Have you been out walking or riding on your local shared-use paths? Has use been a bit heavier than usual? It certainly has been where I live.
The Orlando metro area has over 100 miles of shared-use paths. I’m an avid user, both for walking and cycling. But with increasing use, it becomes apparent that a lot of users don’t have a good grasp on safety, or how their behavior affects others — more so as new users seek fresh air and sunshine during a pandemic.
This is part one of two posts about how to be safe and considerate on shared-use paths.
Path Etiquette: ensuring you and your fellow path users have an enjoyable time.
Pedestrians should never be expected to step off a shared-use path or a sidewalk to make way for another user, and so it doesn’t make sense for them to walk on the left.* Doing so causes both the pedestrian and an oncoming user to have to stop whenever passing isn’t possible due to opposite-side traffic. When all users keep right, faster users can simply slow and wait for the opportunity to pass. BTW, if you cannot keep your bike balanced at walking speed, you probably aren’t ready yet to be on the path (more on that below).
Take it easy!
That brings me to my next point. When an obstruction is on your side of the path (or road, for that matter), YOU yield — whether it’s a fallen branch or a slower user. If there is oncoming traffic, wait until that traffic has passed.
Don’t thread the needle! This is disrespectful to both the person you are passing and the oncoming person. A crowded path isn’t the place to set speed records. If you have a need for speed, you should use the road instead.
When you do pass a slower user, move over! This is my chief complaint as a walker. I can’t tell you how many times a pathlete has blown past my elbow when there were eight feet of path to her left. Why would you do that? You know you hate it when motorists do that to you on the road.
It’s also nice to say something. I personally prefer to offer a gentle “good morning” vs screaming “ON YOUR LEFT.” Some people may react by moving left! Some are listening with earbuds and may not hear you. Startling them by yelling doesn’t necessarily help you pass safely.
So even if you say nothing at all, moving over as far as possible and passing at a reasonable speed is fine. In this pandemic time, social distance is about more than only common courtesy. (See our recent post about riding in the pandemic.)
Along those same lines, when you are riding side-by side with a companion (these days, a member of your household, I’d hope!), it is polite to single up in order to give a slower user more space when passing. Oftentimes two cyclists are so engrossed in their conversation that the left rider doesn’t even move left and the rider on the right brush-passes the pedestrian (me, yes, this happens a lot). Please be present.Similarly, many older shared-use paths are not wide enough to remain side by side when there is oncoming traffic. Without a centerline, some users don’t recognize this. The additive closing speed of both users can be disconcerting.
Shared-use path courtesy when walking
When walking or jogging with family/friends, do not spread across the path requiring every other user to have to ask you to move in order to pass.
I’ve walked many path miles with my dog. I trained her to walk on my right. She does this by default now, so I never have to worry about her wandering out in front of someone. A well-behaved dog makes everyone’s life easier on the path.
It’s very alarming for bicyclists to have a dog on a retractable leash run across in front of them or wander toward them while the owner appears distracted. Dogs can cause a crash! Some people have a fear of dogs due to having been attacked. Having a dog lurch toward them can cause panic.
Another point on retractable leashes: they can cause cuts and burns to both pets and people.
Brush up on skills
Though it may not seem to make sense, the path is NOT the place to learn bike handling. You need a set of simple skills before you ride on the path, especially a well-used path. To be safe around others, you need to be able to:
- start and stop easily,
- balance at very low speed,
- ride in a straight line,
- look over your shoulder while riding in a straight line (particularly if the path goes alongside a road, more in part 2).
This is true for kids as well. Please don’t bring your kids to the path to teach them basic skills. Children (and adults) tend to have target fixation when learning basic balance on a bike. A kid will literally ride straight into an oncoming bicyclist instead of steering away. A kid will also ride off the edge of the path and then fall, trying to steer back over the pavement lip.
Skills can be developed in a parking lot or quiet street. Or in a CyclingSavvy Train Your Bike class.
Using shared-use paths in the dark
Most shared-use paths are technically “closed” from dusk to dawn even though they are not physically closed. Many of us use them anyway, either for commuting or early morning exercise. And you know what, they were built with transportation funds, so… that’s a rant for another time.
Rule 1. Use lights! Head-on collisions between unlit users are a thing—they can be a deadly thing. Don’t count on well-lit cyclists to see and avoid you, either. It isn’t easy to detect an oncoming ninja outside the range of a headlight, and closing speed can make the range of a headlight too short to react. I’ve learned to look for the tiny glint of pedal reflectors, which is how I saw this guy coming:
The burden of care rests with faster users — bicyclists — but pedestrians also do well to carry a light and wear reflectorized items. In a few places, this is required by law.
Rule 2. Aim bright lights down. I love that bright headlights have become so affordable. I’m old enough to remember when a 300 lumen bike light cost more than a bike. Now you can get 3x that for $30. But with great brightness comes great responsibility… to not blind your fellow users. The old “be seen” weak headlights needed to be aimed straight out at the horizon for maximum visibility. Today’s 900 lumen LED lights should be aimed toward the ground ahead of you. This is not only to keep you from blinding other people, it helps you see debris or pavement issues that could cause you to fall. The best bicycle headlights have a flat-top beam pattern to cast the beam farther without glaring into people’s eyes.
Rule 3. Don’t flash! When it’s dark out. that bright headlight should stay on steady mode. First of all, a flashing headlight is blinding and annoying. It keeps other users from being able to gauge your speed and location. And most importantly, it can cause an epileptic seizure in a vulnerable person. You could literally kill someone with that thing.
If you want to have a blinkie to catch attention, there are lots of little low-powered lights you can pick up for a buck apiece and strap onto your helmet or bike. Here is some good advice on headlights.
The next post will cover safety concerns. We’ll look at some path hazards, and discuss intersection safety.
Have fun out there!
* Yeah, there’s always some dumb law out there. This is no exception. Rhode Island requires pedestrians to walk on the left on shared use paths.