Mar 26, 2018

Should cyclists and walkers be separated?

Conflict between cyclists and walkers on shared trails is a growing problem. The default should be separation, as recommended by Infrastructure Victoria

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Just part of the huge crowd at the politican-free opening of the Darebin-Yarra shared trail on Sunday

I went to the opening of the final stage of the Darebin-Yarra shared trail in Melbourne yesterday. It’s only 1.7 km, but with five bridges and high fencing to insulate it from the contiguous golf course and school, it cost a cool $18 million to construct.

This is infrastructure worthy of the title “missing link”. It finally provides a direct bicycle and walking connection between the northern suburbs trail system and the Yarra Trail south of the Yarra river. It’s a huge step forward, but sadly there’s still no direct access from east Alphington; that’s still “in planning” (see Should walking and cycling trails be like freeways?).

The opening was notable for attracting a huge crowd, mainly cyclists. What was really extraordinary though was the absence of any politicians on the podium! It was formally opened by an officer from VicRoads (the agency that built it on behalf of the state government) and a representative of the local community group that’s been pushing for the link for over ten years.

For many locals like me, the opening of the path is a mixed blessing. Along with many others, I’ve been walking my dogs on parts of it for twelve months, dodging fences around construction works but not having to cope with any mechanised travellers. But now I’ll have to share it with cyclists, some of whom will inevitably pedal at high speed and most of whom won’t bother with a bell. At least I’ll also cycle on it too, but there are many who want to walk on shared paths but don’t cycle.

Conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on shared paths is a perennial hot issue so it’s worth revisiting my previous discussion of this topic. As I noted then, it often occupies talk-back radio, op-ed columns, and social media. Social commentator Jane Caro famously complained about cyclists on Sydney’s Cooks River cycle path in 2013 (see here and here).

Even though I live close to the wealth of shared paths along the Yarra river, I’m reluctant to walk along them because it’s hard to enjoy the experience when you’re constantly on guard for a cyclist suddenly appearing without warning. I want to relax when I’m walking off-road; I don’t want to have to consciously avoid moving sideways because of “traffic” (I make an exception for snakes!).

Many riders simply go too fast near pedestrians; it’s not the majority but it’s not a tiny minority either. Even if it’s only every tenth or even twentieth cyclist on average who goes too fast for the comfort of walkers, that’s more than enough to require pedestrians to be constantly on their guard. Even those who cycle at a more moderate pace can be unsettling when they suddenly appear in front of you from around a bend, or surprise you when they soundlessly materialise from behind.

I think cyclists often don’t fully appreciate the sense of subjective safety a pedestrian needs. A cyclist might feel completely in control slaloming gently around walkers at 10 or 15 kph but those on foot don’t always find it comfortable. They don’t know if the rider really understands that a leashed dog extends their effective radius; or that children and dogs can be very unpredictable.

Pedestrians sometimes get criticised for being unaware of cyclists but the point of walking off-road is surely to avoid having to think about “traffic” problems. Most people never learned to be wary of faster vehicles on off-road walking tracks.

There’s no point saying “it’s just a selfish minority”. It isn’t; a lot of cyclist don’t even ring their bell, much less slow down to near walking pace. It’s no good saying “we all have to be more considerate”. If that worked, we wouldn’t have the conflict in the first place. And there’s no prospect that rules about proper behaviour will ever be policed on shared paths.

The downside for walkers is a compromised experience and, if they’re really unlucky, the possibility they, their children, or their dog, might get hurt. Some will react by using trails less or not at all. The main downside for cyclists is festering resentment from the large proportion of the population that walks more than it rides. Anyone who isn’t aware that pedestrian-cyclist conflict is a serious issue for a large section of the population is living in a bubble.

As cycling increases in popularity the old ways aren’t good enough anymore; walkers and cyclists can’t continue being assigned to the same (non-car) basket. It’s necessary to think a lot harder about eliminating conflicts not only between cyclists and motorists, but also cyclists and pedestrians. I don’t think we’ll get far in this case by appeals to better behaviour or by more (effectively symbolic) regulation.

I agree with Infrastructure Victoria’s recommendation in its 30-year strategy (rec 10.3.2):

An accelerated rollout beyond current funding commitments should include…improving standards for existing walking and cycling networks, in particular the separation of walking and cycling paths and also from other road users

New projects like the Darebin-Yarra link should be designed for separation from the outset and existing trails – many of which require extensive upgrading anyway – should be re-engineered to minimise conflicts. It will cost more and there are various technical challenges, but that needs to be assessed relative to the potential social benefits from increased cycling and walking. And it’s money well spent to avoid making enemies cycling doesn’t need.

We’ve always given pedestrians their own right-of-way in Australia, even before the advent of cars and trucks; we should keep it that way.

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25 thoughts on “Should cyclists and walkers be separated?

  1. John of Alphington

    The opening of this path was truly a sad day for my canine and I!

  2. Gia Underwood

    Well said. It’s awful being a pedestrian on a shared path and it does defeat the purpose of looking for a pleasant walk. I have stopped using shared paths because of this. Note also the minuscule number of old people walking on shared paths. You know what can happen to a person whose body is compromised by old age (yep – it happens to all of us) and they suffer an injury.
    Ambulation is the only form of movement that we all have – non discriminatory, non optional. Let’s stop putting it on the same level as bike riders, car drivers and other vehicles.

  3. Alan

    Yep another person who mainly uses shared paths for cycling, and have found ringing my bell leads to too many people moving to the right (where I was going to pass them), moving entirely off the path (appreciated when they have a four legged friend, but not needed), or completely ignored (usually by a group using the entire path).

    If I see a situation of concern (a young child etc), I’ll use my voice to tell them what my intentions are.

  4. Andrew Talati

    With the walker/rider interaction amplify that 10 x when you are riding on the road and 1.5 tons of metal/truck screams past you within 30cm or a car turns suddenly from a side street into your path or an on coming car turning right in front of you.
    While I don’t condone irresponsible cycling behaviour, there are many 1000’s of cyclists seriously injured on our roads.
    The narrative needs to be focused on building more cycling infrastructure be it cycle/shared paths or segregated bike lanes or shared roads so that the 60% of the population who are ‘interested but concerned to cycle’ can substitute a proportion of their car trips by bike.
    We are at the start of rediscovering other forms of mobility after 60 years of the automobile dominating our landscape, ultimately we are all about living a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle whether we walk or cycle or both.

  5. Anthea Fleming

    I was there walking the new trail – and very enjoyable it is. And I wrote it up for our local Warringal Conservation Society’s Newsletter. After congratulating VicRoads on finally finishing the path, my final sentence was “let’s hope commuting cyclists don’t skittle too many of us walkers”.

  6. Kevin

    Seriously, who in their right mind thinks it’s appropriate that pedestrians to be forced to share a path in extremely close proximity with cyclists travelling on a machine at speeds up to 30kmh? It’s a recipe for disaster. If it were a work environment it would not be allowed under OHS regs.

    As for the self righteous attitude of Australian sporting cyclists, they know no bounds. I say “sporting”, because that’s what it is when someone dons professional cycling clothing, and shoes that clip into the pedals of a bike that is designed for speed and cost thousands of dollars.

    To spend $18m of public money on a 1.7km path is nothing short of scandalous. Whoever made that decision should be sacked.

    1. Murray Hungerford

      Kevin, I have re-used and modified your sentence :
      Who in their right mind thinks it’s appropriate that CYCLISTS be forced to share a ROAD in extremely close proximity with 25TON_TRUCKS travelling at speeds up to 60kmh?

  7. SimonR

    Keep to the left and there is no problem. I’ve given up on paths as much as I can because of the rude, selfish pedestrians with no thought of others. Dogs off leash, walking abreast right across the path etc. the low point was coming round a blind turn and finding a dog off leash with a massive stick in its mouth blocking the whole path. The owner couldn’t see the problem. It takes two to tango.

  8. Tom the first and best

    On the otherwise well designed Caulfield-Dandenong Skyrail project, there is likely to be significant cyclist-pedestrian conflict around stations as the cycle path passes directly through major pedestrian thoroughfares. At Huntingdale station, the cycle path runs, with a cyclists dismount section, directly through the 601 Monash Uni shuttle bus stop (one of the busiest in the state). At Oakleigh station, it appears that the bike route may be directed (with a dismounted section) through the station underpass (hopefully I am wrong about this), which is being upgraded as part of the project.

  9. Horst (Oz) Kayak

    Once an elderly person has been hospitalized by being hit by an out-of-control irresponsible cyclist on a “shared” footway, the walker’s world changes forever. Anxiety associated and triggered by such an accident prevents the walker from ever using that section and the nearby foot tracks of our beautiful natural urban parklands again.
    There are several recorded hits by cyclists on shared footways leading to hospitalization 0f walkers every year.
    As the duty of care seems to be an ignored concept for some cyclists; there is a need for investment in infrastructure that sensibly and safely separates pedestrians and cyclists. Footpath separation is one of the most effective strategies to optimise the population health benefits from walking in Nature.

  10. Zebee Johnstone

    From a cyclist’s perspective I also agree we need separation. If cars had to drive on shared roads under the same rules including slowing to the same speed as a bicycle or pedestrian then hear the roar. Relative speed is important.

    On the other hand while speed is important so is awareness. Is it really too much to ask that peds keep left rather than walk in the middle? Kids and dogs are known hazards who can’t look out but adults should be able to be trusted to keep in a predictable line and share the path.

    I would rather that road real estate be taken from cars and given over to bicycles leaving the meandering river paths to slow bikes and pedestrians but somehow I feel the walkers on the trails would be disgusted at the idea they might have to give up a lane of traffic because cyclists get in the way and want too much. So the most efficient form of sustainable transport gets it coming amd going. Just how many walkers on these paths want all the path and all the road? And see nothing wrong with that?

  11. Ian McKendry

    I was pleased to read this. As a fairly local (pedestrian) resident I often walk on current paths – I hesitate to use the term ‘shared’ as cyclists coming up behind and shouting, ‘Get out of my f*ucking way’ does not engender any sense of equality in use. Generally though, I’m able to scuttle off the path when these obsessives threaten my safety. I was earlier looking forward to being able to cross the river in my ranging about, but looking at the new bridge, it’s pretty clear that, without any extra space and kettled by the sidewalls, the crossing on foot will fraught indeed. It’s pretty silly to have spent so much on the new link without thinking through the consequences of the too-narrow bridge. Of course, in an ideal world Vic Roads planners might have built a wider bridge – how much extra for another metre of width? – but also that significant proportion of ‘press on/PB-focused’ cyclists would be less damn selfish.

  12. Jason Murphy

    In heavily used areas (I’m thinking of the St Kilda foreshore) cyclists and pedestrians are already separated on their own offroad paths. It’s clearly the best practice solution.

    The problem is – and when isn’t it this – scarcity. $18 million doesn’t come for free, neither does the space on which to build paths. Alongside the yarra in many places there’s no space for two parallel paths.

    This means, in my view, that while best practice will be acknowledged, it will probably be implemented only in the busiest places.

    1. Alan Davies

      Jason Murphy

      I doubt $18 million ($10 million per km) is a representative figure for all new trails or for retrofitting existing trails with separate pedestrian paths. The Darebin-Yarra link has five bridges over 1.7 km – the one over the Yarra is 200 metres long and three others are in the 40 – 60 metre range.

      I don’t think it’s plausible that separate bridges for pedestrians could to be retrofitted on this trail, so doubtless they must remain shared for the forseeable future. Likewise, there’s circa 150 metres around the back of the golf course where there’s really no room for a separate path to be laid at low cost.

      But there’s around 1200 metres (about 70% of the total length) where there’s ample space for a separate pedestrian path to be laid adjacent to the new path. It doesn’t need to be as wide or as strong as the new one (and of course there’re no bridges) so the cost should be moderate. Now that the main trail’s been built, the cost of site access should be significantly lower.

      Looking at the long-established section of the Yarra trail between Chandler Hwy and Burke Rd (it’s where the Darebin-Yarra link terminates on the south side), there are large sections with space for a separate pedestrian path. There’s an approx 900 metre section adjacent to the freeway that’s too narrow for a parallel walking path, but it badly needs rebuilding to a much higher standard anyway. It probably needs to be cantilevered or terraced to gain extra width, although it might be better to re-route it.

    2. John Hawkins

      Historically, modern bike paths started out in Victoria as bike only but after lobbying by pedestrian groups were turned into shared resources. That became the standard for all that followed.

      I have no problem sharing with pedestrians and look forward to saying hello to the regulars. However it seems a bit rich to complain that you have to keep your head on your shoulders and not meander like Brown’s cows. It is after all a shared resource and while bike riders must rightly give way to the (marginally) more vulnerable user it would be helpful if pedestrians could behave predictably and keep their four legged charges on a short leash. Similarly dont spread across the whole path – leave some passing room. Please. We don’t to hit you just as much as you don’t want to be hit by us. Neither party wins.

      Using a bell can be challenging as people are as likely to step into your path as away. Just keep left and all will be good. We have to do the same on the roads so I’m not sure why someone sharing with us would find that too much to ask.

      On the upside it’s great to see people out and getting exercise. With a little bit of cooperation we can all get along fine.

      1. Alan Davies

        John Hawkins

        Using a bell can be challenging as people are as likely to step into your path as away.

        C’mon, that’s the weakest argument I’ve ever heard! It’s no effort to sound your bell and it let’s both parties know what’s happening. I ring my bell religiously when cycling on trails and many walkers thank me. I’ve never experienced one stepping into my path after I’ve let them know I’m behind them!

        I get the argument that it’s a shared space so both parties have to compromise, but my view is walking should take precedence because it’s the universal mode that almost everyone can use. But since that “little bit of cooperation” isn’t strong enough and there’s no prospect of improvement, I go with building separate paths.

        1. Jack

          I’ve come to make the same comment as John Hawkins. I gave up routinely using a bell because it appears to alarm a lot of pedestrians—and scatter them unpredictably.

          (Also as a pedestrian i’m not bothered by cyclists whizzing past, though I know many are).

          This might come down to local norms. Or maybe things have changed in the decades since i’ve stopped; I’ll give it a go

          1. Sam

            You are ringing it too late and too close if it is startling them.

            I ring about 20 metres before the pedestrian. Even if they did move right, it wouldn’t cause an issue.

            1. Alan Davies


              Same here. Also, I give a single ‘ding’ (not a ‘rrrriiinnng’) and always slow right down if I’m coming from behind the walker. I go slow enough that I’m pretty confident I could avoid a collision if they moved into my path unexpectedly.

            2. Jack

              I experimented with the bell this morning, plenty of distance behind the walkers. The first two walkers moved off the path; the third was wearing earphones and remained happily oblivious to me (like all the walkers for whom I didn’t ring it).

              So it seems that ringing my bell is a bit like yelling ‘out of my way’. I won’t try it again

              1. Bob the builder

                Jack, I have the same experience. Many walkers, even from far behind, seem to get a start and it seems ringing the bell causes more anxiety than not. I usually slow up before passing anybody and maybe make a small sound or just say I’m coming by.
                I think the problem is some cyclists think they are pretty much on a road without cars, while some pedestrians think they’re on a path for walkers only.
                I agree that ultimately, separating high use paths is the go, especially ones that are used for commuting or exercise – it’s very frustrating if you’re cycling on a regular commute to be constantly held up by dawdlers all over the shop, yet if you’re out for a quiet roam, you don’t want some speed demon throttling past.
                Well, I could go on contradicting myself, but at the end of the day, we need to have some serious cycle and walking infrastructure that enables efficient commuting and challenging exercise, while safeguarding scenic or pleasure routes for all. Perhaps speed limiters (speed bumps, pinch points, etc.) on the latter and separation on the latter?

        2. meltdblog

          There are times when sounding a bell/horn is appropriate and times when it isn’t, we don’t have cars sounding their horns whenever they come near a pedestrian or cyclist. Recreational groups out walking for the sake of it are usually very receptive to a bell sounded with plenty of time ahead for them to make some space, they can walk side by side and fill the path as they remain alert and make space whenever they encounter other path users.

          But once you reach higher densities of users where interactions are continual then it makes no sense to use a warning device, and doing so only invites negative reactions even when its use is entirely “correct”:

          The recreational path network along the rivers needs to be viewed as such, its not the only bicycle infrastructure but one of the many bicycle routes needed for the many different cyclists. Should it be duplicated with segregated paths, or are the cyclists who aren’t there for recreational uses be given more appropriate routes elsewhere? When you get down to the Yarra Trail along Citylink its clearly for commuting use with no alternatives but the meandering paths further up the river and creeks are indirect routes with high detour factors, poor connectivity to the areas around them, and simply making them wider doesn’t improve any of their other problems as transportation cycling routes.

        3. shel

          Totally agree. Ring_your_bell! . . . if you have one of course . . . which leads me to another point . . .

        4. Jack

          I paid extra attention to bell-ringing behavior on my ride to work this morning — along a shared path, fairly busy with both cyclists and pedestrians. I didn’t observe a single cyclist using their bell, but also I didn’t see any pedestrians disturbed by this. Indeed they all seemed (appropriately) oblivious to the cyclists.

          In my experience a bell-ring (like a car horn) gets interpreted as ‘take action’ rather than ‘note that a bike will pass you’. So appropriate when someone actually needs to get out of the way, but otherwise just a nuisance.

        5. Matt Taylor

          I must disagree. I’ve personally been mildly abused for ringing my bell, and regularly find it does the opposite of its intended action.
          Of course, the real issue here is that people are often oblivious/selfish/ignorant/unaware/etc in any form of transport, including their own two legs. If we were all more aware it would fix the problem, but alas, I doubt that will happen. Hence your suggestion of separated paths, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

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