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.Bike-Path-3The 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.Collision.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.Bike-Path-4I 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.Bike-Path-2For 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.

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14 thoughts on “Urban Trails and Bike Paths, Safe Alternatives or Hidden Perils?”

  1. Angela says:

    Thank you for such a great post! We’ve recently been thinking and blogging a little about this as well. I’d also add that at least in my area bike paths cross some roads in ways that are difficult to navigate and can lead to the potential for an accident.

    Bicyclists can be a danger to pedestrians just as cars are a danger to cyclists, and there is no easy way to manage the conflicting interests. Bike paths can be great, but sometimes roads can be a better option for commuting if you need a fast ride. And you’ve reminded me that I really do need to get one of the dinging bell thingys. I’ve always had a problem saying “on your left” because any time someone says it to me I hear “left” and want to move that direction 🙂

    1. Angela, thank you for your comments. It seems like mutli-use paths will always be a point of contention. Maybe one day as car use decreases there won’t be any more multi-use paths, but specific use paths. One for cyclist, one for runners/walkers and even one for dog walkers, similar to what is found in urban centers in the Netherlands. I’m sure that is just wishful thinking though. We checked out your blog and we really like what the two of you are doing and the message you are sending. It is difficult to convince people that they can live normal lives with out a car. The old saying “lead by example” seems to be the best approach. We were wondering if either you or Dorea would be interested in writing some guest post in the new Family Cycling section of Utility Cycling. We are trying to develop more content for that section and are looking for people that have experience blogging about Family Cycling.

  2. Thank you for the timely and well-balanced post. I almost prefer mixing it up on the street with traffic to trying to weave my way around dogs (the worst – their owners often blame the cyclist for their unleashed dog bounding all over the place!), walkers, broken glass, &c., on our multi-use path. I have found the “dingy” bell next to useless – I use an old fashioned one with rotary clapper. You can muffle is with your hand when needed, or let it rip to cut through earphones!

    One hazard you didn’t mention but that is pictured in one of your photos is the anti-car bollard. I think cyclelicio.us had a post regarding a fellow paralysed in a collision with one of these. Our path has them removed – save for the anchor, which is hard to see and thus even more dangerous.

    Thank you,


    1. Gordon, Indeed the car block bollard or path furniture as we call them in Flagstaff are certainly a problem. I read the article in cyclelicio.us about the long time cyclist and cyclist advocate who hit and was paralyzed by a car bollard, that was quite unfortunate. I have had many a friend who have collided with path furniture, usually resulting in a couple of scrapes and bruises sometimes worse. I did see a cracked frame at the head tube/down tube weld from a similar collision. The car bollards a certainly a double edged sword, we all know that if people could drive on bike paths eventually some one who had a little to much fun that evening would go tearing on to one. But, the solid 3 ft. tall pillar of steel certainly can pose a potential hazard to path users, especially in low light conditions. Maybe they could have 360 degree blinky lights installed on them with solar panels on top for power so they have increased visibility.

  3. […] of Utility Cycling, Adam over there writes a great post about the hidden dangers of mixed-use bike/pedestrian paths. We also wrote a post a couple of months ago about courtesy in mixed use areas that is […]

  4. sportmac says:

    I’m so impressed that you actually slow! My goodness we need more folks like you in the Washington, DC area.
    I too make a point of taking every precaution that I don’t hurt someone moving slower than me. I figure I have the most speed, the most hard parts and am going to do the most damage if I don’t watch out for them as well as myself.

  5. I agree that you should use a lot of caution while on bike paths, especially on ones you aren’t familiar with. Here in Anchorage, Alaska, we have an extensive system of bike/pedestrian trails that it has taken me years to learn and use. The only accidents that I have had on them the unpredictability of children on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail on Cook Inlet. Many older sections of paved trails here are in very poor condition as well. Trails adjacent to roadways are also a hazard when they cross driveways, and don’t miss a curb cuts whatever you do. The best advice that I can give is to be alert and know your route.

  6. […] Now, you may well decide that this risk is vanishingly small, because you„re riding on a lakeside bike path, or suburban trail, or in Copenhagen. Or you may decide that you„re the type of person who needs […]

  7. […] alternative transit option or for an avid bicyclist’s vacation. Rail-to-trail routes remain safer for bikers because they are not traveling with vehicles going twice their speed. Indiana’s Eppley […]

  8. […] shortcut from my house saves me about a quarter of a mile in looping back on the main road. The path is quite rough for about 100 yards and is a great test for the variety of commuter and electric […]

  9. […] designed by drivers — definitely worth reading. Transportation as a civil rights issue. The hidden perils of urban bike paths. Advice on how to wash your bike, and how to refresh your legs fast; personally, I use two hard […]

  10. […] the extensive system of bike routes throughout campus, hardly anyone pays attention to stop signs, pedestrians, right-of-way, cars, […]

  11. Mendo says:

    Little kids are like squirrels – you have to expect them to do the unexpected. Loose dogs are the bane of my existence – I have my city’s Animal Control on speed dial. Suburban mommies walking two abreast, each with double-wide strollers are also a problem in one part of my town (interestingly, not everywhere). People with earbuds walking in the center of the trail – they’re impossible because they just can’t hear you.

    I use my bell quite liberally AND my voice at the same time to make sure I don’t surprise anyone. And I carry pepper spray just in case (almost had to use it on someone hassling me). I try to be an extremely courteous trail user but face it – there are some people who hate sharing the trails with cyclists.

    One thing I love? When people signal to me that they hear my bell and they give a wave before I pass them. When someone signals they know I’m behind them I feel confident they won’t do something unexpected. Courtesy goes both ways. I always say “good morning” or wave or nod. Even when I don’t get a response. Someday I might need help, so I try to keep it friendly.

    Besides, the one time I got angry and sneered at someone with earbuds hogging the center of the trail, I had a blowout about 10 seconds after I threw him a dirty look. That’s karma, man.

  12. M says:

    Oh my, the squirrel children. Most of our multiuse paths pass through plenty of parks here in the Montgomery County Pennsylvania area. On the weekends in nice weather there’s plenty of families in the parks taking the squirrels out for a walk or ride. Last weekend the whole family lined up for me to pass but when I did out came not one but three of them creating a sudden need to go as far to there left as possible. That sign saying “Stay On The Path”…..yeah right, don’t see that one happening anytime soon.
    Get closer to Philly, the numbers increase … The path width decreases! Can somebody tell me what designer figured out that built in flaw?

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