Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Bike Trail And The Social Contract

I do most of my fun rides on local multi-use rail-trails. They provide a (mostly) smooth paved surface, no car traffic, pleasant scenery (yes, even in Iowa), and easy access to food and water as the trails pass through local towns. After playing in traffic all week on my commute, there's no better way to unwind.

However, the trail reminds me that as cyclists, we're engaged in a social activity, even when we choose to ride alone. On my "solo" rides, I'm going to encounter any number of other cyclists, walkers, runners or skaters on a trail that -- at best -- is three bikes wide.

There's an entire post (most of it ranting) to be written about encounters with pedestrians (and I count skaters in that category, since they're on foot, albeit wheeled foot), but I'd rather focus on the social contract among unfamiliar cyclists, even though it's probably going to leave me vulnerable to accusations of snobbery.

Rule 1 of cycling on a multi-use trail: Be in control. I'm not talking about speed limits. I'm talking about knowing how to operate your vehicle at whatever speed you choose. If you are capable of avoiding danger (and remember, "danger" can be anything from a patch of mud to a small child around a blind corner) at 20 miles per hour, great. If you aren't, slow down until you reach a speed where you don't out-ride your skill set. I see glaring examples of this rule being broken on our local Greenbelt Trail every time I ride it. The trail is a long series of tough curves, winding through trees whose roots tend to buckle the asphalt. Holding a line in those conditions can be challenging even for an experienced bike handler. It can be a lot of fun, the wheeled equivalent of the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi. But if I'm sticking my outside line in one of those curves and someone coming the other way goes too fast and runs wide, it's a recipe for disaster.

Which leads me to Rule 2 of the social contract: Trust is earned, not inherent. Here's where the snobbery kicks in. Out on the trail, I don't know you and you don't know me. You might have the bike-handling skills of a professional mountain bike racer, or you might be a wheeled klutz. I don't know. So when I see you and your buddy coming at me riding two abreast (on a three-bike-wide trail, remember), I get very nervous. Yes, I know you've left one bike's width for me, and yes, I know I can hold my line through that gap -- but I don't know if you can hold your line while I'm in that gap. On a long, straight stretch of trail, maybe I've watched you long enough to get a quick impression of your trustworthiness, but my first impression might be wrong. And how do you know you can trust me? Do us all a favor and drop back to single-file.

I'm particularly sensitive to Rule 2 for a couple reasons. First, I've been hit head-on by one of these side-by-sider riders (who may have been drunk, but that's an entirely different rant), resulting in a messed-up knee and taco'd wheel. Second, I do much of my trail riding on a tandem. When I'm piloting almost 400 pounds of rider/bike at 20 miles per hour (with very precious cargo on the back), the stakes are pretty high. I don't know the physics of it, but I don't have to do math on the back of a napkin to know that impact with another cyclist will end badly for all involved.

With summer weather finally hitting Iowa, I'm sure I'll have plenty more rules and rants as the bands of RAGBRAI idiots start taking to the trails (such as, "I didn't come out here to listen to the music blasting from your bike trailer," or, "It is possible to ride past a bar without stopping for another beer," or, "More than three people are allowed to ride together without wearing matching 'team' t-shirts proclaiming some supposedly cute slogan about how their butts hurt.") But for now, can we all just agree to these two simple rules? It will keep the trails safer and improve the ride for everyone.


Anonymous said...

I feel your pain (metaphorically)! It's wonderful when people behave responsibly, but you still have to expect people to do the dumbest thing possible.

If it makes you feel any better, I see cyclists do dumb stuff on road and trails alike. By the same token, I seen motorists do dumb things too.

On the plus side, I do see people in cars and bikes behave wonderfully at times. I try to be as patient as possible, and be on my best behavior. If nothing else, I figure I'm building good public relations for cyclists, and perhaps serving as a role model.

I'm not sure what to do in the short term, though. Maybe drop leaflets of the rules of etiquette? Or print them on sticky notes, and slap them on their heads as they go by?? ...and if ends up looking like a dope slap, so much the better. :)

Steve in Peoria

Freewheel said...

I have just one rule for cyclists on multi-use paths: Give an audible warning when you're going to pass or about to do something else (like pull over) that will affect other trail users.

Earlier this spring I came across a jogger and a cyclist who were trying to get up after a collision. The cyclist was OK (road rash) but the jogger was bleeding from where her head hit pavement, so I called an ambulance. The cause of the collision was that the cyclist passed too close and at the same moment the jogger jerked into his path by swatting at bugs. The collision could have been avoided, though, if the cyclist had said: "Passing on your left" or anything at all as he approached from behind.

Anonymous said...

Minor courtesies do make a difference. I usually use a bell to announce my approach, and I pass slowly if my presence hasn't been acknowledged. The last thing I need is to get knocked off my bike by a pedestrian.

It appears that part of the problem is what constitutes "common courtesy". Perhaps some small signs posted along the trail that remind people of how to be considerate of other trail users?? This might be something to bring up to the local trail authorities.

Steve "ring ring" in Peoria

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Freewheel and Steve, I hear you (pun intended) on the "audible warning" rule -- although I do take exception when I provide that warning (either with a spoken "on yer left" or the ring of a bell) only to realize that the person I'm passing is wearing headphones. The kicker is, 9 times out of 10, the person who's chosen not to hear my audible warning still feels the need to give me the stink-eye and/or berate me for "surprising" them.

I think this is why people still claim that Iowa stands for "Idiots Out Walking Around"...