I am a runner and a cyclist and I can often be spotted driving a car too. Why might you care? Because I am one of “those people” who do all three on the roads, not the sidewalks, bike trails or side streets.
While doing so, I am, at times, cursed at, honked at or purposely cut off by those “sharing” the road with me. Am I a perfect cyclist, obeying all traffic signs and rules of the road? No. Are you a perfect driver, obeying all speed limits and coming to a complete stop at stop signs, and using turn signals to change lanes? Highly doubtful and honestly, neither am I. Allow me to explain why I choose, or better yet, why I am forced to use the roads for all of my activities.
I bike and run for exercise because it is important to me, and when things are important to someone, they make sacrifices and take extra risks in order to do those things. While I do compete athletically, I have no dreams of participating in the Tour de France or the Olympics. Instead, I am simply trying to maintain a level of fitness and maybe even improve it a little. My personal fitness goals, include improving my race times, are my motivation for my risk taking as well as my willingness to sacrifice certain perceived safer methods of travel. I understand and accept that risk much like drivers accept the risk of being involved in a car accident even at no fault of their own.
To someone who has never biked or run on a sidewalk, it probably seems obvious that sidewalks would be a safer avenue. However, I would like to outline why sharing the road is the safer choice.
1. The number one reason is because it’s the law. Like it or not, agree with it or not, it doesn’t matter. The law allows for bikers and runners to use the roads as a means of getting from point A to point B. As with most laws, there are amendments which dictate in certain circumstances which roads and times the road can and cannot be used. Additionally, bikers/runners are generally expected to follow the same rules that drivers are. Does that mean everyone plays fair? No, but that does not mean that one person’s rights supersede the rights of another.
2. Overall safety is another reason. As someone who has exercised outdoors for over 25 years, I find it significantly safer to stick to the roads over sidewalks for the following reasons:
• Pedestrians: The majority of people using sidewalks are oblivious to their surroundings. I do not lay blame on them; I am just stating that they are not paying attention to what is going on around them. As an athlete, I am moving at a pace that does not allow me to stop on a dime. Add twists and turns to the sidewalk and the danger increases significantly. When approaching someone who is not paying attention or doesn’t understand simple rules, such as stay to the right and pass on the left, it becomes a dangerous situation for both parties. In the end it is just safer for me to avoid the situation altogether.
• Traffic: In contrast to most pedestrians on sidewalks, drivers, for the most part, are better at paying attention to what is going on around them. I am more comfortable taking my chances with someone in a car who is focused on looking where he/she is going and seeing me from a distance than coming upon a pedestrian who’s rarely paying attention.
• Dogs: I don’t care how long your leash is, or how friendly your dog is, I don’t want or need to pet your puppy. I love dogs, but when I am out to exercise, I do not wish to take the time to determine if your dog is eager to see me, or eager to attack me. I am less likely to encounter these situations on the road.
• Kids: They are completely unpredictable. No matter if they are on a bike, walking or just standing near the trail, I have no idea what they are going to do from one second to the next. Most often, when I do come up upon some kids, they end up trying to get out of my way but instead end up moving into my way.
• Cracks/ sidewalks with uneven surfaces: Most sidewalks have been around for a few years. They take a beating and it shows. Roots of trees rise up under sidewalks making them bumpy at the least and cracked and dangerous in the most severe cases. As a bike rider with an expensive road bike that has thin tires, I can assure you this is neither safe nor fun to ride on. Roads are generally in much better, more predictable condition and are therefore safer to use.
• Driveways: In residential areas, driveways can be found every few feet. Stopping at each one is unrealistic, but slowing down to peer up towards the garage is necessary in order to avoid the kids, dogs or cars backing up. It is very hard to keep my momentum with these interruptions and unproductive to my training.
• Intersections: While running or biking on the sidewalk, my view of the intersection may be blocked by trees or cars or any number of other types of obstacles. A driver may not be able to see me nor can I see the driver until it is potentially too late. In addition, drivers often do not stop before entering a crosswalk, unless someone is already in the crosswalk. So if I am not in the crosswalk before the car gets there, even if I have the right of way, I often have to yield before crossing the street. This slows down my pace which isn’t really going to help me with my overall fitness level.
I know what you are thinking: “Get over yourself, Tom.” But the reality is, staying in the street gives me AND the driver a better angle to see the other from a further distance away. The majority of the time, communication occurs between us about who is going to do what. There is always a chance that one of us doesn’t communicate well and this is when things can become dangerous.
Every time a newspaper publishes an article or a report about a runner or biker being hit by a vehicle, the same arguments occur between people for and against using roads for exercise. Here are my responses to several of them:
• “Bike trails and sidewalks are everywhere; why don’t they use them”?
Contrary to what many might think, you can’t always get to where you want to go on a sidewalk or bike trail. From my home to my office, there are no sidewalks or trail systems on 70% of the routes I use. The Washington and Old Dominion (W/OD) is a 40+ miles system that runs from Arlington to Purcellville. It is an amazing trail but unless you live or work directly on the trail you will have to travel a road to get to where you want to go.
• Bikers on roads make me late for work!
Really? Bikers generally travel between 13-25 MPH. Cars travel much faster than that with much less effort. If it somehow takes you a minute or two to make your way around a biker, I am pretty sure this isn’t going to impact your commute time significantly.
• Bikers never stop at red lights or stop signs and that is against the law!
Yes, in some states, it is, but not all of them. However, it is unlawful everywhere to drive above the speed limit, to drift through stop signs, and not to use turn signals. The point is that no one is perfect, drivers included (and I include myself as being imperfect both as a driver and a biker).
In some states, Idaho being one of them, it is not necessary for bikers to stop at stop signs. An Idaho law, established in 1982, permits bikers to slow down at stop signs and proceed though at their own risk. Many people consider it safer to have bikers continue moving through an intersection after ensuring it is safe than it is to force them to stop at every sign. Why? One of the biggest reasons is that it takes considerably more effort to get a bike moving after being at rest. In addition, it generally requires extra space because unlike a car, bikers need to find their balance and oftentimes a zigzagging motion is required (especially on hills). This makes for a more dangerous situation on tighter, busier roads. If the biker is allowed to continue on a straight line through the intersection (obviously ensuring a safe path) they are more predictable to the drivers around them and traffic flows smoother. This article (link) offers some insightful ideas as to why the law should be changed.
In the end, police officers are the ones who should determine if and when the law should be enforced. Drivers should not be punishing riders/runners by cutting them off, or screaming out of their windows or honking horns as they pass. As a matter of fact; you should be aware that honking your horn at a biker can be considered a form of harassment which is also against the law!
• Bikers wear those tight clothes and think they are Lance Armstrong.
Based on that hypothesis, it would be safe to assume then, that every driver wants to be the next Dale Earnhardt Jr./Danica Patrick, right? Bikers wear functional clothing. Skin tight is more aerodynamic. In addition, it prevents mishaps like having one of your pant legs get caught in your gears. In addition, biker clothing is usually brightly colored making it easier for everyone to see us. Finally, it’s made of wicking materials that keeps them from over-heating.
I do my best to stay out of harm’s way, but there are times when I see pot holes or a car entering an intersection quickly and I’m not sure if they see me, which causes me to drift into the middle of the lane. Please understand that I do my best to respect your ability to drive unhindered and all I ask for is the same consideration. Respect my space and realize that I am trying to respect yours. I am a driver as well as a biker/runner and my goal is to respect your right to the roads and I want you to respect my right as well.
TIPS for pedestrian sharing bike lanes or sidewalks:
Stay to the right
Be aware of your surroundings
Control your animals/kids (to the best of your abilities)
Be predictable (no sudden stops or turns)
Look behind yourself every so often
TIPS for drivers sharing the roadways:
Be predictable (i.e. come to a complete stop, use your turn signals)
Remember, no one is perfect and no good comes from expressing your displeasure with the mistakes of others
TIPS for athletes sharing the roadways:
Follow the rules of the road
Use hand signal for turns
Stay away from roads that have little to no shoulders
Improve bike handling skills before using busier roads
Wear reflective/bright clothing
Run facing oncoming traffic and bike with traffic
Author: Tom Kalka, is an avid outdoor athlete of over 25 years. Living and working in the Northern Virginia area since 2000, he has biked, ran and driven all over Northern Virginia. There have been very few cases of harassment towards Tom, but he’s part of a community that many people take vengeance against. Hopefully, education and awareness of the reasons why people like him use the roads will help everyone respect each other more. Tom can be reached at: Tom@SargeFitness.com