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.