Runners v pedestrians: who should give way to whom?

Most of us run in shared public spaces parks, streets and tracks. But who is responsible for avoiding crashes? The author of a new academic analyze discloses some surprising findings

Only about 20% of athletes use an athletics track. Most of us run in spaces that were not really designed for it, in streets, parks and other shared space. Some have argued that running in such spaces is even transgressive; it steps out of the territorial confines of the athletics way, working against the norms of modern “achievement sport” and attempts to fit runners into a scenery designed for the car and for the( slower) pedestrian. From this perspective, running can even be viewed as a way to reclaim the street for other forms of human locomotion- a route to re-inhabit urban spaces.

But, whatever your opinion, the shared public spaces of cities are definitely not designed for running. They are not the monoculture of the athletics way and, rather than defining athletes apart from everyday life, entangle us within it. There is no neutralisation or predictability here- “were supposed to” negotiate everything public spaces hurl at us. Dogs, children on scooters, uneven paving slabs, lamp-posts, bus shelters queues and motorcycles must all be encountered without any rule books or lane differentiates to guide us.

One of the more common interactions athletes face is with pedestrians. Every operate is punctuated by a need to negotiate space with them. These encounters are so mundane that we rarely pay them a great deal of attention, apart from when someone shocks the whole world by pushing person in front of a bus or runs into the prime minister.

But there is much at stake within these momentary meetings. They offer an important window into the profound everyday processes that establish social order on the street. Any dedicated meeting of athlete and pedestrian will require one( or both) to change their course or halt their movement. The outcome of such meetings can act to legitimise or delegitimise a person’s claim to space and assistance render the hierarchy found on the street.

While such encounters and the consequences thereof have been well-discussed about other mobile kinds- such as those between cyclists and drivers- encounters between runners and pedestrians have not been explored in similar depth. But with the growing popularity of running, its importance for public health initiatives and the growing employ of operating as a form of transport, it is important to understand these encounters and how runners fit into our shared public spaces.

This is what I and colleagues from Plymouth University were interested in detecting out in a project that partly sought to understand these encounters. We interviewed athletes in two different ways, to understand how they thought encounters with pedestrians should be negotiated- and how they actually were. The first group were joined on their run and interviewed on the go about their experiences, including that of passing pedestrians. The second group were given a head camera to wear during a run and then were interviewed afterwards while watching the footage. Doing so revealed an interesting” value-action gap“- the discrepancy between how someone says they act in a given situation and how they actually do.

While some runners in our study suggested that responsibility should lie with them to ensure that encounters with pedestrians are negotiated successfully( due to their higher velocity and minority status) and others placed specific obligations on pedestrians( thanks to their superior ability to stop or change direction ), the majority of athletes adopted a diplomatic posture, arguing that the undertaking is a shared one. In professing joint responsibility, most runners posture ourselves as having an equal claim to use public spaces as pedestrians.

These different positions about who should assume responsibility raises the question of how encounters between runners and pedestrians actually happen. Our research has demonstrated that a number of approaches are used by athletes when encountering pedestrians, but they basically come down to three approaches- choosing a side, stepping down and slaloming. Each approach involves the use of the running body to different extents, places different degrees of responsibility upon runners, and will certainly be familiar to any athletes reading this. Taken together, they expose the value-action gap mentioned earlier.

The tactic of choosing a side assumes that both runners and pedestrians share some responsibility in negotiating their encounters and are therefore equals in the mobility hierarchy. Here, runners use bodily motions to signify their intention, but rely on pedestrians to respond appropriately. In essence, they move to one side of the pavement, creating a space they hope the pedestrian will move into as they pass. Ostensibly, this is a straightforward scenario. But many encounters are not- often space is limited, there are mob, athletes are approaching from behind and there are other objects in the space that must also be navigated.

When situations are more complex, athletes often find the reliance for ensuring that encounters are successfully negotiated is placed more heavily upon them. It is here when two farther tactics- stepping down and slaloming- tend to be employed. Stepping down refers to when a runner steps off the pavement and chooses to run in the road to avoid pedestrians. To some, this is unfathomable given the risks involved. Yet to others, the movements of cars is more predictable and easier to negotiate than those of pedestrians.

Finally, the slalom involves runners weaving their body around and past other people and objects, often in response to unexpected obstacles or motions made by others. As with stepping down, slaloming involves runners to take full responsibility for creating their own road. Although it is the most difficult means of negotiating encounters, there are occasions when it may be a preferred option- when the situation can be most effectively navigated by the runner ducking and diving around others in the street.

Cars, say some, are more predictable than other pedestrians. Photograph: andresr/ Getty Images/ iStockphoto

Decisions about whether to choose a side, step down or slalom in any encounter have to be made in an instant. This does not necessarily mean they are random or that they are straightforwardly habitual or mindless. Rather, runners become adept at attaining quick and calculated decisions to inform them about which tactic would be the best, most appropriate and plausible in any dedicated encounter.

Such an attunement also brings to illuminated the value-action gap apparent in the encounters between athletes and pedestrians. While most runners indicate some shared responsibility with pedestrians, the burden of negotiating such encounters generally falls solely upon the runners. Runners was of the view that they belong in public space, claiming an equal right to those of pedestrians and agreeing that the negotiation of space should be a shared chore. Despite this, the physical movements of both runners and pedestrians was proposed that walkers top the hierarchy, with runners most often transgressing their passage, changing their route and conceding their space.

So where do athletes fit into our towns and cities then? In many ways, anywhere they like, as long as they are willing to give up that space whenever an encounter with pedestrians may occur. While undoubtedly a popular and important activity, for individuals, communities and society, taking operating off the athletics track takes away with it claims of territory or primacy of use for athletes. These asserts then need to be remade in the course of a operate and are often ceded to the claims of others. Yes, these are mostly forgettable instances, which pass thousands of hours of our operating lives. But the space we have to run in is important- and perhaps there is a need to start design running into our public spaces.

Simon Cook is a runner, geographer and running geographer. He is completing his PhD into the rise of run-commuting at Royal Holloway, University of London. Find his blog at Jographies or on Twitter at @SimonIanCook.

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