Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Who's the Bad Guy?

I just stumbled across a news article about a fatal bicycle-pedestrian crash on a trail in Dallas. A jogger, wearing earbuds, changed direction suddenly into the path of an oncoming bicycle. The impact knocked her to the ground and she sustained fatal head injuries. There was no mention of injuries to the bicycle rider or other details about the crash.

Going by the photos, the trail is a standard 12-foot path without any pavement markings. There is a pedestrian sidepath along some stretches. Local residents complain that the trail gets unbearably crowded at certain times of day.

Response to the incident has been a little bit rash. People identifying themselves as walkers, joggers, or bicyclists have been confronting each other at meetings and in the media. The trail managers have issued a long list of safety guidelines - such as 'stay to the right' and 'turn down volume on your headphones' - and are hosting safety classes. Many local leaders are calling for a 10 MPH speed limit for bicycles.

This gets to the heart of how we collectively understand bicycling and non-motorized facilities. First of all, imagine if someone hits and kills a pedestrian while driving their car on the road, with the pedestrian at fault. Would the speed limit on that road promptly be cut in half? Would all drivers be demonized? Not a bit. It would probably be ignored. If anything, they might put up warning signs or barricades for pedestrians. Not that I advocate restricting pedestrian access, but many of our traffic engineers do...

There was no information about the speed at which the bicycle was traveling with the crash occurred, so there are no grounds for saying that a speed limit would have prevented it. Even if you could enforce a speed limit. They have no laws governing bicycle or pedestrian operations on a trail, and thus no way to determine if someone is behaving unsafely - coming to close to other users, swerving/running into another user's path, or failing to control dogs or children. Did the jogger do something truly wrong by changing direction into the path of a bicyclist without looking? Should that action be illegal?

Although shared-use trails create a high potential for conflict between bicycle riders and people on foot, they are considered "safe" spaces where a single crash is unacceptable, even if you have to compromise convenience of use. On the street, we assume that crashes will happen and hesitate to impede vehicle flow to prevent them. Is this right?

Ultimately, the real fault here is the design of the trail. It has been way over capacity for years. If three feet is generally regarded as the safe passing distance at speed, how wide would the trail need to be to have two-way traffic with frequent passing? Bicycles need about 4 feet of operating width each, and pedestrians need 2.5 feet or more per person. Add children - in baby strollers and bike trailers - and you need even more space. And rollerbladers have a 9-foot operational width.

If the Katy Trail were a road, it probably would have been widened, or at least redesigned. But again, it was not held to the same standards as roads, leading to congestion and conflicts. Shooing cyclists off the path onto local streets isn't the answer either, unless your city has done a heck of a job making them bicycle-friendly. If the trail is popular, there is a reason for that. We shouldn't have to choose between unsafe trails and unpopular ones... So let's hope that America's trail engineers study this incident, and use it to create safer path designs with appropriate capacity for all their users.


  1. Nobody's the bad guy here. At some point you gotta step back and admit that life isn't fair, accidents happen. Common sense says you probably shouldn't be listening to loud music when there is the potential for human interaction over 10mph, and if you're going to do it anyway, you definitely shouldn't change directions suddenly. The only reason anyone would bring up potential new laws or regulations or safety classes here is because it's just a sad story. Once people forget about the story, back to real life. You can't legislate common sense.

  2. I thought of this Tuesday riding home on the PATH and, I swear to God, Michelle, it nearly happened.

    A runner was in the middle of the PATH by Across the Street, moving a bit back and forth across the line. I rang my bell several times, slowed, yelled, "On your left!" then, "PICK A SIDE, GUY." Headphones mashed into his ears, he didn't hear me until I was at his shoulder.

    Passing him, I found I was a little shaken from the encounter. What if he had weaved left into me?

    This is why I never run with earphones. And why I practice standard stay-to-the-right etiquette.

  3. Both good points, totally agreed! Clearly, people don't really think of paths as part of the transportation system, like they do roads. Kyle, I have had enough close calls, like yours, on paths that I pretty much avoid them as much as I can.

  4. This is why I try to avoid any pedestrian/cycling paths. Where I use to live there WERE posted and enforced speed limits on these types of flat fast running paths. It can happen. My thoughts are if you MUST run/or ride with music wear one ear bud in the right hand side. As for us cyclist screaming down a path at 20 plus MPH is a bit extreme...put the tires on a road. Pedestrians are not the only ones guilty of this, fess up, us cyclist can be rule benders as well. I agree though you cannot legislate common sense.