Urban Trails and Bike Paths, Safe Alternatives or Hidden Perils?
For many utility (and recreational) cyclists, urban trails and paved bike paths are a welcome alternative to riding and commuting on the street with motor traffic. Bike paths can provide worry-free riding away from the woes of unaware motorists. As a child, I first learned how to ride a bike on the local paved bike path that followed a nearby creek in the suburbs of Kansas City. Many families enjoy weekend outings on urban trails and greenways. I would certainly rather have my children riding on a path or trail then in the street with traffic. But, although it is obvious that bike paths and trails are in general a safer route to chose when commuting and riding, they are not with out their own hazards.
The worst cycling injury I ever sustained was on a paved bike path out side of Atlanta–and take into account I am including eight years of cat 2 road racing, and three years of pro mountain biking. I was using the paved bike path to connect to a rail trail which led me outside of the city for more secluded roads on which to train. I always tried to obey the “stay to the right” and kept the speed low when in areas congested with other cyclist, runners, and families out for a walk. I certainly didn’t want to run anyone over. I had gone out for a typical three-to-four-hour road ride and was on my way back to my mother’s house. As I transitioned from the rail trail onto the urban network, I slowed my speed and kept a ready trigger finger on my dingy bell and brakes. I wasn’t having any problems navigating the congestion. I rode up on a family of two or three children on bikes, rang my bell as normal, slowed to about five mph and indicated that I was going to pass on the left. The parents acknowledged me and herded their children accordingly. For some reason as I went to pass them, slow and steady, at the last second, one of the smaller children darted out from their parents’ control–after a butterfly or something–and right into my front wheel.
Luckily for the child, my speed was so slow that he was more scared then hurt. I think a scrape on the knee and elbow. I, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. You don’t always think about it, but speed can be your friend in a crash. It transfers your downward momentum laterally, taking the edge off of the direct 90-degree impact with the ground. You do shed a little skin though. In this case, all of my force was transferred straight onto the ground. When I collided with the child I flipped over the bars, but wasn’t going fast enough to slide it out. I went straight down onto the asphalt, right onto my right shoulder.
I knew instantly from the pain that something was not right. I was unable to lift my arm above my head. Ya, you all know what that means. By the time I was finished at the doctors office, I had suffered a fractured collar bone and a full separation of the AC joint in my shoulder socket. The AC is the ligament which attaches the end of your collar bone to your shoulder assembly.
Unfortunately, my story isn’t the only one out there. I have heard many others talk of collisions and accidents with cyclist, pedestrians, and other trail users. Many times it seems walkers panic when they see a cyclist coming towards them or from behind, and they aren’t sure in what direction they should go. Where we, as cyclists, are expecting people to stay to the right in the appropriate direction of travel.
Now, as a bicycle commuter, riding on urban paths safely is something I am very aware of. I have learned a variety of tricks in waiting for people to figure out where they want to be on the path. The dinggie bike bell is my favorite tool for instigating awareness. Blinky lights are a must-have as well. While an obvious safety measure for riding on streets, blinky lights, especially forward facing blinky lights, add an extra amount of visibility to multi-users on urban paths.
For many bike commuters and other cyclists, urban paths, trails and rail trails are a welcomed departure from the busy streets. But although we don’t have to worry about getting squashed by 2000 lbs of metal, there are still hazards that exists. On roads cyclists must fully embrace the responsibility to ensure that we remain safe. On paths cyclist must embrace the dual responsibility of our own safety and avoid injuring other users of path systems.
As I said before noise and verbal communication are a great place to start. Many users might be wearing headphones. In that case proceed slowly, hope that they are aware of their deafness and stick far to the right. Most importantly expect the unexpected. Before my accident, I never would have been looking for a rogue child to pop out from their parents’ control. Now I’m fully prepared for the unexpected. When the a bike path crosses a road, vehicles are supposed to yield to path users, and cyclist assume that vehicles will yield. But often they don’t. Slow down a little and check the intersection. This brings to mind one of my biggest pet peeves: cyclist’s that don’t bother slowing down when passing someone walking their dog The dog gets spooked and the walker is bummed. A little common courtesy goes a long way.
It seems cyclists always shoulder the burden of safety whether it is for themselves on the streets and roads, or for others in the case of urban trails and paths. But simply put, that’s just the way it is. We are outweighed on the roads, and we are the fastest users on the paths and trails, so it is up to us to play it safe in both instances. Everyone is out there to enjoy the escape from busy streets. Hopefully other users besides cyclists take their own level of responsibility to heart. While it’s okay to occasionally go fast on the urban trails and its really fun if the coast is clear, keep it in check when other users are around. Don’t attempt to win the TDF prologue on your way to work. A few moments to slow down takes a lot less time than a week in a hospital bed.