not going to advocate strict adherence to the walk signs, or think for a moment that everyone is going to walk to the end of the block and get in the crosswalk, these observations and suggestions are based on practical things I think people will actually do. The solution to a lot of these problems is “build better infrastructure” but because that is HIGHLY unlikely to happen quickly (or cheaply) my solutions are mostly ones that don’t cost any money.

The following is written from a cyclists point of view, but if you are a pedestrian and you find yourself doing any of the following the solution is simple, STOP DOING IT. I have ranted about peoples behavior being a major problem before so please don’t think I am singling you (the pedestrian) out for special treatment. We all have things we need to change. I recently returned from the west coast where I witnessed a completly different culture when it comes to walking. Everyone (and I mean everyone) pushes the button, waits for the signal and then crosses. I saw groups of people sitting at an empty street and none of them set foot into the road until the little walk guy showed up. Just something to think about…so without further delay…

Dealing with Pedestrians: a Helpful Guide.


The Plant

‘The Plant’ is when a person stands off the curb waiting for a chance to cross. They can be a couple inches from the curb, or in some cases several feet. This is very popular at busy crosswalks, and corners. Strange variations of this move include the ‘talking on the cell phone plant’ and ‘having a chat with your buddies plant.’

Why this sucks for a cyclist: The cyclist must do several things to avoid the plant. One they have to move further over to the left, this often puts them into conflict with moving cars. Two if you are doing ‘the plant’ on a corner, the cyclist must do a sort of over around and back move that makes for a very awkward turn, that at the same time potentially pushing the cyclist into turning cars.

How to fix this problem: People doing ‘the plant’ do so for several reasons, they are in a hurry, they want better viability, or are being absent minded. First off, get a bell for your bike, you would be surprised how many plants will pull up roots and take a step back if you give them a polite little “ding ding.” Second don’t be afraid to scream “hey back up!” or “Need a little space” or “MOVE!” none of which are polite, but if they help you avoid a crash it is worth it. Third pay attention to your route, certain spots are more likely to grow plants than others, slow down through these sections and keep your eyes up and forward looking to see people entering the road from the side walk, it is good to know where potential plants are coming from.


The Sneak

The Sneak is someone who creeps between two parked cars and then (often at the worst possible moment) walks out into traffic.

Why this sucks for a cyclist: This shouldn’t suck for you at all, in fact if you are riding 4-5 feet away from parked cars you often have plenty of time to react to the sneak. However as we all know some roads in Boston are narrow, and combined with “assertive” drivers who don’t believe in your right to take up a full lane you can often find yourself in situations where you don’t have enough room to react safely to this. Collisions of this nature can be particularly dangerous due to the fact there is often no warning and no time to reduce speed.

How to fix this problem: If you are riding a bike and are being forced next to parked cars sloooow down. This can avoid doorings as well as sneaks. Remember that bell, if you are approaching parked cars and you have to be close to them for any reason, give that bell a workout. While it wont stop everyone, at least some people might hear it and stop their sneaking. Look for shadows under parked cars, if there is a light source peoples shadows will often enter the street before they do, and unless they are walking on the parked cars bumpers you will often be able to see feet moving under parked cars. Look through windows, you can often see people sneaking through these helpful clear portals. If the worst happens and you are confronted with a sneak walking right out in front of you, you have two choices, cut left and pray to the bike gods no one is right there to crush the life out of you, or hit them. This is not a good choice, so remember treat parked cars like the door sprouting, sneak producing, toxic hell pit’s that they are, and give them a wide wide berth.


The Trust Fail:

The trust fail is when a pedestrian looks you right in the eye, sees you are barreling through the intersection (on the green light) and then walks out in front of you anyway.

Why this sucks for a cyclist: This most often results in you having to dramatically alter your path or pull some sort of mega stop, neither make the cars behind you or next to you happy, and both can result in you getting run over. In some horrible instances this can result in an endo (over the handlebars crash) as you valiantly attempt to stop, which can then be combo’ed with getting run over for more awesomeness. The real danger of a trust fail is that in your mind you might think that you and the walker have come to an agreement “I have the green light, you have the red hand, we have made eye contact so you know I am going” and then like that girl in highschool they leave you crying and bloody in the middle of the street…(don’t ask).

How to fix this problem:Trust fails often start off as plants, that bell strategy works on them as well. You should also be looking down the street several hundred feet to anticipate what is going to be popping out, if you see someone making eye contact with you point straight ahead and scream “going straight” or “move please” or “make a hole” or “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!” use whatever level of politeness you feel will work. I find that the closer I get to the intersection/the faster I am going the less polite I am.


The Stampede:

The stampede is when a whole bunch of pedestrians break the law all at once. They will often flood into an intersection even if they don’t have the walk signal, even if lots of cars and bikers are coming right at them. The stampede is a very effective strategy by pedestrians and one I can admire for its effectiveness (even if it drives me crazy). They control the street out of sheer numbers.

Why this sucks for a cyclist: Mostly the stampede sucks because it slows you down. It is hard to work up a good stampede if there is heavy traffic so stampede situations often occur when there is spotty traffic and people feel safe all pouring into an intersection at once. The risk of injury from a stampede is low, but can be raised if you ride like a jerk.

How to fix this problem: There is very little you can do here, ever heard of critical mass, they has it too. Your best bet is to slow to a crawl and either wait for the heard to pass, or wait for the honking of the horns behind you to open up a slot for you (because trust me, they will honk). What you should NOT do is try and weave through the herd at high speed, this will only result in “random chaos” from the group. (see below)


Random Chaos:
Random chaos is (redundant I know) when a pedestrian is crossing the street (this happens most often in “non sanctioned” crossing areas) and they are preceding in one direction and then at some point the notice that you are coming and radically change direction. Which way will they go?! It’s America’s newest and most popular game show! Random chaos can be made worse if you correct your path to go around what you think is going to be their path, or it could be made better, thats the nature of chaos.

Why this sucks for a cyclist:They go left when you go left and WHAM! Their is also a small but very real possibility of tearing a hole in the fabric of time and space killing us all as our atoms turn inside out and up becomes down.

How to fix this problem: Basically you have two options, once someone is already in the street. You can yield to them, which technically is what you are supposed to do, but then again they technically have no business crossing the street at random outside of a cross walk, oh discoridia! Or you can try and slow down enough that it wont matter which way they go and you will be safely able to go around. Your worst enemy here is speed, your best friend is your eyes, look waaaay down the road for people who look like they are going to cross. If you see any of them walk into the street stay straight and slow down, this will allow them to know what you are going to do, and hopefully give them enough time to get out of your way. If that fails, stop get off your bike and bow (with a flourish) while you allow them to cross. Incidentally screaming anything, and/or ringing your bell might actually cause more Random Chaos…so if you have 3 or more feet (about as much space as a person could cover in one big step) and you are pretty sure you are going to pass safely consider doing so quietly. Tip to pedestrians, once you have committed to running out into the street, stick to your guns! Nothing is worse than someone who races out into the street only to slam on the foot breaks and randomly change course.


Don’t Give a Fuck!:

Don’t give a fuck is when someone simply walks out into the road, if only to revel in the honks and screams. This is most often young bullish males, who have been drinking, or are looking to start some shit. (although I have seen young women/and older guys do this as well).

Why this sucks for a cyclist: Um they don’t give a fuck…at all. They just walk out, cars who cares, buses who cares, person on a bike who cares! These people are crash magnets, and will often sneak out from between cars, or cross “wherever they fucking feel like it.”

How to fix this problem: Your only weapon against these crazy people is early detection. If you see someone not giving a fuck, either slow to a stop, or attempt to pass them without causing random chaos (see above). I can not stress enough, that bells will not work for these idiots, and may in fact cause you to become embroiled in fisticuffs with these ruffians. Again you should be scanning well down the street for maximum detection time.


Baby Armor:

Baby armor is a subset of don’t give a fuck, only worse because they often lead with a child in a stroller or held in their arms. People who use baby armor will often plant the stroller with junior in it out into the street until traffic comes to a halt and then cross.

Why this sucks for a cyclist: Baby armor is adorable, but highly dangerous. How bad would you feel if you killed a kid because mom was too stupid to wait till the little man flashed before crossing the street? Also new strollers are built like brick shit houses, it is very likely that you would go sailing right over them to break your collar bone while junior continued to suck on his binky as if nothing had happened.

How to fix this problem: As much as it kills me to say this, just stop. Come to a complete stop. It is so wrong that the flash of a baby can bring the entire system to a halt but it does. It doesn’t matter if the mother (and it is almost always the mother) crosses in the cross walk against the light, or leaps out from behind a cloaking device in the middle of Mass Ave, you just got to stop. Luckily baby armor is easy to spot at a distance, strollers are often huge ostentatious contraptions that take up a lot of room and people with babies strapped to their chest present a distinct profile. Stop and let these people pass, even though they have no business being in the street, even though they are using a child like a speed bump to slow traffic, even though you have every legal right to be riding through that green light, just stop. Coo at junior as they pass and hope that he grows up smarter than his parents.

In general most problems with pedestrians can be solved by, slowing down, ringing your bell, or stopping. Sometimes screaming is fun, but not really effective. When people get to walking in a good rhythm their brains can just turn right off, same goes for people staring at buildings, talking on the phone, listening to music, staring right at you, etc. Always assume they will not stop, and in as many cases as you can, yield to pedestrians it really is the best policy.

It may seem that people do their best to put themselves into as many dangerous situations as possible, but almost always it is just that they are not paying attention. A ‘ding ding’ from a bell, or any loud unfamiliar sound (I often make a sort of ‘chick chick’ sound with my mouth, like the sound you make if you want a horse to go faster) is enough to get them to perk up and fly right. Pedestrians are a lovely member of the city ecosystem and one that we want more of, so do your part in not hitting them by following the rules above, and always paying attention yourself.

Do you have any kinds of pedestrians I didn’t cover here? Got good tips? Share them in the comments.

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Posted in advocacy, bostonbiker, education | 18 Comments »

18 Responses to “Dealing With Pedestrians: A Helpful Guide”

  1. By Casey on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    I used to feel pretty badly when I used my bell for pedestrians. It always felt a bit, well, passive-aggressive to just ring a little thing and expect everyone to just move out of the way. So, for a while, I switched to the standard “on your left” if I was on a bike path, and saying “Watch it!” if someone was jaywalking. I ride the southwest corridor a lot, which is essentially a shared path with a fair number of cyclists and pedestrians.

    Then I realized that the bell actually helps a ton. When one hears a fellow human’s voice, we tend to think they’re a pedestrian. More specifically, when you say “on your left”, the walker has to process what I’ve said, come to the realization that a biker is behind them, and remember that when I say “on your left” they’re supposed to move to the RIGHT. I’m not knocking people / pedestrians at all for this behavior. 99% of the time, my mind is totally on another planet when I’m walking.

    However, when you ring your bell, the walker *immediately* knows there is a cyclist. It’s just something that we have essentially hard-wired in our brains from an early age. I’ve found that people move to the side much quicker when I use my bell than anything else. Likewise, when someone is about to jump a crosswalk while looking to the RIGHT (this kills me) a quick tap of the bell has been much more effective, in my experience, in getting them to actually look before stepping in to the road.

    So, I think there is one more little tidbit you could add to your article: don’t feel badly about ringing the bell. The pedestrians expect it, and we will inevitably fall in to a perfect, happy, union.

  2. By m2mayer on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    Bell ringing works well in some places:

  3. By Paul on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    Thank you BostonBiker and m2mayer for helping to start my day out with some mighty hearty chuckles. I always think it is a sign of truly great humor when I am by myself, yet laughing out loud.

  4. By Paul on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    Also, Casey, I am with you. I felt like using a bell was passive-aggressive, but I’ve never seen someone get pissed off that I used it. It’s also great because you can use it from quite a distance, whereas if you yell “on your left,” you have to yell it from quite a distance, and therefore with such volume that it almost sounds like you’re pissed off, which comes off sounding just plain aggressive.

    Also, I can’t stand the Southwest Corridor. Maybe they need better signage, so pedestrians know which side to stay on. Because of all the pedestrians on the bike path, combined with the crosswalks that are almost always blocked by cars waiting at a red light, I usually just stick to the the roads (Lamartine, Columbus, Tremont) that follow the path. I hate going home on Columbus though, since there’s usually a lot less traffic when I’m there, and people can get up pretty good speed and be surprised (read: pissed off) to find me in the right lane.

  5. By Tom on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    I have a bell on my bike which I use rather infrequently. Mostly I whistle when approaching a dangerous situation or one in which someone’s attention is necessary. I’ve been able to increase the volume of my whistle through practice and it gets attention like nothing else.

    I think best though to practice defensive biking. Pedestrians are bound to cross at inopportune moments, so yielding is necessary in many cases. Controlling one’s pace can be difficult but works very well with some foresight. “The Sneak” is something I particularly dread, however.

    Also, last night the city began painting bike lanes on Columbus – I had heard this was in the works some time ago, but didn’t know it would start so soon. Does anyone have an idea how much of the Avenue will be painted with lanes?

  6. By Tom on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    I forgot to mention, whistling instead of using the bell allows the cyclist to maintain both hands on the brakes, which in many of these cases is beyond necessary.

  7. By ddartley on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    Re: “The Sneak,” or pedestrians suddenly appearing in a cyclist’s path:

    If Boston’s like New York in the following regard, then you forgot something big:

    On congested streets, it’s not just hiding between PARKED cars that pedestrians jump out from. It’s also jaywalkers crossing the street and darting out from between STOPPED cars in the actual travel lane. They’re thinking, “well, traffic’s not moving, so it’s okay for me to cross here,” and of course they’re not used to looking for cyclists. So even though they’re jaywalking, they don’t even keep their eyes up as they cross and step out from hiding; they just assume nothing’s moving.

    Unfair as it may be, the only way to approach this is for cyclists to assume more responsibility. In addition to ringing and ringing your bell, city cyclists should lose all shyness about using their voice–loudly–and on such streets, CONSTANTLY calling out “coming through!” or “eyes up in the road” or “heads up,” *even if they don’t see anyone to yell it at!*

  8. By grimlocke on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    I keep forgetting to get a bell, so for everything up to the Trust Fail I tend to use Offensive Courtesy. I yell, “EXCUSE ME, PARDON ME, THANK YOU!”, and generally people are shamed into compromising their paths. I had a shouting match with a woman who exited her car on the passenger side while the driver was stopped the other day, and it amounted to me: “PLEASE PARK NEXT TIME!” her: “OH, THANK YOU, NEXT TIME I WILL” me: “THANK YOU!!”

    I used to get screwed by the Trust Fail all the time until I perfected the Extreme Stink Eye which, when used correctly, can stop even the most careless left crossers, stop light creepers or Trust Failers in their tracks. You have to look like you’ve had a really bad day and are just waiting for someone to make a wrong move into your path. Eye contact is always key, though.

    It’s so nice to know that these issues are universal, and that I’m not the only one getting treated like a third class citizen on the roads. Viva la bicicleta!

  9. By CSB on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    Brilliant! Even though you claim in the preamble that we have better biker/ped relations out here on the left coast, people still pay way too much attention to cellphones, make extremely poor walking decisions, and piss off bikers even here in san francisco. Those plants…they get me everytime. I had to use the good ol bell’n’yell on a couple of making out plants yesterday…

    Awareness is a universal duty!

  10. By CSB on Aug 26, 2009 | Reply

    oh and grimlocke—the Extreme Sink Eye is a very important tool in the kit. also works great on cars! its great to see those four-wheeled a-holes reverse with their tail between their legs!

  11. By Oz on Aug 27, 2009 | Reply

    Good lord people! It’s your responsibility to yield to pedestrians, so ride at speeds that are safe for you and others. Slow down and take responsibility for your actions on the road. And watch out for horses and dogs on reallllly long leashes.

  12. By Arthur on Sep 4, 2009 | Reply

    Tom says: “I forgot to mention, whistling instead of using the bell allows the cyclist to maintain both hands on the brakes,”

    You mean you haven’t mounted your bell (eg, IncrediBell) on your handlebars where you can ring it with your thumb without moving your hands?

  13. By Epic Walker on Sep 4, 2009 | Reply

    Bless the bell! Almost daily I am nearly creamed by a bicyclist riding up behind me (on the sidewalk) who passes without a sound. Or that lovely one this week who passed me and then cut in front of me to turn. “On Your Left” is confusing if one wants a fast reaction.

    This week, while I was walking over the Mass Ave. bridge (hey, isn’t that a bike lane over there? why are you riding on the sidewalk?) a rider rang the bell. I really appreciate that bell. Even with headphones on, I can still hear it.

    Please use a bell! And if you have to ride on the sidewalk (it happens, I understand, I have been there), get off your bike if it is crowded or slow down even slower than you consider “slow”. A pedestrian on the sidewalk moves at a rate that is no threat to other pedestrians and therefore thinks that a small amount of drifting is normal. I may step to the center of the sidewalk for any reason: dog shit, gum, hole in the ground, awesome part in the song, daydreaming.

    Good article though. I particularly appreciate your suggestion of making communicative gestures very clear (pointing, waving). Bicyclists and pedestrians are on the same side (wanting fewer cars on the road & more economical travel). Your article came across as helpful and not blaming. It is a good dialogue to open. I’ll be more mindful about ‘planting’. If it is any consolation, even as a pedestrian, I find pedestrian behavior irritating, like the line-walkers who stretch the entire width of the sidewalk, making it impossible to pass in either direction.

  14. By Cycler on Sep 10, 2009 | Reply

    Nice post.
    I ride in the Financial district a lot and in the mornings observe all the above behaviors. I’ve been yelling HEADS UP! partly because it has a nice ring to it, and it doesn’t sound like an expletive. Seems to work in combination with as much of the stinkeye as I can manage at 8 am.
    I might try the extreme courtesy approach though- think that might work well.
    I find that on MUPs (mem drive mostly) A “good Evening” (morning/ afternoon) salutation gives them some context before the follow up “on your left”.
    A plague on weaving ipod wearing joggers though…

  15. By Pedestrian on Sep 11, 2009 | Reply

    As a pedestrian, I love bells. Yes, cyclists, please use them!

    Just as we’re sometimes hard to see, y’all are, too, at times, and just as we sometimes break the law thanks to years of accommodations to cars, so do cyclists. Bells help us all be safer, even when we’re taking our lives into our hands (feet, pedals, etc) and braving the streets. And as others have commented, bells go directly to the “watch out!” center of the brain without requiring processing or thought.

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