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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2019

Whose Side Are You On?

I had a weird encounter on a local “bike trail” recently. This was on the West County Regional Trail, if you know your Sebastopol-area geography. It’s an old railroad grade with a mildly uphill pitch in the direction I was going, so I’m cruising along at a leisurely speed…

Up ahead I see a woman with a golden retriever (on a leash) walking toward me. She is walking on my side of the path, more or less; that is, on the left side of the path for her. I could have swung wide to my left and gone around her but there was something about her body language that caught my attention. She seemed ready to block me, whichever way I went, kind of like a defender trying to block a player from driving to the basket. I got the impression she wanted to confront me, so rather than just blow past—with the potential that she would actually jump into my path—I decided to put a foot down and find out what was on her mind.

She didn’t waste any time letting me know. She wasn’t quite yelling but was very assertive: “This is a WALKING TRAIL! I am supposed to be on the left and you are supposed to pass me on my right!” Keeping my voice calm, I replied, “Excuse me, but I believe the same rules of the road apply on this path as out on any road: we each stay to the right.” But she wasn’t having any of that: “No no no no! This is not a road! Do you see any cars here? And by the way, you’re rude!” 

Honestly, I was not being rude. I was as polite as can be and at that point that was all I had said. But she had a serious burr under her saddle. I don’t think she was a nut job…just really cranked up over this issue. (Doesn’t it seem sometimes that the more wrong a person is, the more hunkered down they get in their bunker of righteousness?) I tried to reason with her but she became increasingly abusive. I figured this wasn’t going to get any more civil or productive so I clipped back in and went on my way.

But as I rode away from that silly little confrontation, I was thinking. I was 99% sure that I’m right about which side of the trail I should be using. But that little 1% of uncertainty niggled at me. So I looked it up when I got home. Or rather I threw it out to the members of my bike club on our chat list. I briefly described my encounter and then asked: is there a body of laws or rules or regulations covering how we are supposed to behave on so-called multi-use trails? We have the Vehicle Code for roads and highways, and a big fat book it is. But as far as I can tell, there isn’t a single, one-size-fits-all set of rules for trails. It seems as if the people who build any given trail can pretty much apply whatever rules or standard—and signs—they think are appropriate. This strikes me as kind of nuts, really.

My query prompted a lively discussion on the chat list. It soon devolved into the usual opinions and theories about how to get along with other trail users. That’s a fertile field for discussion but not exactly what I was after. But amidst all of that were some useful nuggets. 

One person who keeps up-to-date on advocacy and legal issues wrote this: “There are actually very few State laws about bike paths. Including no universal speed limit. That is all jurisdiction-specific and local governments are able to set their own regulations for some aspects of path use. Sonoma County has no such regulations as far as I have been able to find although there are posted speed limits and signage about sharing paths in certain areas.”

Another person sent a link to the Marin County Cycling Coalition web site, which has a page outlining general conduct on bike trails, including this: “KEEP RIGHT, PASS LEFT. No matter which way you’re going on a shared path, keep to the right. Faster users should pass on the left.”

Someone also offered a link to a trails guide prepared by Sacramento County Regional Parks (the folks responsible for the American River Parkway, one of the longest, oldest, and best developed trails in the state). Under the “Bike Riders” heading, it has this: “Pass on the left. Be sure that when you are passing someone on the paved trail, stay on their left side and move to the right after you have passed them.” (That supports the riding-on-the-right premise.) And under the “Pedestrians” section, this: “Use the left shoulder when it is accessible to you. Joggers and walkers should stay on the dirt shoulder off the pavement to minimize the chance of an accident.”

That almost appears to support the contention of my dog-walking friend: “Use the left shoulder…” But note the use of the word “shoulder” and the more explicit “dirt shoulder off the pavement” that follows. You can see where she might have picked up the idea of walking on the left from this or something similar posted on another path or web site or whatever. It harks back to what we were taught as kids: to walk facing oncoming traffic so we can see what’s developing right in front of us (as opposed to behind our back). But the language is very specific about doing so on the shoulder, off the pavement.

I’ve ridden that excellent trail a few times and I’ve just refreshed my memory of it with a quick look at Google Street View. There are wide shoulders of compacted gravel…most of the time, although not always. They say use the shoulder when it is accessible to you but they don’t tell us what to do if the shoulder is not available. Get on the paved trail and stay on the left? Switch over to walking on the right side?

TrailSomeone else, no doubt feeling a picture is worth a thousand words, simply sent this photo, taken on the trail I was riding when I had that awkward confrontation. Just the two words: KEEP RIGHT. Absent any other distinctions between cyclists and walkers, roller bladers and equestrians, etc, I would guess we are all expected to abide by that same, simple directive. I wonder what would have happened if there had been one of those signs nearby when I had my little kerfuffle with the walker. I expect she would have figured out some way to bend the logic around to where the sign did not apply to her.

Anyway…my beef is not with that woman exactly. It is more with the lack of any overarching regulations that can (and should) be applied to all multi-use trails in a consistent and predictable way, whether in Sebastopol or Sacramento or Sausalito. We can understand why the Vehicle Code has those hundreds of pages of rules: with cars and trucks as big and powerful and fast as they are, we all really need to know what’s expected of us. We need to be confident we’re all on at least approximately the same page about the basic rules of the road. But even at the relatively sedate speeds we usually see on trails, things can go wrong in a hurry if we are not all in agreement as to how we should be using those trails. Just as we rely on our fellow motorists to stay in the right lane out on the highways, we ought to be able to assume all trail users will do so as well…or walk on the left, but off the pavement.

You will have heard me say before that I am the last person to want more laws and rules hedging me about, but in this case, I think I can live with the rules…assuming they exist. Right now, with every county and municipality just winging it, we are left with a confusing mish mash of improvisation…with anyone remotely in charge making it up as they go along. As I found on that ride, we end up in situations that, at best, can be confusing and frustrating, and occasionally have the potential to move from confusion to collision, with some measure of blunt-trauma nastiness inflicted upon those involved. We can do better than this.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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