Bicyclists Sharing the Path

By Doug Mink

Despite cyclists feeling that their true enemy is the automobile, it could be held that the conflict between bicyclists and pedestrians is most threatening to cyclists rights. The demise of New York's bike lanes and the attempted closing of that city's major streets to bicycles was caused by the perceived threat of bicyclists to pedestrians not to cars. The Metropolitan District Commission has recently restricted bicycle riding on some of the most relaxing stretches of the Charles River Esplanade due to complaints by pedestrians concerning bicyclists. On August 6, a Boston Globe editorial called for more regulation of the bikepaths. The problem is not that pedestrians and bicyclists cannot coexist, but that we have never been taught how to deal with each other. Bicyclists can learn how to ride in traffic from books or friends, or by applying principles they learned when they were taught to drive a car, but techniques for dealing with pedestrians, either on bikepaths or on streets are not as well-known.

Pedestrian Reactions

The first principle in dealing with pedestrians from a bike is that they don't know how to deal with you, either. Unlike automobiles, which can be directed by the bicyclist into proper action, pedestrians are less likely to react to a bicycle even if they see them. The self-righteousness which allows a bicyclist to ride unfriendly streets is multiplied in the person on foot who's sauntering in their own little world, listening to the wind in the trees or watching the sun on the water. They get upset if you call attention to yourself in the wrong way, yet they also get upset if they don't see you until you're too close.


If you're meeting head-on on a bikepath, there is an immediate dilemma as you want to keep right and they want to keep left; that is, on the same side of the bikepath. As the faster moving participant in the encounter, the bicyclist must chose where to go. Pick the side with the most room, and catch their eye by moving around a bit. Slow down and point to the direction you plan to pass. If you can't get their attention, slow down even more, and swing wider around them. If you're approaching a group of people which is blocking your path, usually one will see you and move some of their friends out of your way. Try to be as predictable as possible; stay to one edge of the path and don't wobble.

Meeting on a Road

If you meet pedestrians or joggers on a road without side walks, and you and they are both on the proper side of the road, you will meet head-on. Bicyclists should leave the shoulder or pavement edge to the person on foot, as we have the right to take a lane of the road. Again, signal your intention to move to the pedestrian's right (your left).


Pedestrians in crosswalks seem to have a hard time estimating the speed with which a bicycle is approaching and tend to assume it's moving slower than it is. If someone is approaching a crosswalk, prepare to slow down, and try to catch their attention. Remember that they're watching for cars, not bikes. If they step out in front of you, stop. If they don't see you until you're right next to them, they might move unpredictably, stepping directly into your path no matter which side you pass on.

Approaching from the Rear

When approaching a pedestrian from the rear, pass as far away as you can to avoid startling them. Say "Passing left," or "Passing right" to let them know that there's a bicycle approaching and what action they should take. If they have headphones on, you might need to shout; otherwise, just use a slightly louder than normal voice. Don't wait until you are on top of them, but don't yell from so far away that they won't know they're affected. As always, slow down to pass.


Parents often take children for walks on bikepaths because they're isolated from the dangerous streets. Give them as wide a berth as you can. Never get between a child and its parent, and make sure they know that you know that they're in front of you by smiling or saying "Hi." A similar rule can be followed for dealing with dogs and their masters.

Sharing the Path

Bicyclists and pedestrians fill similar places in the transportation grid. With cooperation, we can get and keep pleasant places to bicycle and walk. With conflict, we could lose the paths we have and have to fight larger forces to maintain our full access to city streets.