Sedimentary bed configurations that are stable under weak fluid-driven transport conditions can be divided into two groups: (1) mesoscale features that influence flow and sediment transport through roughness and drag partitioning effects (“mesoforms”) and (2) grain-scale features that can effectively be ignored at the macroscopic scale (“microforms”). In practice, these groups delineate ripples and dunes from quasi-planar bed configurations. They are thought to be separated by a transition in processes governing the relief of the bed; however, the physical mechanisms responsible for this transition are poorly understood. Previous studies suggest that planar topography is unstable when interactions between moving particles lead to stabilized bed disturbances that initiate morphodynamic pattern coarsening. This study presents a kinetic interpretation of this hypothesis in terms of parameters describing particle motion. We find that the microform/mesoform transition corresponds to a critical transition in particle behavior associated with increasing importance of particle collisions. This transition also corresponds to the point where continuum-based morphodynamic models are permissible at the most unstable wavelength predicted from linear stability theory, providing a link between descriptive and mathematical theories of bedform initiation.