Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Trail Etiquette: a primer

(Image copyright Spencer Hill. Used by permission.)

I was running along the trail and this cyclist came by really fast and close without any warning.

This is probably the most common complaint – fast riders in 'stealth' mode. Cyclists should use a bell or loudly announce “Passing on your left!” as they approach pedestrians. Unfortunately, if a cyclist yells “On your left!” some pedestrians will turn and step to their left to see what's behind them, moving directly into a cyclist's intended path. Be aware that pedestrians can change direction or stop in the space of a single step.

For pedestrians – walk on the right and be aware of overtaking cyclists.

I was walking my dog, Fluffy, on a 20 foot long leash. It one of those retractable ones so I can keep control of Fluffy, yet allow her to romp a bit. She was on the other side of the trail when some cyclists started swearing at me for letting her roam like that. They could slow down and wait until she's done.

Children and dogs are often unpredictable. Be especially cautious when approaching them. Be prepared to brake or dodge, if necessary. Think of it as an opportunity to hone your mad cyclocross skillz. And please resist the impulse to skewer wayward dogs or their owners with a frame pump, halberd, or samurai sword. It's just not very polite.

For dog-walkers – while Fluffy may be utterly adorable, a 20 foot leash stretched across a multi use path is not. If a cyclist hits it at speed, there's a very good chance that he will crash. There's also a good chance that Fluffy could be injured. Be responsible for your pet and show some consideration for other trail users by keeping your animal on a short leash while on the trail.

Some deaf and blind guy was walking along the trail using his white cane for guidance when a cyclist yelled at him. Didn't do any good, that I could see.

While this is an obvious exaggeration, there are some pedestrians who simply will not see or hear any cyclists around them. Never assume a walker has seen you or knows of your presence, even if you're approaching them from the front. With so many people listening to music via headphones, it's a near-certainty that you'll encounter someone completely oblivious to all those other people on the trail.

For cyclists – wearing headphones in traffic is dangerous and illegal. Being safe on the road entails using all your senses, and that's no less true on the trails. Do not wear headphones.

My wife and I were showing her mom and dad the lovely River Park trail. We walked side-by-side in order to talk to one another and we were in mid- conversation when some cyclist yelled, “On your left!” Well, we looked over to our left but there was nothing to see. He yelled again, then went off the trail into the grass to go around us. When he got back onto the pavement, he yelled something about getting your fat ass over. I don't know why he'd pick on my mother-in-law that way. Her ass isn't that fat.

On your left” is the standard way of announcing you're about to overtake and pass another cyclist. Unfortunately, some pedestrians hear this and will step to the left and turn around to see who or what is behind them. They step directly into the path of a cyclist. As noted above, say “Passing on your left” as a better way to make your intent known.

A better alternative is to yell, “Passing!” Most, though not all, peds understand what this means. Some cyclists use a bell as a warning device, but bells are no longer required by Tulsa ordinances.

For pedestrians – use the trail sensibly. If you're walking in a group, allow some space to the left for others to pass. Taking the full width of the trail is rude and irresponsible.

My friends and I were skating on the trail, just bopping along and listening to some tunes on our iPods, when a bunch of cyclists passed us really close. They never said a word – not that we could have heard them anyway.

Passing skaters on a narrow trail is difficult. Their zig-zag course can make it hard to predict when it's safe to pass. Just like children, the elderly, dogs, or people with diminished mental capacity, skaters are capable of suddenly moving into the path of a cyclist and causing a crash. Be wary when approaching them.

For skaters – turn down the tunes so you can hear others around you, and be prepared to coast for a moment while a cyclist passes. It's both courteous and safe – for both of you.

I have a suggestion that may improve relations between cyclists and pedestrians on crowded trails. We need bigger pedestrians so there's no mismatch in energy. Kinetic energy is equal to the product of mass and velocity squared, so if a 200 lb bicycle and rider moving at 10 mph were to collide with a 550 pound pedestrian moving at 6 mph, they'll have approximately the same KE. The only problem I can see is in finding a 550 pound pedestrian capable of moving at 6 mph. Maybe if we could get two 225 pound pedestrians to move in lockstep...

Ah,a phalanx of pedestrians moving as a unit. Give them some brass instruments, drums, and snappy uniforms, and we'd have a marching band. Better yet, give them kilts and bag pipes. Nobody messes with guys in skirts playing the pipes.

OK, much of the above is facetious, but there are some serious points. Let's consider them:

(Gary added some points I missed)

1. The most important consideration is: "ALL TRAIL USERS STAY TO THE RIGHT" Yep, pedestrians, bicyclists, roller bladers, strollers, dog walkers, all trail users stay the right. Yes this is different than the street where pedestrians walk against traffic and bicyclists, since they are traffic on a vehicle, go with traffic.

2. Whenever approaching other trail users move to a single file line.

3. On a trail walk dogs to the right! Yes this is different than dog training, but that is because when you walk a dog on the streets since you are on the left the traffic is on the right and you don't want little Fluffy running in front of a car. On a trail you walk on the right. You walk Fluffy on the right as well. You don't want Fluffy to run in front of a cyclist or a roller blader. Besides the land is on the right of the trail and Fluffy loves running along the ground.


Riding on trails is the same as riding on a sidewalk and on sidewalks cyclists must yield to pedestrians. Tulsa's River Park trails have a suggested speed limit of 10 mph. Any reasonably fit cyclist can exceed this, of course, so be courteous and safety minded when overtaking peds. Please be courteous, and stay particularly alert if there are children or pets nearby.


For pedestrians - there's more to this than simply unplugging the iPod or turning off the cell phone. It's a basic safety issue whenever we're out in public. Be aware of your surroundings. Be alert for the unexpected. Be alert for suspicious people or objects. This isn't an attempt to make you paranoid, just wary. Criminals exploit people who aren't paying attention or are otherwise distracted. Likewise, in a traffic mix with people moving at different speeds, it pays to stay alert.

For cyclists – make others aware of your presence and intention of passing. Use a bell, or shout, “Passing on your left!” Just as pedestrians have to be aware of overtaking cyclists, cyclists themselves have to be aware of other bicyclists moving at higher speeds. Watch your six.


Trails are shared public spaces that belong to all of us. Please don't leave trash behind. Treat other trail users as you would wish to be treated.

And finally...

Since I'm not all-wise and all-knowing, I probably missed a few things. Please feel free to point out my deficiencies in comments!

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