The hierarchy of the road

Hierarchy of the road

Respect. That’s what missing from our roads. Nobody respects anybody. Drivers in cycle lanes, cyclists on pavements, pedestrians in cycle lanes, cyclists running red lights, drivers speeding. It goes on. We’ve become a self-entitled, self-centred, self-important society. A self society. And it’s ugly, real damn ugly.

Sure, we must look out for ourselves but at all costs? What does it cost to look out for others? To respect and care for one another? I can but dream. We cyclists often feel like we’re on the receiving end in such a world, and it’s often true, yet we also ignore others in the pursuit of the self. I count myself amongst that number.

I’ve commuted in London by bike for well over ten years. In that time, I’ve had hundreds of pedestrians step into my path. Two of them had the misfortune to feel steel against skin. Ouch.

Both incidents were many years ago in my (more) reckless youth. Not that either would have been classed as my ‘fault’ in a court of law. Yet this is beside the point. We should rarely rely on our courts, the very same system that fines a driver more for killing a swan than a cyclist.

Truth is, I wasn’t respecting the road as a shared space when I hit those two people. I had adopted the attitude that pedestrians shouldn’t have been on the road, just like car drivers who think cyclists shouldn’t be on the road, an attitude sadly reinforced this week by the UK’s so-called transport minister (I don’t know whether to laugh or cry).

I now cycle with more care and attention, adopting what should be a worldwide philosophy, the hierarchy of the road:

Pedestrians >> Cyclists >> Motorbikes >> Motor vehicles

What does this mean for cyclists? It means pedestrians come first. It means you have little excuse for hitting a pedestrian. It means you give way to pedestrians crossing at junctions (just like the Highway Code advises for cars).

It means you look out for pedestrians crossing the road in traffic even when there is no crossing. It means you wait for pedestrians to cross the traffic lights when the light is flashing amber (again, as the Highway Code advises).

Even in both of my collisions, where you could legitimately argue the pedestrians should have taken responsibility to look out for themselves, I still believe I could have been a better cyclist and looked out for them (as I now do).

Cyclist running through pedestrian crossing
Cyclist runs a pedestrian crossing. The clue’s in the name.

Collision #1: Pedestrian jumps off the rear of an old Routemaster bus and straight into my path. I had no chance to swerve, to brake, to shout, to use a bell. So what could I have done? Simple, I could have slowed down, giving me more time to react. I could have given the bus a wider berth when passing, allowing those exiting the bus more space to depart.

Collision #2: Pedestrian crosses the road, filtering through the stationary cars stuck in heavy traffic, unaware that I am riding on the road near the curb. Pedestrian assumes it is safe to cross because the traffic on the road is stationary and they don’t even think there could be a cyclist coming. Out they step, right in front of me. Wallop.

As above, I had no chance of reacting but once again, I could have slowed down, I could have been aware that pedestrians are highly likely to be crossing the road and may not be looking out for cyclists.

Should they be looking out for cyclists? Ideally, yes of course, but all other road users should modify their behaviour to look out for more vulnerable road users. So is a cyclist to blame in every pedestrian-cyclist incident? Of course not, but slowing down and showing more consideration would reduce the incidents, the near misses, the intimidation.

What about taking responsibility for our own safety? Certainly, otherwise we’d not last too long as a species. Yet where do you draw the line? This logic is often used by drivers who believe cyclists should wear helmets in case they are hit by the driver of a vehicle who didn’t see them or wear hi-viz clothing because, again, the driver didn’t see them.

Following the hierarchy of the road, a driver should be driving slow enough to see everything (i.e. obeying the speed limit!), even a cyclist dressed in normal clothes. If the conditions are bad, they should slow (showing consideration for other road users) and cyclists should use a light (showing consideration to other road users). Drivers should expect cyclists on the road, just like I as a cyclist expect pedestrians to be on the road. The road is a shared space. It is not the preserve of cyclists or car drivers.

Cyclist riding on motorway

Still not convinced? Flip the scenario. Cyclist is filtering through traffic. Using the self-responsibility rationale, the cyclist should be looking out for drivers turning left across their path, car doors opening, etc. Right? Yes, of course they should be looking out for themselves, but drivers should look out for cyclists too.

It is not always possible for cyclists to leave enough space to avoid car doors opening. Drivers should check their mirrors for cyclists when opening their door and exiting the vehicle just as they would check for other cars when crossing the road. They should let cyclists move off from traffic lights and patiently wait to overtake etc. You get the picture.

People being considerate to others? An ideal? Here in the UK, yes a crazy dream in a country where a large majority of road users (of all types) have a sense of self-entitlement where only they and their needs exist.

Are there cases where the hierarchy of the road doesn’t apply? Sure. Pavements are not shared spaces, hence no cyclists or cars should ever be on the pavement. This is the domain of the pedestrian. Cyclists have segregated cycle paths. These are the domain of the cyclist. They should be respected by pedestrians as much as pavements should be respected by cyclists.

What about the car? Well car drivers, some of you may think the road is your domain but you my friend are incorrect. The only domain solely for cars are motorways. That’s right. Every other road is shared and therefore should adhere to the hierarchy of the road.

When shared spaces just don’t work

Cycling towpath dangerous
Copyright Simon Macmichael

There’s many examples. A shared path for cyclists and pedestrians can work. Cyclists must slow down to use them and use a bell. Pedestrians must look out for cyclists and avoid walking in marked bike lanes and look both ways when crossing them. However if the shared path is in a very busy area, e.g. seafront boardwalk, then I’d argue that a shared cycle-pedestrian path doesn’t work.

There’s just too many pedestrians and so cyclists would be better off either on the road (which should always be a shared space too remember!) or better still, on a segregated bike path. Often such shared spaces are badly designed too, which only adds to the confusion.

Where else are shared spaces unsuitable? Busy and narrow canal towpaths. It is unpleasant to be a pedestrian on a narrow towpath with bikes coming through. Here the hierarchy fails, not because pedestrians or cyclists have failed but because the space has failed as a shared space, it makes the experience unpleasant for the most vulnerable user of the space, i.e. the pedestrian.

Where else? Busy dual carriageways. Cyclists can legally ride on a dual carriageway. Should they? Not if they can avoid them. Vehicles moving at 70 mph (and over of course) and cyclists just don’t mix. Again, even if both the driver and the pedestrian are in a shared space observing all of the rules, the space itself is unpleasant for the most vulnerable user of the road, i.e. the cyclist. Of course it is not always possible for cyclists to route without hitting these horrid roads, again because of an infrastructure fail.

National speed limit signs on narrow country lane, UK
Speaking of fails, how about the common sight of the ‘National Speed Limit Applies’ sign (70 mph / 113 kmh) on a narrow and twisty country roads in the UK? Here madness lies.

So how do we achieve this Utopian ideal?

Shared space cycling
Consideration, nothing but an artist’s impression?

Good question. It requires a change in human behaviour, in law. The former takes generations but can be accelerated by a change to the latter. Changing the law is relatively easy, but what use are laws if unenforced? 79% of US drivers say it is safe to speed, 80% of UK drivers admit to speeding57% of cyclists admit to having jumped a red light (14% regularly).

How to enforce laws? First you need evidence. There’s not enough police to enforce what they perceive to be misdemeanours. Yet there’s enough drivers and cyclists on the roads with video cameras. Unfortunately such evidence is routinely ignored so again, you’d need funding to create an enforcement team. Where to get funding? Fines. You’d probably have enough revenue in a single month to fund such a team for years.

Once caught, you need justice. Points on licenses, fines, education courses, community service and ultimately prison. At the moment a few points or pounds here and there is nothing, if by a miracle of misfortune you’re caught. Should the chances of you being caught increase, the points and pounds will soon aggregate and will make you think twice about who could be filming.

So we all need to buy cameras and spy on each other? It’s a sorry state of affairs for sure but if, like naughty children, we cannot be trusted to regulate our own behaviour then others must do it for us.

What’s the alternative? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. Self-driving cars offer hope. Programmed to obey rules, breaking traffic laws could in theory be eliminated. Assuming the programmers get the code right in the first place of course. Last, but not least, we can all try to modify our own behaviour and be considerate to others no matter our choice of transport.

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10 thoughts on “The hierarchy of the road

  1. Great article. In Massachusetts the law is that in any motor vehicle accident involving a pedestrian or a cyclist, unless proven otherwise, it is always the motorist’s fault. Result everyone sticks to the speed limit and every motorist stops for a pedestrian even when not on a designated crossing. Not sure what the law is if a cyclist hits a pedestrian.

    In the Netherlands it is a requirement to open your car door with the opposite hand – this makes you turn around and improve your rear vision avoiding collision with cyclists or pedestrians. You have to demonstrate this during your driving test.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Guru. I think the law of responsibility defaulting to those at the bottom of the hierarchy is a good one, so too the education at driving tests in the Netherlands. Such simple changes can make big differences. Unfortunately such commonsense eludes rule makers in the UK. Wish us luck with things like Brexit!


  2. You’ve touched on so many points that I strongly agree with. The opening few paragraphs are what makes up my inner monologue on an almost daily basis. We are living in the age of the Self Society, for sure.

    On your note about how cyclists should never be on the pavement, while I agree and I do endeavour to avoid pavements where practical, sometimes it just isn’t.

    In Bristol, where I live, our city centre cycle lanes have had no thought given to them and clearly were painted onto existing roads as an afterthought. They end abruptly, are punctured by trees, and all sorts. But the point I wanted to make is that we actually have cycle lanes that lead onto pavements, and the only way to the next part of the cycle lane/road is over the pavement, sharing the space with pedestrians.

    I actually encounter one of these on my commute to work and it’s infuriating. Pedestrians frequently give me looks of annoyance. I even had a very self-important chap proclaim “This is OUR pavement” at me once.

    But what am I to do? I go down into low gear and I slow right down to walking pace. I always have a foot ready to place on the ground if I need to stop or give way to oncoming crowds of people. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not practical for me to get off and walk for that short part of my journey. Am I in the wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Rebel. I know a section of cycling ‘infrastructure’ like this. It’s the infrastructure that is in the wrong in this incidence, as you say, no thought has been given, its just been plonked on the road. That segment of pavement should be signposted as a shared spaced for cyclists and pedestrians.

      If I come across something like this or any poor cycling infrastructure I prefer to stick to the road. Of course, you then get drivers telling you to get on the cycle path!

      Rock and a hard place.


    2. Exactly! The way this particular part I’m referring to is structured, if I stuck to the road I’d get caught in the one way system and add another 10 minutes to my journey. Can’t win!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great piece and well written. The article made think about numerous traffic altercations over the years, and inspired me to write a little piece on that subject. I will say, it seems like things are better than they use to be. I hope thats true, I hope it will only get better.


    1. Thanks Cycling Ink, I certainly think things are getting better, here in London anyway. More cyclists stop at red lights than not, more pedestrians look for cyclists as their numbers grow, the majority of drivers keep their distance when overtaking etc. This is to be celebrated, especially now many cities are looking to bikes to help reduce congestion and pollution. I’m hopeful for the future although know the pace of change will be slow.


  4. Glad you’re back. In Florida it is now a felony to hit a cyclist with a car. It used to be a misdemeanor. I think making stricter laws definitely helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love the sentiment here. I’m a road safety officer for my local council and this is exactly the sort of message I’m working into my safety education. Its not just about looking out for your own safety but creating a society that thinks about others and the effect their behavior has on the world around them.

    Liked by 1 person

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