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On Your Left, Indeed

The terms “bike safety” and “bike etiquette” are most often used in reference to the many challenges of biking on roads alongside cars and other motor vehicles. It wasn’t until I began spending summer evenings biking on the Custis Trail, a popular bike path in Northern Virginia, that I started considering the complexities of biker to biker and biker to pedestrian interactions.

On a narrow and twisty trail like the Custis, passing is the foremost issue for all users. With an abundance of joggers, walkers, people with dogs and mothers pushing strollers, bikers are inevitably the biggest passers (one would hope). When passing other cyclists or any of the aforementioned slower moving users, bikers have three options: they can remain silent, call out a simple “on your left,” or ring a bell.

It seems that the best possible option is to cause as little disturbance as possible. If someone is using the trail properly on the right side and appears to be maintaining a direct line of movement, it makes little sense to announce your presence loudly and abruptly upon reaching them. Chances are they have heard your bike chains behind them, so only if completely necessary a very calm “on your left” should ensure that your path will not be obstructed.

Ringing a bell makes little sense for a number of reasons. First, just as getting honked at while driving can make a person unnecessarily flustered and anxious, a bell can be equally as shell-shocking to a trail user. Having someone ring their bell at me while I’m biking makes me immediately assume I am doing something wrong or am about to get rear-ended by the cyclists. Common sense will tell you that ringing a bell provides no direction or specific information. Do you want someone to get out of your way? Do they need to move more right? Or are you really just trying to say “I know you’re slowly jogging well to the right of the trail, but I just wanted to announce to everyone that I am flying by you.”

As bicycle advocates we should encourage all types of people to use urban trails and not make them feel that they are moving too slowly or are a hindrance to bicyclists.

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