A Field Guide To Mixed-Use Pathways

Cycling in suburbia is hard.  It’s harder if you’re stupid.  There are plenty of things that can ruin the pleasure of your ride, injure you, or flat-out kill you.  I have long maintained that suburban cycling is the most dangerous type of cycling there is.  As a public service, I offer the following field guide to successfully navigating one of suburbia’s most common cycling features: the mixed-use pathway.  I have learned most of these lessons the hard way.  I encourage you to learn from my mistakes as it will take you way too long to make them all yourself.

While traveling on mixed-use pathways, you will encounter many unusual and exciting things.  Most of them will probably not be trying to kill you.  Still, Death surely waits for you as a sort of mildly interested bystander, waiting for a unique set of circumstances to arise whereupon he will take a more active interest in your situation.  Below are some of the more common issues which you will confront.  Good luck and God Bless.

Poseurs.  Poseur is a French word, so you should already be on heightened alert for trouble.  These are cyclists who believe they are riding in the Tour de France (or may do so one day) when in fact the closest they will come to any race is their television set or perhaps as a bystander.  Their inflated sense of self-worth causes them to use public pathways as their personal time trial track.  They treat other people on the pathway with the derision and callous indifference one would give to a squirrel, ant, or other animal of little consequence (NOTE: see Animals section below).  This is their world and you are living in it.

What To Look For.  Sadly, many poseurs attack from behind with little or no warning.  A microsecond before they overtake you at 20+ mph on a narrow and winding path with a woman walking a baby stroller to your front and a skateboarding kid to your rear, you will hear “ON YOUR LEFT!” at which point you are expected to dive into the nearest ditch or allow yourself to come within a hairbreadth of the cyclist, who will split the seam between you and any other nearby person with a few millimeters to spare.  You can more easily identify poseurs as they approach you.   Look for their determined aero-tuck riding style and the incredible exertion they are expending as they squeeze out the next 0.1 mph of velocity.  If you are fortunate, you will see them carve up an innocent person on the path in front of you and will be able to take proper precautions.  Under no circumstances, overtake someone on the path when a poseur is within sight.  If you are about to overtake someone, look behind you to ensure a guided missile isn’t flying by at that precise instant.  Collisions with poseurs will be violent and you will find the poseur to be extremely arrogant and unapologetic.  Fortunately for humanity, poseurs do not like riding on pathways and will stay on roads unless extreme conditions force them to do otherwise.

Full Disclosure:  Your author occasionally takes on the attributes of a poseur.  I am aware of my problem and am getting help.

Joggers.  Joggers view cyclists the way cyclists view cars – they drive too fast for the conditions and regularly try to force them off the road.  Poseurs go a long way to reinforcing this stereotype.  Joggers wish cyclists would just get off the pathway and use the road with about the same intensity that drivers wish cyclist would just get off the road and use the pathways.  The good news is that joggers are slow-moving creatures that are usually easily to avoid.  The bad news is that they are usually quite fatigued and consequently have poor reactions and judgment skills.  Their fatigue causes them to forget where they are and make unexpected movements that cause you to collide with unfortunately violent consequences.

What To Look For.  When approaching a jogger, look at his ears.  Are there earphones?  If so, assume the individual is lost in his own world and completely oblivious to your existence.  He will not hear your bell, friendly “Hello!” or any other attempt at communication.  Slow down and treat him like a deaf mute.  You should be ok.   You can also determine the presence of earphones by an armband which holds the runner’s mp3 player.  The next thing to look for is the tell-tale gesture of looking at his watch.  This is what joggers do when they reach their turnaround point and are interested to know what their split time is.  Shortly after looking at the watch, the jogger (without looking, of course) will conduct a U-Turn and will suddenly find himself face to face with you, the innocent cyclist hoping to pass him without incident.   This maneuver is known as a “Crazy Ivan,” a reference to a submarine tactic in the movie, The Hunt For Red October.  When combined with earphones, it is a particularly dangerous activity.

Walkers.  See these happy people?  See how they are spread out all over the walkway, some hand-in-hand, lost in nature’s splendor and oblivious to anyone who may be nearby?  These are common characteristics of walkers, who are not necessarily using the path to get somewhere.  The path is where they want to be; they are soaking up the sights and sounds and aren’t terribly concerned about issues attendant to sharing the path with others.  Joggers and Cyclists jar Walkers out of their reverie and this is quite upsetting to them.  Fortunately, they are extremely slow and the cyclist’s only concern is their propensity for sudden darting movements as their fancy causes them to look in another direction, hug a partner or playfully chase a child.

What To Look For.  In daylight hours, this is a relatively simple challenge for the cyclist.  Walkers tend to not wear earphones so it is easier to get their attention, assuming you can shout over their casual conversation.  Usually, they are eager to gather themselves up and happily apologize for being in your way.  The main concern is during hours of darkness, when they continue to occupy pathways for evening strolls.  Sadly, they usually do not see the need to wear any reflective clothing and you may find yourself rapidly approaching these folks as they appear out of the darkness.  No daydreaming during night rides, (if you’ll pardon the expression).  You’ll never know when you’ll happen upon one of these people.  Also be advised that walkers may have dogs with them (see Animals section below).

Animals.  Bikes are quiet and quite fast.  This allows you to sneak up on all sorts of creatures who are used to looking for cars and people, but not people on bikes.  Almost all animals freeze when you initially startle them on the side of the path.  Larger animals, like deer, seem to recover reasonably well and bolt off to nearby safety.  The flight or fight reflex in smaller animals (like squirrels and cats) is less developed and is prone to malfunction.  They’ll dart in one direction, then change their mind and head in the opposite direction.  Another important thing to consider is that small creatures do not seem to appreciate the fact that your wheel is supported by several rapidly turning spokes and view the seemingly-empty space around your tires as a good spot to dart to.  This can have an unfortunate effect on you, your brakes, and especially the squirrel, as Rev Rider can attest to.

A Special Note On Dogs.  Dogs are out there – have a plan.  I have determined during impromptu field tests that a Doberman can run over 17 mph for short distances.  Most dogs on the path are happily leashed to an owner.  You must quickly size up how much leash the owner has given the dog, how much control the owner appears to have over the dog, and how aggressive the dog is.  I recommend erring on the side of caution.  Dogs can be found with walkers as well as joggers, though the dogs with joggers tend to be tired and not much threat.

Side Streets.  Nothing you will encounter on a mixed use pathway is more dangerous than a side street.  Consider the picture to the right, which probably appears to most people to be a rather boring intersection of a side street and a divided roadway.  It actually is a death trap, full of unsafe and contradictory markings, including:

  • A white stop line painted beyond the crosswalk, meaning the car won’t stop until it has run you over.
  • A stop sign for pathway users on one side of the side street, but not for users coming the other way.
  • And what’s up with a stop sign in front of a crosswalk?  I thought people in the crosswalk at an intersection with no light automatically have the right of way.  Apparently you don’t get the right of way until you stop and give traffic the right of way.  Then you have it.  Whatever.

The point is that the markings are not helpful and actually invite problems.  Cars come roaring up the side street, their attention focused on merging with traffic on the busier main road.  They are not looking for you, dear cyclist.  Drivers tend to break hard and late, meaning when they hit you they will still be doing about 20 mph with their 2 ton vehicle.  Good times.   To add to the fun we have the occasional police officer with an axe to grind who is only too happy to write a ticket for a moving violation for violating the nonsensical stop-only-when-going-this-way-before-entering-the-crosswalk stop sign.  These cops are rare but trust me, they’re out there.  Thus every cyclist must make a decision when coming to one of these bazaar spots: follow the dumb sign or apply common sense?  Good luck.

Intersections.  These are pretty straightforward, but I will point out that it is here that cyclists often earn their bad reputation for being scofflaws.  Be a good cyclist and set the example – no running red lights, stopping in the middle of the intersection, trying to do track stands, or any of the other silly thing cyclists do.  Also, be advised that drivers can be a little absent-minded and not notice that a light is red, especially on long suburban roads like the one pictured.  I generally wait to make sure the approaching cars are slowing before entering the crosswalk.  That way I can be reasonably assured I won’t be hit by a car going 55 mph.

I hope this field guide is a useful tool for you, dear cyclist, should you choose to brave the roads of suburbia.  Good luck and good cycling!


33 thoughts on “A Field Guide To Mixed-Use Pathways

  1. In Florida, they have the Stop Signs back behind the crosswalk and it is stated all over the place that we have right of way–STILL the car drivers will pull all the way to where they can merge with the traffic. Shamefully, I am not as nice as you are, I have been known to scream at them, “You ARE suposed to stop.”

    • I often think about screaming, but wonder what sort of person might be behind the wheel and would such a person be armed. This usually causes me to sheepishly dart away without a confrontation.

      • Once my hubby and I were riding down one such path and there were a group of ladies dressed in jogging gear walking (guessing they had just stopped jogging–were looking worn). I, who has a voice that can be heard through car windows, began alerting them, “Passing on your left.” No one acknowledged they heard, so we started slowing down, and screaming louder (mike joined in). They all seemed to move to the left so we picked up a little speed to pass quickly when one woman darts out to the left suddenly leaving me NO time to do anything, (If you run in the grass there you will catch a flat as they say in N.O.–bad prickers–so you try NOT to do that), save break hard, and yell louder, “passing on the left.”

        One buddy saw her and jerked her out of the way. Just as I was about to thank them she screamed at me–“She had her ear buds in, you don’t have to yell.” I replied–“I was trying not to kill either one of us.” I try very hard NOT to ride on the mixed paths when a lot of people are on them, because the cars and the people is a LOT to manage. 😀

  2. An exhaustive and entertaining examination of the subject. Animals, walkers and joggers I can handle with equanimity. Poseurs ( or as I like to call them, @$5#@!! ) drive me a little nuts and you have described the type perfectly. Once, in my early commuter days, I paced behind a poseur on my ungodly heavy, knobby tired, bike-shaped-object and rang my bell to notify other trail users of his approach. He studiously ignored my presence. Aside from his poor MUP etiquette you could tell he was a poseur because I should never have been able to keep up with him on my clunker.

    • Nothing is more deflating to a poseur than to be dropped by a commuter. Simply hanging on his carbon-framed wheel was enough to provide excrutiating embarrassment. Good for you!

  3. Entertaining and informative post, Steve. It’s interesting to read this guide from France, since we have slightly different hazards (grape juice on the road right now, for instance) over here. I do use mixed-use lanes from time to time, but I immediately change my mentality from ‘poseur’ (my normal state) to ‘walker’ (except the fact I’m still on my bike). It prevents the stresses and dangers you’ve stated above.

    I have to say, though, the walker is by far the most irritating, even in my walker state of mind, since, as you correctly noted, they have no concern for the law. I don’t have a bell (obviously), so I need to wait till I’m right behind them and 1) freewheel, hoping they’ll hear my hub whizzing, or 2) give them a polite and gentle ‘pardon’ (if they don’t hear me freewheeling, they are inevitably elderly). The point is, they slow you down.

    Great post. Love read your insights into our world.

    • Grape juice! You must immediately stop what you’re doing and write a report on this subject. I can only imagine the challenges that fruit juice provide. Fortunately, I haven’t had occasion to deal with this hazard yet.

  4. Are you afflicted with extendible dog leads? We may come up behind a walker who has two dogs, one on either side, each about twenty feet away on these leads. They take what seems like an endless time to reel in.

    For elderly cyclists with panniers, we have the additional fun of gates designed to stop motor cyclists using the path which are too narrow to get through with the panniers on.

    I think Gerry is right though. Cyclists have no god given right to speed along mixed used paths and that’s what makes these paths such a pain to use because the whole point of a bike is the freedom to go at your own speed.

    • We are indeed cursed with extendible dog leads. They are normally found with walkers as the joggers like to keep their animals close to them. We don’t have the gates you describe, although I suppose it is just a matter of time before somebody decides they’re a good idea.

      I think it is difficult to design a pathway for use by people traveling between 0.5 and 20 mph. The speed differences are too significant to accomodate everybody and there usually isn’t even a posted speed limit, or lane markings. It’s the Wild West (I hope that translates) and the problem is compounded in the States as most pathways are built as an afterthought and on the cheap.

  5. Steve – you included the stealh walkers but left out (I think) the ninja subspecies of jogger. While not usually nocturnal, they are particularly prevelant in late summer and early fall (NOW) when it’s warm enough for them to still be active at their regular time (0600) but now it’s DARK. Black may always be in fashion, but there’s that pesky visbility thing. Assuming you manage to see them at all (they are very very good at hiding in plain sight), you can tell the difference between the young and old of the subspecies by the condition of their “coat” – the older they get, the more worn, dirty, abraded, and missing the bits of reflective material on their clothing and shoes (if there was any to start with). Powerful headlights and helmet lights (mine has 3 settings – 200 lumens, 300 lumens, and “Oh My $DEITY! The SUN HAS GONE NOVA!”) may be effective countermeasures, unless you are also approaching a similarly equipped cyclist. This allows the ninja to hide in the ball of light (told ya they were good) formed by the two cyclists.

    Flash mode is entertaining for when joggers execute a “Crazy Ivan” and have a moment of panic when they think “Did I confuse the trail and the Orange Line again!?”.

    Language ambiguity – “On Your Left” is ambiguous. “Passing Left” is slightly less so. Both appear to be affected by language barriers. Bike bells, Air Zounds (3rd hand info), and in particular, screechy brake pads are 100% unambigous and more likely to penetrate ear buds.

    Observation regarding pousers: When traveling in packs, their intelligence drops to the average ( I = 1/N, N= # or pousers in the group). Most evident when the group passes a runner while another posuer or pack is coming the other way. By observation, pack pousers prefer the Team Time Trial event to ‘cross and MTBing.

    Be safe out there!

    • Thanks for stopping by! I wonder what is expected of joggers. Do they have to come to a complete stop and stand there for a moment before carrying on? Silly.

  6. Great post and summary of the MUPs! I have a friend that calls the runner/jogger turnaround point the “magic mile marker.” It’s that mile marker known and seen only by them, that notes their turnaround.

    • I think “Magic Mile Marker” is probably a better term than “Crazy Ivan.” The Hunt For Red October was made a long time ago and only old farts like me still understand the reference!

  7. A tip of the helmet to you for a terrific post. Pitty the poor MUP rider in the weeks leading up to the local marathon. Slow runners in packs make for tedious bike commutes. And don’t get me started on Volksmarches.

    • Ugh. I hadn’t considered the impact of the upcoming race season on the high-density MUPs you travel. I’m afraid I am adding to the chaos as I have recently upped my jogging mileage for the Army 10 Miler in a few weeks.

  8. I don’t understand the mindset of the poseur. We’ve got them down here on our MUPs as well, and they scare me to death. I mean, I like to ride hard, but only out on the open roads where I don’t have obstacles to run into and hurt myself!

    When we get on the path’s, it’s purely for leisure!

    • They are the cycling equivalent of a guy who drives his sports car like he is in a NASCAR race, complete with lane changes at high speeds and almost no clearance between cars. They are superior drivers and know their machines. There really is no risk with their skill levels. Just ask them – they’ll tell you that.

  9. Hello Steve. Just got back from my first ride around Bristow on my new Sirrus Sport. I wish I had read this post BEFORE my ride… My first encounter was with a mixed-use path and I must confess I was utterly baffled by it. I did not know if I should ride on it or the road so I rode some on the path and some on the road. What is the proper thing to do when you have both? Ride on the path or the road? The paths here do not have any rules or warnings posted as to which is appropriate. I like the road better since the rules of the road are a bit less ambiguous than the “rules” of mixed use paths but I don’t want to annoy drivers (two tons of car is pretty intimidating on a 24 lb bike). Do you have any suggestions or additional advice?

    • In short, there is no right answer. If you are riding casually and do not mind contending with the obstacles described above, I suggest the MUP. There are no firm rules and even the basic etiquette of “stay to the right” will not be followed by all. Your times will suffer, but it is nice for a casual ride. Myself, I tend to stay on the roads because the only challenges involve cars moving in the same direction as I am. This will upset some drivers and you can expect the occasional honking horn and driver who screams, “Get off the road!” as he passes. Bicycles are legally allowed on all roads in Virginia except highways, a fact not well known by many motorists. Likewise, all motorists are required by law to give you two feet of space as they pass you. Good luck with that.

      So, you basically get to pick your poison. My best advice is to get to country lanes as quickly as possible. Things are a lot more peaceful there. The roads west of Vint Hill Road and north of Nokesville Road are very nice.

  10. Track stands are silly? Say it ain’t so!
    Your only omission is the ninja jogger! I see them every morning running in the dark, dressed in black from head to toe! They are nearly invisible to the untrained eye. I would post a few pictures of them to prove my point but they do not show up on film.

    • Excellent catch. I too have come across this subspecies of jogger. When I come across a jogger wearing reflective belts or holding a light, I have to suppress the urge to stop and thank him. I guess it just doesn’t occur to the ninjas how they are putting themselves in danger.

  11. Pingback: Get Outta The Road! | There And Back Again

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