Ding-a-Ling: Rogue Bicyclist Responds
by Preston Schiller
To the Editor:
Kerry Johnson’s letter about “rogue cyclist” (Whatcom Watch, September 2012, page 2) raised some interesting issues which deserve a response. Just to clarify; my greatest concern is to maintain shared paths and trails as safe and pleasant as possible for all users. This means that cyclists should be considerate and slow down when they are near folks on foot or slow cyclists and that they should alert them, politely, when overtaking from behind. It also means that folks on foot should be aware of their surroundings and not unnecessarily obstruct cyclists. To stoke the flames of the bicyclist versus pedestrian discussion further I should indicate that I believe that cyclists should not ride on the over-water walkway, especially during its crowded summer times. There is a good slow traffic street (10th) alternative parallel to it on the ridge above.
Evidently our personal preferences about how we would want others to communicate with us as pedestrians or cyclists differ. As a cyclist or walker I prefer polite and specific human voice communication to bells—which I associate with sheep, cattle and dogs undergoing Pavlovian training. Unlike Mr. Johnson I have found that simply ringing a bell or yelling that one is passing without specifying which side often confuses or alarms the other more than a gentle but specific voice message. Perhaps half of trail walkers have something in their ears other than wax and often their eyes are glued to a cell-phone. What should cyclists do about passing these folks? Carry a portable truck horn?
Searching the web and my personal experience a bit I believe that customs, expectations and regulations differ widely among countries. Some European countries require that bicycles be equiped with bells but do not mandate that cyclists use these—only communicate their presence in some manner to walkers. One blog I read noted that in Germany walkers on paths are alarmed by bells since they are only used when walkers must move to make room for the cyclist; other times cyclists are expected to slowly pass walkers leaving at least 3-4 feet of leeway and quietly announcing “Fahrrad (bicycle).”
Not knowing which side is right or left is a different type of problem. In Civil War training (perhaps even earlier step-dance training), instructors confronted with this problem--common to rural youth of that time, had them tie a bit of hay to their left foot and a bit of straw to the right and instead of “left-right-left-right, march!” instructors would yell out “hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot!” to teach proper marching form. Perhaps stalks of hay and straw should be available at trail entrances alongside those dog-doo disposal bags? These days, of course, not many town folk know the difference between hay and straw, so that probably wouldn’t work.
It would help matters a great deal if the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department would become engaged in this issue; deliberating some rules and standards with the public, posting some signage that gives guidance. This may take decades though—witness the many years it took that agency to post little signs identifying streets at trail crossings. Meanwhile folks on foot or cycle, let’s all just try to get along better.
Passing on your left — I mean hay-foot side, Preston
Wolfe Island, Ontario