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Walkers, Riders, and Drivers Sharing 'Transportation Space'

Ruth Samuelson, writing in The Atlantic Cities this week, summed up the anxieties in the "transportation space" that cyclists and pedestrians increasingly share. After describing a horrific collusion between a bike rider and a runner in Philadelphia, she speculated, "It's hard to know if collisions between walkers and cyclists are truly increasing and who's to blame. They're certainly generating more attention lately, along with vitriol toward two-wheelers."

A few days earlier, also in The Atlantic Cities, Sarah Goodyear considered the bad behavior that a reopened city pool in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has attracted. "Pundits and blog commenters blamed residents of the local housing projects," Goodyear wrote. "They blamed hipsters. . . . They blamed gentrification and they blamed poverty. . . . They blamed race. Some blamed the pool's policy of free admission, saying that if you charged people to enter, maybe the problems would go away."

This is the so-called "Tragedy of the Commons," and Goodyear aptly raises that contentious economic theory in her commentary on Brooklyn's swimmers, but the theory also could be applied to joggers and bike riders and walkers. When the carrying capacity of their shared "transportation space" is maximally exploited, and willful users remain unrestrained, the "tragedy" theory goes, everyone eventually gets hurt.

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is rightly criticized for its Hobbesian bleakness ("the war of all against all") and its Malthusian inevitability (otherwise unrestrained, the number of users always increases beyond the capacity of a desired resource). The theory presumes the worst of everyone (and there is no end of examples).

When I walk through my terribly flat and eminently walkable and bikeable suburb, I share the four-foot-wide sidewalk with pretty young women on sherbet-colored Schwinns, restaurant workers on serious looking mountain bikes, and dodgy looking men on bikes too small for them, as well as with teenage skateboarders and runners suited up in Spandex and iPod. Only the slap of runners' shoes and the clickity-clack of skateboards give an audible warning that someone is approaching behind me. Bikes are almost entirely silent.

Their riders are silent, too, without a word of warning (except from the occasional young woman on a Schwinn), often riding fast, rarely veering off the sidewalk to the treacherous grass of the parkway that separates the sidewalk from the street.

There are regulatory solutions for "tragic" conflicts between bikes and walkers: educating riders and walkers, enforcing bike handling and pedestrian laws with citations; divvying up the shared space in alternative ways (mostly at the expense of motorists), segregating walkers and riders in dedicated paths, and licensing bike riders.

The conventional neo-conservative remedy to the "Tragedy of the Commons" is to enclose the "commons" as private space. When the commons are no longer common, owners can regulate the number of users through cost and restrain their behavior through property law and the owner's vigilance.

But I don't know enough to reckon how sidewalks might be privatized.

The sidewalks in my town are narrow. I keep to their right edge even when the sidewalk ahead is empty. I try not to drift from the right, even when that's the edge closest to traffic, as walkers tend to do.

I put one foot in front of the other. I walk in a predictable straight line, and I hope that the noiseless bike rider, overtaking me from behind, knows what's he doing, leaning forward into a burst of peddling and going about 15 miles an hour. And when I see (or hear or sense) a rider approaching, I step off the sidewalk, pause, and let the rider pass.

It's a habit of mine, a discipline, a form of paying attention that parallels (but is different from) the paying attention needed to avoid bumping into things or straying into traffic.

I feel a twinge of resentment in giving up my momentum and my space to a rider who rarely takes any note of my small gift. My resentment, like the way I walk, is a habit, too, but I'm working on improving it.

Cost pressures, population growth, densification, government policies that steer users to preferred forms of transportation, advocacy of cycling and walking, and user choice (among other forces) are resorting walkers and bike riders (and drivers) in their shared "transportation space" and changing the dynamics of their interactions there. Conflicts are inevitable. "Tragedy" of the commons sort might not be.

We could enforce rules and regulate. We could privatize space and restrict. Or we could behave as others have done through history. We could choose to be civil.

My own choice, rather wan and utterly non-ideological, is humility.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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