Rail-Trail safety

John Allen

The Boston area has an increasing number of rail trails. The Minuteman Commuter Bikeway from Cambridge to Bedford has been open for over 25 years now.  A ribbon-cutting for a section of the Mass Central Rail Trail in Weston and Wayland was held days before this article was published. When completed, the Mass Central will run all the way from Charlestown to Northampton, over 100 miles, and will connect in Sudbury with the Bruce Freeman Trail, which already extends from Concord to Lowell. There are others too.

Rail trails provide a quiet and scenic experience and are especially attractive in the leaf-peeping season which is upon us. Because motor vehicles do not use rail trails, riding on them can be relaxing. But this does not mean that they are appropriate for all types of cycling and cycling events. CRW avoids trails for its weekend rides, and for good reason. Some of our more relaxed rides do use rail trails, and many CRW members use them for recreation or utility riding.

So, what is the issue? To put it simply, riding is unsafe on a crowded rail trail at a speed at which a fit cyclist can get a meaningful exercise benefit. Trails are shared with walkers - some with dogs on leashes; runners; wobbly novice and child cyclists; and inline skaters whose legs flail out to the sides.  Robust research studies have shown that the crash rate on trails for bicycle-club member cyclists is over 2.5 times high as on streets. Though the ratio of fatalities to other crashes is lower than on roads shared with motor traffic, there was a fatal crash on the Minuteman this past spring, when one cyclist pulled out to pass and struck another head-on. This was not the first fatality on the Minuteman, either.

How to be safe on a mixed-use trail? Safe speed has to come first. If the trail is empty, you could ride as fast as you would on a street – but if there is even one pedestrian ahead of you, you may need to slow to pass safely. Your bicycle is nearly silent, and the pedestrian, back turned to you, may be listening with headphones. A pedestrian can suddenly change direction, as in “oh, that’s a pretty flower over at the other side of the path,” or “here’s my house, now I can go in and have lunch.” One pedestrian can be concealing another, often a child, who may make an unexpected move.

Unless you can pass with several feet of clearance, safety requires you to slow and get the pedestrian’s attention with a bell or your voice before you pass. Also, pass at a speed low enough that a collision is unlikely to be serious. You can hope that the pedestrian acknowledges your warning. And yes, there have been times when I had to yell at the top of my voice, interrupting a pedestrian’s headphone-enabled reverie. It may seem rude, but it is better than interrupting the reverie by landing on the ground in a heap with said pedestrian. The same applies with slower cyclists.

Unlike on streets, pedestrians on rail trails are supposed to walk in the same direction as traffic. This allows everyone to keep moving even if there is a crowd. (Rhode Island has the only exception.) Cyclists have the same role with slower traffic on a trail that motorists have with cyclists on roads. Think about that for a moment. You are the fastest kind of traffic on the trail, and you can threaten and endanger slower users, just the same way you complain about motorists doing it to you. Just as a motorist may have to slow to your bicycle speed and wait for a safe opportunity to pass, you may have to slow to walking speed and follow a pedestrian on a rail trail until a safe opportunity arises. Stability at slow speeds is an important skill to develop for path riding.

And here, to finish up,  are a couple of timely issues to keep in mind:

As e-bikes become more popular, expect more users on paths who lack skill, though they go fast . I’m not sure how this issue will resolve politically, but just be aware and be cautious. You may do well to have a rear-view mirror.

And, as the end of daylight-saving time approaches, you may find yourself more often riding during hours of darkness. It is hardly necessary to remind any CRW member to use lights at night, but choice of lights is especially important when riding on trails. Many bicycle headlights have a round, flashlight beam pattern and can’t be aligned to cast a long beam ahead without also blinding oncoming cyclists. Headlights with a flat-top beam pattern are available, and I recommend them highly. There is a detailed discussion of options at https://sheldonbrown.com/LED-headlights.html.



This article is spot on about riding on bike paths, but... Is there any data to support the view that e-bike riders lack skill and go fast? I ask because e-bikes (and their riders) are often vilified by other cyclists. This is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, because the vast majority of current bike path cyclists are riding conventional bikes and it's obvious that some riders have poor skills and some ride too fast. This is a "bike-agnostic" problem. Low skills are expected from all new cyclists, but casual observation suggests that it is the more experienced riders who ride at unsafe speeds. Excess speed is the result of rider behavior and cannot be attributed to any specific type of bicycle. John, thanks for the article. Again, spot on for riding on bike paths. I just didn't like the bit about e-bikes.