Political Footpath – Frank McNally wonders why pedestrians and cyclists can’t just get along (on the same pavement if necessary)

“The pedestrian light on Kildare Street used to work instantly every time. This was vital to democracy, because those using the light included public representatives, often rushing back to Leinster House to impersonate each other in important Dáil votes.” 

“The pedestrian light on Kildare Street used to work instantly every time. This was vital to democracy, because those using the light included public representatives, often rushing back to Leinster House to impersonate each other in important Dáil votes.” 

 

I didn’t make it to Buswell’s Hotel on Monday night for the launch of Ireland’s newest lobby group, the Pedestrian Rights Organisation.  

But apart from anything else, I congratulate those involved for the apt choice of venue. Not only is Buswell’s strategically located next to the centre of power in Ireland, it is also – for related reasons – adjacent to what was for years the only fully functioning pedestrian traffic light in central Dublin.

Where other pedestrian light buttons were mere placebos, serving to pass time for waiting members of the public who would take it in turns to press them singly, repeatedly, or in random complex sequences, as if in hope that they would find the winning combination eventually, the one on Kildare Street used to work instantly every time.

This was vital to democracy, because those using the light included public representatives, often rushing back to Leinster House to impersonate each other in important Dáil votes. 

But indirectly, the empowerment conferred by the button could be experienced by ordinary pedestrians too.  Even if you didn’t need to cross the road there, it was always a safe, legal way to annoy drivers.

If there’s nobody crossing, why should a cyclist sit there in the cold and wet, feeling stupid?

Alas, the light is no longer what it was. A recent realignment of traffic on Kildare Street means that pedestrians now sometimes have to wait to cross. That said, my most recent experiences of it being as a cyclist (in a hurry), I find it to be red more often than not.  

It must be somewhat pedestrian-friendly, still.

Of course, if anyone’s asking, I always stop at red lights while cycling. But that’s more that can be said for a close friend of mine I’ve just invented. He takes a more pragmatic view of lights, arguing that if there’s nobody crossing, why should a cyclist sit there in the cold and wet, feeling stupid?

For people like him, he admits, the Kildare Street light has always been a nuisance. The problem is that, it being beside the main entrance to Leinster House, there is always a garda on duty nearby. 

And even though the garda is not there to police cyclists, the situation presents a dilemma. My friend is always torn between cycling through the red light and risking an intervention, which would be embarrassing, or stopping and pretending he does that all the time, guard or no guard, which is excruciatingly hypocritical.

Sometimes, to avoid the stress, he takes a long way round, even though he’s already late for his weekly pilates class.

Anyway, I wish the Pedestrian Rights Organisation well in most of its aims. After all, as founder Michael O’Flanagan pointed out at the inaugural meeting, the group also represents cyclists and drivers when they dismount or leave their vehicles. 

So the vast majority of us are pedestrians some of the time and should share the PRO’s concern at their disproportionate representation in annual road fatalities (42 from 143 last year).

One of the revelations of spending 10 days as a pedestrian in Tokyo recently is that cyclists there use footpaths all the time

Mind you, not all the things the group wants to see happen would change that. Its list of demands include, for example, the introduction of fixed-charge fines for cyclists on footpaths (except if they’re school-goers under 12). 

But even though most cyclists do mount footpaths occasionally, I suggest this is a negligible contributor to pedestrian injury, never mind fatality. At worst, it’s bad manners. And often, it’s motivated by the cyclists’ own concern for safety needs vis-a-vis the common enemy: motorised traffic.

One of the revelations of spending 10 days as a pedestrian in Tokyo recently is that cyclists there use footpaths all the time. This despite Japan being a conspicuously law-abiding country, where nobody crosses a street except at marked junctions and with green man approval.

Indeed, I at first assumed that pavement cycling must be legal there. But it’s not, in most places. It just happens and has done since the 1970s when two-wheeled refugees first began fleeing the so-called kotsu senso (“traffic war”), caused by the proliferation of motor-transport that followed the other war. 

There is still a big shortage of bike lanes in Tokyo, due in part to the general lack of space, although that’s also a convenient excuse for the car lobby. In the meantime, some footpaths are designated for dual use, by pedestrians and cyclists. On most it’s an informal arrangement, although as with all things Japanese, cyclists use footpaths, when they do, politely.

That should be the unwritten rule here too, I suggest.  But if we are going down the road of fixed-charge notices for all cycling on footpaths, then fair is fair. The measure should probably be introduced at around the same time the gardaí also start giving tickets to jaywalking pedestrians.

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