cycling · fitness

Bikes are scary (to others): congested area urban cycling

It’s August, and I’m back in Sydney, Australia for the month, doing research at the University of Sydney, hanging out with friends and enjoying late winter here both inside and outside.  Winters here are very mild– highs are in the 60s/70s F (18–23C) and lows in the upper 40s F (8–11C).  This is like April weather in Boston, so I don’t mind.  It’s perfect cycling and hiking weather.  I didn’t bring a bike with me this time, so I borrowed one from my friend Janine (thanks, Janine!).  It’s the one above– a step-through hybrid with basket on the front, rack and panniers on the back.  It’s heavy as lead, so I can’t go very fast on this baby.  But that’s fine– it is great for tooling around town, grocery shopping, and exploring Sydney’s mixed-use paths near the water.  Yes, that’s the Sydney Opera House in the background.

Today was a lovely day.  It was sunny and in the 60s, so I headed out to the foreshore paths, my first destination the Barangaroo outdoor sculpture show.  Here’s the path I started down.


This picture is misleading– I think the hordes of folks on these paths must have rushed off to get ice cream when I took this shot.  Of course there were tons of people everywhere I went (which is a good thing– I love seeing folks enjoying urban outdoor spaces in cities).

I normally don’t ride a bike in areas like this when I’m home; I avoid the mixed-use paths with lots of pedestrians, strollers, kids on bikes and scooters and dogs.  I do so because I tend to ride faster than would be safe in these areas, and even if I ride slowly, me in cycling kit on a road bike makes parents and dog owners nervous.  However, the bike in the cover photo seems exactly the sort of vehicle designed for these sorts of paths.  It’s slow, not threatening-looking, and I rode it in regular clothing. I even had a friendly looking helmet with a flowery pattern (also Janine’s).


This is not the gear of a scary cyclist.

But despite my non-threatening visage, I got a lot of frightened and a few hostile looks from parents and dog owners.  I made a big point of going very slowly, ringing my bell (the norm here in Australia), saying “I’m on your right”, and even talking to parents when I was coming around them.  Still, several of them clutched their children and looked worried or threatened.

Now I’m very familiar with the phenomenon of kids running in the wrong direction (generally toward danger), and also dogs trotting toward my wheels. This is why I slow way down when I find myself on a mixed use path.  I think it’s good for bikes and people to mix in, as I hope it normalizes urban bike use and maybe even encourages pedestrians to try riding around town, either as commuters or weekend tourists.

In general things went well, but I was frankly surprised that my presence– on that bike, in that helmet, coasting most of the time, caused a bunch of folks to feel uneasy.  It doesn’t mean I won’t ride on mixed-use paths, but I wish I could make people feel more comfortable about slow bike riding in these settings.

So, readers– I have two questions:

  1. Have you found yourself inadvertently scaring people when you rode on a mixed use path?
  2. How do you respond to this?  Do you avoid them?  Do you have any strategies for making slow cycling seem more pedestrian-friendly?  I’d love to hear from you.




11 thoughts on “Bikes are scary (to others): congested area urban cycling

  1. I routinely walk and ride on a mixed use path. While I am as aware and courteous as possible when on my bike, people are often alarmed when I come up behind them despite the bell. When I walk the path I know why: because about 50% of the cyclists go whizzing by without warning and at least a couple of times a week I have the thought “if I had wandered even a little off my ‘course’ that would have been bad.” That’s me, walking alone, no kids or dog. So I don’t think there is anything to be done. I loved Vancouver’s sea wall because it has two separate paths, one for bikes and one for people on foot. I don’t think mixed use pathways are very safe. And it goes the same way for bikes. Sam had an awful run-in with a skateboard gone wrong when she was on her bike on a mixed use path. And it’s very scary / annoying on a bike to encounter a roller blader when you’re trying to get up a hill and they’re taking up the whole thing trying to do the same.

  2. I think that the bike paths should be totally separately from rest of the paths. You can’t go as fast as you want when you have to share the paths with horses, people walking on foot, dogs, etc.

  3. The mixed use paths around Lake Tahoe told people to walk on the left and bike on the right. Unfortunately for me I was on roller skates (I play derby and couldn’t pack both quads and inlines for this trip) and even though all the bikes were not-great casual rentals, they went faster than me. It was fine, just lots of on-your-lefts. I have a hearing loss and usually can’t hear a bike bell very well. A slightly wider path would be nice.

  4. I use to walk and ride a lot sometimes on mixed use paths before my knee injury. I would sometimes be startled but just the same way one is startled out while in deep thought sitting in my chair at home let’s say. Startled doesn’t always indicate fear, just surprise. I personally like it when a bicyclist shouts what side of me they are going on it helps me know how to respond. While biking however I have been hurt by people jogging as I try to swerve from their path. So I would just carry on, you are probably one in hundreds that are being courteous. And also keep in mind some are fearful and angry from things totally unrelated to your riding. For example maybe their child was talking back to them or like me they were struck by a car while on foot and simply fear walking in congested areas.

  5. My favorite story. I say “on your left” without thinking, to a very young girl on a bike. She wails back, “But I don’t know my left from my right.” “Just stay right where you are. It’ll be fine.”

    But seriously I have some bad falls on multiuse pathways and I really worry about the ninja runners, in all black, with headphones in.


    And here’s my post on riding, not racing, on the path,

  6. Love this post! Yes, unfortunately in Sydney I frequently have people clutch their friends / children on my approach. 🙁 In my efforts to promote the example that slower / vulnerable users have priority, I go super slowly until they notice me, or I go around really wide (even off the path) if there is room. I use it as a game of slow riding skills. 🙂 If I feel I need to ring my bell (if the pedestrian is in the middle of the path), I try to do it from as far away as I can. Hopefully these little efforts will help normalise bicycle use, but Sydney has a long way to go!

  7. It can be a problem. Not all mixed used paths through the whole pathway is the same. Only certain sections in any city. For myself for the routes I do often, that’s 25% of the route. I do try to ring my bell in advance. I thank children who immediately move to the right, etc.

    I yell at people ahead, when I’m going down a hill and need to spring uphill.

    The problem can be dog walkers. This is why separated bike lanes can be better on the road .if done properly.

    I avoid certain sections at different times of day when I know there will be heavier use by pedestrians, roller bladers and joggers.

  8. We have a mixed use path in a park near us that is part of the cross city bike trail. People whiz around this 1.3 mile loop like they’re in the home stretch of the Tour and about to take the Yellow Jersey! It’s sad to to me because my kids like to learn how to ride their bikes on this same path and I wish the cyclists were more courteous. I know that when I ride, I try to be aware of the fact that I’m not that noisy and could possibly scare someone into running in front of me and causing us both some harm. I agree with Imperium….on the left in a friendly voice is a good way to approach the non bikers on your route.

  9. I routinely use a mixed path as a way to get to uni everyday along with plenty of others. Unfortunately, I have experienced pushing and verbal abuse on this particular path. However, these are just a couple of incidents in the hundreds of times I’ve used this path so I will persist with using this path as it is (laughably) my safest route. So how have am I trying to sweeten the situation? Well- my bell is my best friend when approaching a pedestrian or going round a blind corner I ring my bell. Usually, the pedestrian will step to the side or look behind them. I then slow my speed down and as I pass I say a simple thank you. Even when someone doesn’t give me room I will still say thank you as I pass, perhaps this is slightly counter productive but I hope it makes them think cyclists are friendly folk maybe I should move over next time.

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