Friday, July 20, 2012

Sharing our trails and avoiding conflicts

As most people have heard, in June a woman walking on the Four Mile Run Trail was struck by a passing bicyclist. The woman fell, hit her head, and later died. The story was reported in the the Post and on the WashCycle. The Post article generated 593 comments. The WashCycle article generated a large number of comments as well.

Anyone who rides the W&OD Trail on a nice weekend is well aware of the problems of mixing walkers, joggers, parents with strollers, and bicyclists on our trails. From my experience the situation seems to be getting worse although folks at NVRPA, who manage the trail, say they have not seen an increase in reported incidents. Personally I see more and more fast cyclists who pass too close, pass when there's oncoming traffic, don't give an audible warning, and otherwise ride aggressively.

While the incident on the Four Mile Run trail may not have been related to a fast cyclist passing someone too close, there is always a danger when a cyclist passes a pedestrian faster than is appropriate.

In the latest issue of Spokes Magazine, an excellent, free local bike magazine available in local shops, there are two articles on using our local trails. I've included both articles in full. They are well worth the time to read.

Another good article on the same subject, not included here, is by Tim Fricker, the Vienna Pedaler writing in the Vienna Patch entitled W&OD Behavior.

As Chris Eatough writes below, a collision between a bicyclist and pedestrian that results in the death of the pedestrian is extremely rare. Compare that single incident to the daily traffic reports we hear about motor vehicle crashes, many that result in injury and death. We somehow seem to take those incidents in stride.

Here are the Spokes Magazine articles:

Behind Bars by Chris Eatough (

Trail Courtesy – Sharing the Way 

In last month’s SPOKES I wrote about the amazing utility of the off-street trail network known as the Arlington Loop. Thousands of people enjoy these trails every day, both on bike and on foot, and they serve a significant transportation function within Arlington and connecting to neighboring D.C., Alexandria and Fairfax County.

Unfortunately on the morning of Monday, June 11, a tragedy occurred on the Four Mile Run Trail, a por- tion of the Arlington Loop near Columbia Pike, when a cyclist and pedestrian collided.

The cyclist was heading in the same direction as the pedestrian and rang his bell and called out “on your left” as he approached. The pedestrian, Ita Lapina, moved left as she turned around. They collided and Mrs. Lapina was knocked down, striking her head on the ground. Mrs. Lapina died in the hospital that eve- ning. The worst possible outcome from a miscommuni- cation and a horrible situation for everyone involved.

While this end result is extremely unusual (as far as we can tell, this is the first incident in Arlington where a cyclist/pedestrian collision resulted in a fatality), it does focus attention on trail etiquette and behavior that keep our beloved trails safe. This is a focus of BikeArlington outreach on an ongoing basis, in fact a couple of years ago we teamed up with our friends at WalkArlington to create the flyer:

Two Wheels or Two Feet: Sharing the Way 

This is great information for all of us! As you can see, the flyer equally addresses tips for cyclists AND pedestrians. Sharing and communication is a two-way street and all trail users need to be aware of their sur- rounds and avoid anything that endangers themselves or others. We also have a Spanish version of the same material.

The flyer mostly speaks for itself, but here are a couple of my personal additions to the flyer that I think are important for us cyclists to consider:
  • Chill out! These are multi-use trails, not bike race tracks. Keep a reasonable speed, slow down to pass pedestrians or other cyclists, and give them plenty of space. If you are looking for high speed training, choose the open road. 
  • Use your bell – a lot! I ring mine well before I pass, basically as soon as I am within audible distance. Then I keep on ringing as I approach. The multiple rings help communicate the rate of approach, and also the side of the trail that I am on. It’s a friendly sounding bell so I really don’t think anyone finds this obnoxious. 
  • Be completely in control at all times. That includes expecting the unexpected, riding at a reasonable speed, maintaining a safety buffer all around you and being alert. 
  • Keep it friendly. Everyone on the trail is your ally. These are people choosing human powered mobility! There is no place for road rage on the trails. I always give a little wave and say “thank you” right after passing a pedestrian or cyclist. The friendly interaction goes a long way. 
I urge everyone to keep the “Sharing the Way” tips forefront in their minds when they are on the go. Our trails are no place for EMTs and ambulances.

by John Torrisi 

There is a battle raging in Washington, which is characterized by a power struggle and partisan strife.

WHILE THIS IS NOTHING NEW to Washington, this battle is not being waged on a particular hill nor does it involve any politicians. Regardless, it is just as contentious and its parties are just as divided.

Unlike many other Washington turf battles, this one is actually over terra firma or more precisely—asphalt and cement.

The Washington metropolitan area has hundreds of miles of mixed-use trails, which wind in and around the District and its many suburbs. These public trails cater to a diverse user base comprised of runners, walkers, rollerbladers, and cyclists of all abilities. The relatively narrow trails, usually eight to 10 feet wide, bring pedestrians and cyclists into conflict and some- times direct contact.

“The mix between the different users is problematic on a heavily used trail, such as the Capital Crescent Trail or the Mount Vernon Trail, but it is necessary that walkers and runners all mix safely,” said Ron Tripp, chairman of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. “Users who pay attention to safety nor- mally follow rules and guidelines...those who don’t, don’t.”

Tripp leads the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, an advisory and advocacy group comprised of volunteers representing runners, walkers, and cyclists. While the organization often lobbies for trail modi- fications, it is dependent on local, state, and federal governments to approve and fund its suggestions. The multi-jurisdictional nature of area trails, which cut through multiple counties and even states, makes it difficult to implement any improvements.

The trails’ multi-jurisdictional nature also complicates bicycle crash reporting. Each government has a dif- ferent crash-reporting standard and the area governments do not always exchange crash data. Data collec- tion is further hampered by the fact that most bicycle crashes, not involving serious injury, go unreported.

“We only capture a small percentage of crashes that actually happen,” said Greg Billing, the outreach and advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “There is just not great data overall, and this is just a way for us to try and get just a little bit of insight into what happens.”

WABA first began collecting bicycle crash data six months ago and has yet to publish its findings. WABA’s system relies on cyclists to self-report crashes and focuses mainly on roadway incidents involving cyclists and motorists. Since the program just started this year, historical data is also not available for analysis.

According to Billing, serious collisions are relatively rare; however, there are often close calls between cyclists and pedestrians especially during the trails’ busiest times. These near misses have led to a blame game and a rift between area cyclists and pedestrians.

Pedestrians and cyclists each hold differing views on who is responsible for unsafe trail conditions. Pedestrians argue that the near collisions stem from cyclists operating at unreasonable, unsafe speeds. Cyclists contend that they operate at a safe speed, and that it is distracted runners and walkers, who are creating an unsafe envi- ronment. While both parties are deeply divided, they do agree that area trails’ aging infrastructure is inadequate and needs to be modernized.

Speeding Tripp said he frequently receives complaints from angry walkers complaining about bikers going too fast.

Dolores Cole, a regular walker on Mount Vernon Trail, blames cyclists for creating a dangerous environment by operating at unsafe speeds and executing dangerous passes with little or no warning.

“I think the bikers treat the trails as their domain, and most of the time they don’t notify walkers,” Cole said.

The 67-year-old grandmother said that she is often forced off the trail’s pavement by speeding cyclists.

Tripp said that walkers, like Cole, sometimes overesti- mate cyclists’ speeds due to a perception difference. Even so, “bikers need to realize that if they pass walkers too closely at normal speeds, the sensation to the walker is much the same as a car passing a bike at 60 mph to 75 mph, which is four to five times the speed of a bike,” he said. “Bikers want motorists to pass them at a safe distance, they need to realize that the same is true with bikes and walkers.”

Billing acknowledged some of the more experienced cyclists, especially those on teams, speed on the trails.

“All of our trails have a 15 mph speed limit, which is not hard to do on those trails,” Billing said. [FABB editor note: The W&OD trail does not have a speed limit.] “You’ll often see people doing 17 mph to 22 mph, which is way too fast especially when you’re passing kids, dogs, and strollers.”

Based on WABA data, Billing estimates that 10 per- cent of crashes are completely outside of cyclist’s con- trol and even experienced cyclists are susceptible to this type of crashes, which stem from errors by other trail users or equipment failure. “If you are doing 20 mph, it is going to be harder to stop yourself especially if there are other people behind you,” he said.

Late this year, local authorities stepped up speed enforcement on local trails. Last month, Arlington County Police deployed an officer with a speed gun on the Custis Trail, who wrote several tickets to speed- ing cyclists. According to Billing, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department has also stepped up its bicycle speed enforcement efforts as well.

Distracted Users

Lori Zibel, 20, of Washington is an avid runner, who also recently had a near miss with a passing cyclist. Zibel, a sophomore at George Washington University, uses the area’s mixed-use trails as part of her mara- thon-training regime.

“I was running the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Virginia and I was almost hit by a passing cyclist,” Zibel said.

Zibel admitted that she was partly to blame for the near-collision. Like many other runners, she was running with headphones and was unable to hear the cyclist’s audible warning.

“I am dependent on music to get me through a work- out,” Zibel said. “I try to put the volume on low...but often times I find myself turning it up as my workout intensifies.” Zibel is part of a growing number of trail users who are distracted by their personal music devices.

Peter McSwain, a recreational cyclist, believes that this distraction is the single worst safety issue affecting area trails.

“You just have to watch out for them...I have a bell on my bike and sometimes they can hear it, sometimes they can’t, sometimes they react, and sometimes they don’t,” the 61-year-old recreational cyclist said. “You just have to cross your fingers and time your passings the best you can.”

James Bellora, an experienced cyclist who rides com- petitively for Squadra Coppi, shared McSwain’s sentiments. He said that he hit a distracted jogger a couple of years ago on the Mount Vernon Trail.

“So many people are wearing earbuds, it has very much become a problem,” Bellora said. “I’ll say ‘passing, passing, passing, passing’ and they will look totally surprised or they will get spooked when I do.”

Headphone usage is not limited to pedestrians. An increasing number of cyclists are also using the devic- es. Bellora said that his club recently banned head- phones and personal music devices on all of its rides.

WABA has always advocated against earbud usage and other types of distracted riding. “When we are doing trail site outreach, we let people know that biking with headphones is a big issue and it is unsafe to use them,” Billing said. “ We have to use all of our senses to be safe out and it is unsafe to have something that prevents you from hearing other cyclists, cars, or pedestrians.

The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail recently published an open letter on its website, which encour- aged all of its trail users to take out their earbuds and stay alert.


Many area trails were not designed for the level of use that they receive especially during peak hours. This congestion creates conflict between trails’ diverse user groups, who are all vying for a limited amount of space.

The Capital Crescent and Mount Vernon Trails are both heavily trafficked and frequently congested. The Capital Crescent Trail is like a bicycle highway during weekday commuting hours, while the Mount Vernon Trail is crowded with families on weekends. Congestion is not the only infrastructure problem plaguing area trails. Some of the area’s oldest trails are in desperate need of resurfacing and widening.

“There are definitely trails that need work and need upgrading,” Billing said.

One such trail is the Rock Creek Park multi-use trail. Portions of the trail are unpaved and suffer from sig- nificant erosion. The trail’s paved portions need to be replaced, and in some instances rerouted. Current National Park Service (NPS) plans call for the trail to be resurfaced and widened to a minimum width of 6 feet and a maximum width of 10 feet. Billing said that this upgrade has been in the works for 10 years and that construction will most likely move forward in 2012.

Many trail users have advocated for similar improve- ments on other trails, which they believe will reduce conflict and promote safety. Billing said trail users must understand that trail renovation projects do not happen overnight and are contingent on funding and environmental assessments.

“Upgrading trails is expensive and takes a lot of plan- ning to get them improved and expanded,” Billing said. “It is not something that happens the mean time we’ll work with what we have.”

NPS officials, who administer the Mount Vernon Trail and other area trails, said that they are continuously looking to improve safety on area trails through incre- mental changes.

In the past few years, they have focused their efforts on reengineering and rebuilding dangerous intersec- tions and interchanges. NPS officials said that their crews and contractors regularly perform preventative maintenance and trail rehabilitation. Many officials and users agreed that the onus is on trail users to create and maintain a safe trail environment.

“Bicyclists and other trail users have a responsibility to keep each other safe,” Billing said.


While it is impossible to prevent every bicycle crash, local officials have several suggestions for cyclists and runners, which will help to cultivate a safe trail environment.

For Cyclists:
  • Wear bright, reflective clothing
  • Follow all posted Speed Limits
  • properly maintain your bicycle
  • Always wear a properly fitted helmet
  • Stay alert, do not use an earbuds
  • Buy a white light for the front of your bike and a red light for the back of your bike
  • Ring a bell or announce your presence when you’re passing
  • Do not block the trail
  • Ride single file at all times
  • Always yield to pedestrians
All other Trail Users (walkers, runners, and rollerbladers):
  • Wear bright reflective clothing, not dark clothing
  • Stay alert, do not use earbuds
  • Do not read while on trail
  • Acknowledge biker warnings
  • Stay to the right of the trail
  • Do not make any abrupt or sudden turns
  • Always look behind you before making a turn
  • Keep your pet on a very short leash and keep a careful eye on children
  • Stop at all posted signs
  • Do not block the trail
  • Do not take the width of the trail

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I commute by bike probably 80% of the time year-round. I find my biggest problems are:
1) pedestrians, namely joggers suddenly turning around in the middle of the trail without looking
2) other cyclists not calling passes, attempting passes around blind turns or trying to pass in between cyclists going both directions
3) tourists--driving, cycling and walking who have no regard for anything because they're lost and/or staring at something stupid.

I don't expect to change 1 or 3, but I do say something to other cyclists for number 2. There is NO excuse for not calling a pass. Zero, zip, nada.

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