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.




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