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Bicyclists have right of way on the path?

East Coast version:
Article by Tom Revay

On Sunday, August 24, 2001, the Boston Globe's Travel section published an article about the East Bay Bicycle Path that runs along the shore of Narragansett Bay in Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island. I've ridden on this path. I can report that it's smooth, well marked, and in fine summer weather, it can provide a pleasant experience for cyclists who are familiar with and willing to accept the customs of shared-pathway bicycling.

What customs are these? Simply put, the cyclist must accept the responsibility of operating the largest, most dangerous device on the path. The cyclist also must assume that no one else on the path will behave with the awareness and level of care necessary for safety around bicycles, and so, the cyclist must disproportionately accept these burdens.

If the cyclist is not prepared to accept these requirements, then he or she should take to the road where the principles of traffic operation are known and practiced, and are taught in driver training courses, tested in motor vehicle operator's examinations, and enforced by the local and state police. None of these conditions exist on the East Bay Path, or any other path that I have ever seen.

Unfortunately, the public does not understand this burden of responsibility, and articles such as the Globe's, that contained the following statement, perpetuate the myth of cyclist safety on paths:

You share the path with serious cyclists (eyes on their destination), recreational cyclists, walkers, joggers, in-line skaters, and families out for a stroll, but there is a pecking order, and bikes have the right of way. Good signage at each entrance (''Walkers keep left facing oncoming cyclists'') makes it work.

Declaring that bicyclists have "the right of way" on this or any other path means nothing in practice. Consider your interaction with that paragraph's recreational cyclists, walkers, joggers, in-line skaters, and families (which imply the presence of children) with whom you will share the path. Should you hit any of them, or a dog, a fixed object, or a motor vehicle when crossing a road or driveway, you will be hurt at least as much as anyone else whether or not you enjoy the right-of-way. Thus, maintaining your own well-being is your responsibility, and no one else's.

In addition, if signs "work," then I would enjoy understanding this magical effect, because I haven't observed it. Adult pedestrians cannot be assumed to follow set rules and should not be expected to obey signs when out for a leisurely stroll. Playing children and house pets are similarly unaffected by warning signs.

Yet the Globe writer's words strike a chord with me. Not so long ago, I held the same mythical belief in path safety that is verbalized in the Globe article. Ironically, my coming-of-age experience about pathway cycling occurred on that same East Bay path in Bristol, on Labor Day, 1997. The East Bay Path is painted to look like a roadway, with dotted yellow lines down the middle. However, it's narrow -- too narrow for pedestrians to share a lane with oncoming bicycle traffic. Of course, at that time I was in the mindset of this reporter, thinking that, because it's a "bike path" that looks like a roadway, it's really a "bike road." And being a "bike road," I could ride straight, nearly as quickly as I would on the road, and enjoy the "right of way."

On this warm, clear day I rode south on the path with a fine tailwind that permitted me to travel without great effort at about 17 MPH. This speed is significantly below motor speeds on ordinary roadways, and it was also slower than I would have gone on a road with a similar tailwind. With this knowledge, I felt comfortable riding at this speed on the East Bay Path.

At one point, I passed two older men who were riding their upright bicycles side-by-side. I offered a cheery greeting to them as I went by. Then, a short distance ahead, I saw a man standing just off the right edge of the pathway. He was facing west, with his left shoulder toward me, and he held a small child with his left hand.

Recognizing the child as a risk, I moved entirely into the path's left lane to give him plenty of room as I passed. That seemed like the safe thing to do. And that's when, without warning, a young girl whom I could not see darted out from behind the man, on his right side, and ran directly into my path. The child couldn't have been older than 2 years.

I shouted something blasphemous, grabbed at my brakes, and swerved my bike sharply in some direction - left or right, I cannot recall. The child cleared my bike by inches as I went past. I felt the rear wheel lift off the path. I put my foot down, and fell off the bike. When I got up off the ground, I apologized to the man for swearing. He said it was all right, given the circumstances.

That's when the two older gents whom I'd passed rode up on their bikes. One looked at me, and in an Italian accented voice, accused me of being a maniac, a lunatic, a fool, and a dozen other unsavory things. "You coulda killed her!", he screamed. The man with the children added, "You -were- riding too fast, you know." The Italian continued, "Why don't you go in the street if you're gonna ride like that?"

At that moment, this statement made no sense to me. Were I driving a car at 17 MPH on a roadway, I'd have been going too slow to suit motorists following me on most roads. I would also have lacked the maneuverability in a car that I have on my bike at that speed. Under those circumstances, I would not have been able to avoid striking the child if I had been driving a car, yet I was able to prevent a crash on my bike.

On the road, too, the father who failed to restrain his toddler would have been the responsible party if that child were to dart into traffic. The vehicle operator who had no warning that a young child would appear out of a hidden place could not be at fault under the rules of the road. So why should I, riding my bike on a "bike road" be held to a greater level of care than a driver of a motor vehicle on a "car road"?

This occurs because pedestrians on shared-use paths will not behave as though they are walking on a roadway. This is true regardless of whether signs are posted, yellow lines are painted, and "rights of way" are declared. Even if you call it a bike path, pedestrians will be on it, and they use it as they would a sidewalk. This might not be "right" - but it is true.

Today, I ride on pathways at my pleasure, or if they are convenient to my journey. However, I am aware that I travel slower than most other adult cyclists on them. I ride on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, for example, because I'm willing to go slow rather than struggle on congested U.S. 6A south of Orleans or noisy route 6 north of Eastham. But I avoid the section that crosses and re-crosses MA route 124 near Long Pond because my journey is faster and less hazardous when I ride on the highway there, even in high-season summer traffic.

I also avoid the East Bay Path in Bristol in summer because of its narrowness, its crowding, its many crossings of side roads and driveways, and because the main road through Bristol is fine for cycling and accesses local businesses. Plus, I'm spooked by that path. For me, it has bad karma.

Nearly five years after this difficult incident, I was riding my touring bike, loaded with a weekend's gear, on MA route 27 in Whitman. While traveling again at about 17 MPH, and adjacent to a row of on-street parked cars, a nearly identical scenario was replayed: a small child darted out into the road, directly into my path, appearing from behind a man waiting to cross the road.

In this case, though, I was nearly in the center of the lane, staying far enough from the parked cars to avoid being struck by a swinging-open car door, while the road behind me was empty for some distance. Being well into the lane gave me room to swerve around the child while controlling my weighted bike and bring it to a safe halt.

After I passed the child, the man charged into the road and scooped up the little one. Then he walked over to me. He apologized for not restraining the child, and he thanked me for being able to avoid a collision.

"These things happen. No harm done," I said. He apologized once more.

Then I went on my way, riding as I always try to do: as a skilled touring cyclist on the roadway, not a "reckless maniac fool" on the bike path.

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Contents 2001, Tom Revay