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Velo-City: Perth » hot news » Safe paths: Sharing and caring is the key

Safe paths: Sharing and caring is the key

I was accosted recently by a furious man in a café who claimed to have been almost run down by cyclists on a shared path. Since my only crime that day was one of fashion, because I was indeed wearing lycra, I tried to reason with him that not all cyclists are wankers, but he fumed off saying that the next cyclist he saw on the path he’d bring down with a stick through the spokes.

It made me wonder what it was about cyclists that riled other road and path users, and what we could do about it. From talking to a wide variety of people, because after all everyone is a pedestrian, cyclist or motorist at some stage, one thing became clear. The more vulnerable the road user, the more visceral their response to the interaction with the other person.

Anecdotally it seems there’s a lot of conflict on paths, but reliable data is hard to find. In Perth, the City of Stirling investigated pedestrian-cyclist interaction on the popular coastal shared path.
“People use the term conflict now to describe any situation in which the pedestrian – cyclist interaction is slightly unfavourable, and this makes it really hard to be sure how much real conflict is occurring,” said Joanne Burgess, the City’s Travelsmart Officer.
“The results from our study shows that people’s perception of conflict occurring is much higher than the number of observed interactions that could reasonably be called dangerous or likely to result in an accident,” she said.
Even if the figures don’t support the perception of high levels of hostility and danger, the perception itself is a problem as it creates a barrier for people wanting to engage in active forms of transport and exercise.

The main complaint from cyclists about pedestrians is that they don’t keep to the left and seem oblivious to other path users, either because they are engrossed in conversation, sightseeing or listening to iPods. As a result, they get alarmed when they finally do realize a bicycle is coming and step into the path of oncoming traffic causing the cyclists to brake suddenly or swerve.

The issue of pedestrians not keeping left is exacerbated on paths that run by the ocean, rivers and other scenic spots, because the pedestrians will tend to walk on the side of the path closest to the view, regardless of whether it is left or right.

Pedestrians aren’t legally obliged to keep left on paths, although there are moves afoot to amend this loophole in the legislation, however they are prohibited from causing a traffic hazard and must not obstruct the path of any driver or another pedestrian. In this context, “driver” also includes riders of bicycles.

If conflict arises, the solution that some councils adopt is to ban cyclists from paths in high traffic areas, but this brings as many problems as it solves. For example, if the particular path was constructed as a shared path, or as part of a bicycle network, with funding which was granted specifically for that purpose, banning cyclists might mean that the path use would no longer fit the purpose for which grant funding was allocated, so the council could find it’s required to repay the funding used to build the path.

Banning cyclists from paths also effectively decrees that the rights of pedestrians to use the path safely are more important than the rights of cyclists, which contradicts the commitment to equity and fairness which is often enshrined in councils’ constitutions.

Perhaps the most significant issue about banning cyclists from sections of paths is that it is ineffective and costly. The City of Perth has battled for years to prohibit cyclists from Trafalgar Bridge in East Perth. The bridge is now a ‘missing link’ in a key shared path network and due to a lack of safe and convenient alternative routes, most cyclists ride across the bridge anyway, except when rangers and police are on hand to book them, resulting in a lot of bad publicity for the City.

For several years, the City of Melbourne had a ‘cyclists dismount’ area on the south side of the Yarra River Trail due to conflict issues with pedestrians. However, cyclists continued to ride through this area so the City finally zoned the path as shared use and decided to build segregated paths in the area. Segregated paths have also been used by several councils within the Port Phillip Bay area at ‘conflict hotspots’ along their coastal shared path.

So is segregation the answer? It certainly works well in the great cycling cities of the world, such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Bogota, and partial segregation, for example through particularly ‘hot’ spots, can be an economically feasible solution. However it is not always practical to retrofit segregated paths in built up areas. Apart from the costs involved, ‘cyclists’ are not a homogonous group and the roadies, recreational and commuting cyclists often have little in common with each other except the number of wheels. In fact cyclists often report similar problems with fellow velos that the pedestrians had reported – that is cyclists travelling too fast, riding two abreast, not warning of their approach and refusing to yield.

The first two problems can be resolved if cyclists who want to ride fast, or two abreast, ride on the roads. We need to lobby for more, and better, on-road cycle lanes if this is to be a feasible solution. Motorists are always going to be a source of danger, but for experienced cyclists riding at more than about 25kph, the road is the best place to be. Apart from separating them from the slower riders and pedestrians on paths, a bike lane sealed with fine-graded bitumen offers less resistance and can increase the rolling speed by a couple of kilometres an hour.

Path user education, whether through events, brochures or increased signage, improves the behaviour of path users, and their perceptions of path conflict. One of the best ways of increasing the empathy between user groups is to get them to experience the different modes. This is yet another reason why we need to get more people cycling. Motorists who ride regularly are much more likely to drive safely around cyclists; cyclists who’ve been “belled” know why fear turns to anger; and pedestrians who ride are less likely to perceive conflict.

To bell or not to bell?
This is a tricky question. Cyclists are legally obliged to have a working bell on their bike, but many pedestrians complained bitterly about either being scared out of their wits by the sudden, insistent ringing just at the moment that the cyclist passed, or feeling that the cyclist was ringing the bell as a command to get off the path. In parts of Europe, buses have two different warning devices, a horn, that is used for communicating with motorized traffic, and a bell, like the old tram bells, that ‘tings’ to warn cyclists. I have adopted a similar system for cycling, so I call to pedestrians first, and use my bell as a backup for iPodders or motorized traffic. The important thing is that you use the right tone, whether with bell or ‘bike passing’ call, so that your communication says ‘hi friend, I’m sharing the path and I’m letting you know that I’m coming through’ rather than ‘this is my path, idiot, get out of my way!’.

Courtesy and goodwill go a long way to solving path problems. Remember that every time we are on our bikes we are ambassadors for the whole cycling fraternity and a nod or a smile might turn aside the wrath of the angry pedestrian. After all, cyclists and pedestrians are allies who should unite to reclaim the public space given over to the car.

Path etiquette
Be aware
Expect that pedestrians will use the path, travel slowly and may get in your way. Remember that anger is a common reaction to shock, so don’t frighten people.

Slow down
Pedestrians perceive your speed to be much faster than you do, so they often feel as threatened by fast cyclists as we do with fast traffic. Take it easy in busy areas and when passing pedestrians.

Communicate with pedestrians
Always warn pedestrians of your presence by ringing your bell (gently!) before you get too close or by calling out in a friendly voice, not barking at them to get out of the way.

Give Way
Give way to other users. By law, you must give way to pedestrians on a shared path. Hopefully, pedestrians will sometimes give way to you, too.

Give them space
When overtaking, allow plenty of room between the pedestrian and yourself. Remember how uncomfortable it feels when motor vehicles come too close to you on the road. You are passing people, not doing a slalom.

Play nicely
Being polite isn’t a sign of weakness so thank pedestrians when they stand still or step aside to let you pass safely. Make eye contact and smile – sometimes they will even smile back.

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One Response to "Safe paths: Sharing and caring is the key"

  1. Helen says:

    As a pedestrian on a shared path I find it really disconcerting when cyclists would speed up behind me and very rarely ring their bell. I remembered as a kid the road rule of “Always look towards oncoming traffic”, meaning walk on the right, rather than it coming up behind. So I started walking over on the right so I could see who was coming at me.
    Have just been abused by some woman, who was going quite fast and who deliberately rode close into me, that I should “GET OVER TO THE LEFT”. Hadn’t had a problem with anyone else, they could see that I could see them, and I felt much safer until this incident.

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