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Ride the Path?

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by John S. Allen



We’ve published lots of Safety Corner columns about riding safely on the road. Research, however, has shown that cyclists like us are more likely to crash on paths than on roads. And, even more likely if you ride fast.

Even the fastest cyclists among us are usually slower than motor traffic. Yet, I’ve read a lot of derogatory comments from non-cyclists — and urban utility cyclists — about guys in Spandex, riding at unsafe speeds. I never could quite figure out why people complained until I realized that it was about shared-use paths.

Every year in the spring you’ll find guys on the paths (yes, mostly guys) who have been taking spinning classes through the winter and are ready to rock and roll, except that all their riding has been indoors. All muscle, VO2 , fancy new carbon bikes, spandex, flash, bravado and speed but they live in terror of riding on the road, so instead they terrorize other people on the path.

A shared-use path can transform a poison-ivy-infested and trash-strewn, abandoned railroad bed into a linear park, make riverfront parkland accessible, provide a useful route for local transportation or a bicycle tour — an alternative to a busy highway. But – it is what it is. Most paths are much narrower than roads, often curvier, too, leading to sight distance problems and user conflicts. People walk dogs on extendable leashes, push baby strollers, walk side by side. Casual cyclists use the path; child cyclists who wobble and weave; inline skaters with flailing arms and legs. Many path users assume naively that they will be safe because There Are No Cars, and let down their attention. Bad assumption to make!

When riding on a path, please limit your speed so you can avoid the unexpected. Your decision-making is very much like when driving a car on a two-lane rural highway: often, you must wait to pass, when there is oncoming traffic or you can’t see around a bend. Sometimes, you need to slow to the speed of pedestrians until you can safely pass them. (On a path, pedestrians keep right, too, so that all traffic can at least keep moving at their speed.) Warn pedestrians and slower bicyclists when you are about to pass. I say “bicycle behind you” or “passing” because “on your left” is open to misinterpretation. Remember, an adult pedestrian can conceal a child, who could dart out. Unless you can give plenty of clearance, wait to pass until your warning has been acknowledged. If you ride much on paths, it isn’t a bad idea to install a bell on your handlebar.

Intersections with roads add another element of confusion. Usually the path has a stop sign, indicating that bicyclists should yield to traffic on the road. But, as you approach the intersection, many motorists will stop to let you cross. They view the intersection as a crosswalk. In fact, it is also a crosswalk: it is used by pedestrians, and by child cyclists who don’t have traffic skills yet. The confusion here is like at a four-way stop sign: who gets to enter the intersection first? So, everyone ends up waiting for each other, and nobody knows who should restart first. Eventually, the situation sorts itself out informally. When you restart, be careful to check each new lane of the street for traffic. A vehicle can hide another in the next lane. You can’t be sure that every driver will stop, just because one did.

Some intersections have signs instructing cyclists to walk their bicycles, but these signs have no basis in law, at least not in Massachusetts. Walking only makes sense for people who have poor control over their bicycles. If you ride across, and especially if you accelerate quickly, you can take advantage of shorter gaps in cross traffic, and motorists less often have to wait for you.

Some favorite Charles River Wheelmen rides start in Lexington, heading out to the north and west, and then returning. At their start, when riders are closely grouped together, these rides exit Lexington on roads. At the end of a ride, if cyclists are tired, they may choose to avoid Bedford/Lexington’s infamous Page Road-Grove Street roller coaster, riding the Minuteman Bikeway instead. You’re on your own if you do this. It’s CRW’s policy not to use paths on our rides. Please keep safety in mind.

But then, with all the novice cyclists on the path, you might find an opportunity to replace someone’s derailed chain or to fix a flat tire. When you do, please mention that you are a Charles River Wheelmen member. The goodwill you can gain for the club might just offset annoyance with the fitness club crowd who are looking to establish a personal best – well, personal fastest – record on the path. They most assuredly are not with our club. Well, at least we hope not!

[John Allen has produced a video illustrating the issues described in this article. You may view it at]

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