“Multi-Use” Paths Aren’t Really

I recently responded to a thread on a local forum about multi-use path etiquette, and thought this was a pretty good statement of why paths are bad for cyclists, so I thought i’d repurpose it for here.

That’s why I must object to the way some people behave on our bike paths. Of all the thousands of miles of streets and sidewalks in Madison, we bicyclists have only a few narrow paths which we can call our own. Yet every day, I pass dozens of non-bicyclists who take over these trails and treat them like their own personal playgrounds. They stroll two or three abreast, oblivious to the fact that they are blocking traffic from behind. They walk on the left side of the road, or suddenly lurch from the right lane to the left without a thought for what might be behind them. They walk dogs. They carry infants, push baby carriages, and let their young children roam unsupervised. It is at best a constant annoyance, and at worst a grave danger to everyone involved.

Bike paths may not be strictly for bikes, but they’re for people who want to move. If you’re jogging or inline skating, fine. If you’re just walking or goofing around, please use the sidewalk instead.

Your basic problem here is that you’ve fallen for the propaganda: those pushing the paths call them “multi-use paths” when they’re selling them to pedestrians or trying to get funding, and “bike paths” when they’re selling them to cyclists. Ultimately, the least common denominator (or, in this case, the broadest denominator) prevails: they’re multi-use paths, because there’s nothing restricting them, except to motor vehicles.

And they’re a bad idea, for this reason. Pedestrians and bicycles just don’t mix:

  • Motor vehicles: low maneuverability, moderate-to-high speed.
  • Cyclists: low maneuverability, moderate speed.
  • Pedestrians: high maneuverability, low speed.

While each group is a bit different, in town bicycles are much more like motor vehicles than they are like pedestrians. Bicycles are only slightly more maneuverable than motor vehicles—really only the difference of their lower inertial mass and shorter wheel base—and the speed advantage is largely negated by speed limits. In contrast, pedestrians are capable of abrupt changes in movement—stopping essentially instantly, or making a 90deg change in direction with no warning, or even moving abruptly sideways without changing the overall direction of travel. Now, pedestrians don’t have to do these things—but bicycles and motor vehicles can’t do these things. Which feeds into the next point:

There aren’t really any established “rules of the sidewalk”, like there are “rules of the road”. There are some guidelines in various places—like the Madison City website about the multi-use paths cited earlier–but they aren’t nearly-universally agreed upon, like the rules of the road are, nor are they generally known to the public. Even those who believe in such things don’t disseminate them to the general populace—not in the way that drivers’ ed, and TV shows, and ads and music videos, and parental guidance disseminates the rules of the road to just about everybody. Which means that, as a practical matter, you can’t expect pedestrians to behave predictably or sensibly. Some most assuredly do—but you never know if the one you’re coming up on is going to turn out to be one of them, so they may as well all behave unpredictably and non-sensibly.

Personally, I use the multi-use paths sometimes in the winter [i ride studded tires, so don’t really care about the condition of the path], and sometimes on my ride to work (which is well after dark, and the paths are therefore basically empty), but pretty much avoid them the rest of the time. Not only are they frustrating, but they’re more dangerous than the roads. On the roads, I have good visibility at just about every intersection, and the cross traffic can see me. Many of the road-path intersections, however, have horrible visibility, combined with ambiguous signage, which means I never know if the motor vehicles are going to stop when they should, and half the time I can’t tell whether they or I should–so i certainly don’t know if they can tell. So I basically have to slow way down at every single intersection, and often stop unnecessarily. Which isn’t a ridiculous burden, but it is unnecessary when I could just ride a block or 2 over and be able to go for miles without stopping [with a little luck in catching the lights]–or, at the very least, not have to stop every single block. Furthermore, motor vehicles are highly predictable. Even given that some drivers are horrible [so are some cyclists, to head off that issue], simple physics prevents them from making abrupt changes in motion.

I submit to you that it is an engineering flaw to build a path and expect it to accomodate both foot and bicycle traffic in the same lane. A bicycle travels at 5 times the speed of a pedestrian. This would be like driving your car at 60MPH down a one-lane highway, and every couple of miles, finding yourself behind some old Grandpa doing 12MPH in his Model-T. That’s not just annoying, it’s downright dangerous, as well as illegal. Yet we allow this on our bike paths – why?

So, you recognize the problem with putting pedestrians and bicycles on the same right-of-way. Now, make the logical conclusion from that fact: separate them. You can’t control the world, so booting the pedestrians off the multi-use paths isn’t an option. So, boot yourself off the multi-use paths. Get on the street, where you belong. Where we [cyclists] belong. It’s safer. It’s more efficient (there are a lot more streets than bike paths, so they generally give you a more-direct route to your destination).

2-3 abreast walkers and cyclists are a common occurrence when I commute on the bike-paths. Walking in the middle of the path as well. Some walkers walk right, some left. Some strollers and pets all over the place as well. Tourists from the Monona Terrace standing in the middle of the bike path (when there is a separate walking path right in front of them). [snip] Whenever passing I try to be respectful and wait until a safe spot and say “passing on your left” if someone seems clueless.

Here’s the problem with that: if they’re sufficiently clueless about sharing with mixed-mode traffic, what makes you think they’ll reflexively understand “on your left”? And that’s assuming they hear it, and hear it correctly. Some people have headphones on too loudly, or are simply zoning out. But the bigger problem is simple physics: you’re shouting into the wind when you’re biking along and say “on your left”. It often comes out as “mumblemumbleLEFT”. Having been the pedestrian in those situations, if i respond at all, I’m likely to jump to my left, reflexively. Most often, by the time my brain processes it and figures out what to do, the cyclist is already past me. So I really question the usefulness of that particular little habit. Makes some sense when a cyclist is passing a cyclist–because another cyclist is likely to know what you’re talking about, and the speed differential is lower so they have more time to process and react.

robbie webber:
Conversely, I frequently have people ask me why there are bicyclists on Willy St, when the “bike path” is only a block away. I point out that they are probably trying to get somewhere, thought the path was too slow for them, and perhaps the frustrated driver might be able to travel more quickly, with fewer slow-moving street users on E Washington.

Here, here! The number of drivers on secondary or tertiary streets who yell at my when I’m cycling (obeying all the traffic laws, and often at the speed limit) is amazing. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that I’ve chosen the road i’m on for the same reason they have: it’s the most convenient. If using the major thoroughfare isn’t an option for them, why should they assume the multi-use path is an option for me? You might also point out to them that the multi-use path in question has a large number of blind and poorly-signed intersections. So I bike on Willy St because it’s safer.

And the proper response to “GET ON THE PATH!!!” is “GET ON THE HIGHWAY!!!”

A couple minor points that don’t really fit with the rest of the essay:

I do often wonder whether it is legal to bike on the sidwalk that runs in front of the capitol. It’s not directly in front of the capitol (there’s plenty of lawn) but somehow it still FEELS wrong to me. I still do it rather than be the obnoxious douchebag who rides down the bike lane of a one way road going the wrong way.

Yeah, because riding the correct way on a one-way road clearly isn’t an option. If the extra few blocks [to go around the square the right direction] is gonna kill you, maybe getting off your bike and walking it on the sidewalk would be a better solution?

Riding/walking with headphones is a pet peeve of mine (you’re taking away your entire sense of hearing)

That’s not necessarily true. Unless the headphones block out the ambient noise, you can hear just as well with them as without, provided they aren’t too loud. In fact, in very windy weather conditions I can hear [i]better[/i] with headphones on, because they eliminate the whistling of the wind that I otherwise hear (and which can be loud enough to drown out even some cars). In any case, compared to the soundproofing and stereos of motor vehicles, it’s pretty much a non-issue.

Many of you have said that bikers should just stick to the road if we don’t want to deal with others who use the path. Well..how many cyclists die every year because many motorists don’t respect that they are on the roads?

Not all that many. And being on a sidewalk or sidepath doesn’t necessarily reduce that risk–it all depends on the details of its construction. Think of the guy who nearly got his head squished a few months ago while riding on the path over near Atwood. Intersections (including driveways, etc.) are by far where the majority of accidents occur [for all vehicles, not just bicycles], and both sidewalks and many multi-use paths have less-well-designed intersections than the roads do, significantly increasing the risk of a collision there, while not appreciably decreasing the risk between intersections (because it’s so low already).

And while the research is far from conclusive, there [i]seems[/i] to be a correlation between the number of cyclists on the roads, and the number of cyclists hit by cars: the more cyclists, the smaller the %age of them that get hit.

Don’t also forget the very real danger of being doored by a parked car, especially if you’re cruising pretty quickly; hence the recently passed ordinance.

Good rule of thumb: if you’re close enough to be doored, you’re too close. Because that also doesn’t give you enough room to dodge, if a motorist isn’t paying attention or there’s something in the road that you shouldn’t run over.


One comment on ““Multi-Use” Paths Aren’t Really

  1. Dave in KY says:

    When on Multi-use trails, I use the same collision avoidance algorithms that prevent me from running into people in hallways at work and such. There are no rigidly defined right-of-way rules, instead I use the rules evolved since my ancestors were little monkeys that also didn’t run into each other.

    And yeah, this means I have to slow way the heck down, look at facial expressions, and whatnot.

    Overtaking people on foot is a definite problem. I used to be sure to say “on your left” from hella far back, so they’d have plenty of processing time. But more recently I got a bell (the most excellent Incredibell Omnibell), and have gotten much better results. Plus it’s surprisingly fun and expressive to ding. Not so clumsy or random as a car horn. An elegant tool, for a more civilized day. (Sorry).

    Sustained pulls of 15mph on a congested trail is right out. I’m not above coming to a *complete* stop if there’s loose dogs, or people passing other people. As you say, if I need speed, I take the road.

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