Pedestrian-Cyclist Tensions Reach A Flashpoint On The Canal Path

Today I cycled along the canal, which is neither a cycle path nor a footpath but a Resentment Path: one where both types of traffic are permitted but each feels the other is rather overstepping its bounds. Pedestrians resent the bike’s speed, its hard metal frame, and act like making way for it is a much bigger imposition than yielding to a jogger of equal pace and width. Cyclists resent the habit of pedestrians to expand – like a gas – to fill whatever sized vessel they find themselves in. In this way two people can entirely block a four-person-wide path, and even when they grudgingly accept the need to compress to allow something to pass, will immediately re-expand thereafter, maximising the number of times this huffy dance is necessary.

Ahead of me were two cyclists: an old lady in pole position, and a young man between she and I. I was looking for a chance to overtake them both, but even at their glacial pace they would close the gap between us and some still-slower pedestrians before I could safely squeeze past. Instead they weaved slowly and silently between three different walkers in turn, each oblivious until they were passed, and got stuck behind the fourth. This man, of normal build, was somehow consuming the entire width of the path, and neither cyclist seemed willing to do anything to alert him to their presence.

This was a dilemma. At this distance I’d normally ding the inappropriately quaint bell on my otherwise rugged mountain bike, but doing so as the third unit in a barely-moving serpentine platoon of bikes seemed somehow impolite. If neither the leader of our mismatched pack nor her XO had elected to bell, belling without authorisation seemed to break the implied chain of command, to defy the rules of engagement established by our commanding officer: old lady.

Eventually General Old Lady entered Quiet Voice Range of the target and let rip: “Excuse me!”

The man’s reaction was immediate, extreme and entirely common in this predicament. His complete surprise that a bicycle – the single most hazardous, spike-bristled war juggernaut in a pedestrian’s fleshy world – could have crept so close without his knowledge translated into a sort of primal fight-or-flight response, and he leapt out of the way of this 2mph pensioner as if she were a freight train. Immediately embarrassed by his overreaction but determined to find an external blame-receptacle, he returned fire:

“You wanna get a bell!”

I think we all knew this could get ugly. “Excuse me” was already testing the boundaries of the fragile peace treaty privileged Britons tacitly sign by avoiding interacting with each other wherever possible. But this man’s suggestion shattered it utterly, by indirectly suggesting anyone else’s behaviour was less than perfect. It could go anywhere from here: knives, drowning, offish silence.

“Oh, I have a bell.” Holy shit. This was true, actually.

“You wanna use it then!” Oh my God. Direct behaviour critique. Is the fabric of our society even salvageable? Old Lady would have to come back with something extraordinary.

She did.

“I always think it’s rude to use it!” she said, brightly.

One by one we glode wordlessly by the stunned man, and on into the strange new world we had forged.

15 Replies to “Pedestrian-Cyclist Tensions Reach A Flashpoint On The Canal Path”

  1. Tom!

    My problem with the bike is that it is not as nimble as the aforementioned jogger who can happily jump into the road or slide sideways between people, or immediately halt – this leads to crashes, my balls being impaled on one wheel as it flew around a corner.

    They also tend to be used for commuting, leading to road rage – I was once yelled at for not “looking” when I exited my house onto the “sidewalk”, which was bizarre, but then no one has laid down rules about such things leading to primal relapse – and I think it is the lack of rules around such human interactions that are problematic.

    The cyclists height and width (a normal indicator of strength and supremacy in the who goes first stakes) is massively undermined by their poor balance (It is very hard not to think about kicking a wheel whenever a cyclist passes just to see what bug-like sprawl they end up in) making it far more challenging for either party to know who would win in a punch up, and therefore who has claim to the path.

    Fellow walkers who happily walk three across and look aghast when a cyclist or fellow pedestrian attempts to walk through them rather than step into the road around them, seem to be under the impression that three heads are better than one, while in reverse the single human trying to weave through them counts them as one entity who has equal, not more, right to the road.

    I guess this is why the conundrum always leads to resentment, as all parties feel slighted, and will continue until some brave leader jots down new rules of etiquette for this type of interaction.

  2. Glid.

    Plus! Don’t forget that the balance is additionally disturbed on a tow path by the added cyclist-peril of a potential dunking.

  3. I agree with old lady! Using the bell seems kind of insulting. You have a mouth! You don’t even deign to use it? I’m below moving the muscles in your head, so you’re using a mechanical device to alert me to your presence instead?

    “You’re beneath my notice! I ring this bell for your benefit while I intentionally look in another direction, now get thee away from my path!”

  4. I like it when two pedestrians are on either side of the path. They’re not walking together but are close enough so you’d need to slalom between them. You ring your bell and they both politely cross over. You still have the same obstacle, just the opposite way around, and you can’t ring the bell again because it would be rude.
    Dog walkers are fun too, especially those who insist on having their lead stretch across the path. They expect their dog to understand the massive trip hazard and move back to its owner.

  5. It is rude to deploy the bell against other bicycles, but not against pedestrians. Its piercing call bypasses the brain’s higher-functions, offering a shortcut to that get-the-hell-out-of-the-road lobe of the reptilian mind.

    For bicycles, the voice is more polite.

    Even the lowly inline sk8r gets a ‘Bicycle Passing!’ call, despite their talent at occupying both lanes of the path by necessary design of their inefficient carriage.

    Bicycles only get the bell if they repeatedly shoal at intersections.

  6. Camfield, at least where I come from, the law, which seems like it should count as a rule, is no bikes on the sidewalk. Anyone who gets mad at you for walking there is technically wrong. Not sure how that translates to etiquette…

    On the other hand, on foot or biking, I’m always quietly infuriated by people who take up the whole sidewalk. I try to walk on one side of it, even if I don’t know someone is behind me. This has become even more of a habit since moving to Asia, where I am just as likely to get run over by a motorcycle as block a fellow pedestrian…

  7. I had a similar encounter on my bike after quietly and politely saying “excuse me!” behind a couple.

    The guy jumped, took offence and said similar – “you should have a bell!”.

    Luckily I was feeling confrontational and stopped to explain that: “i said excuse me exactly the same as i would have done if i were on foot – so do you suggest all pedestrians get bells too?”

    His impotent silence was almost as satisfying as the stroganoff i made with his innards…

  8. Be radical.

    Defy convention.

    Say “ring, ring!” out loud. (Note: I do not have a bell.)

  9. I believe correct etiquette is to use the bell while still a good twenty yards away from the obstacle. This prevents it being an alarming sound right behind them and often gives them a chance to move without it being an emergency relocation or even delaying the passing faster fellow traveller.

    This is also why the pedestrian response of, “Get a bell” is indeed appropriate. By waiting until you’re within quiet voice distance you’re breaching an unstated duty to help pedestrians be pre-emptively courteous in a terribly sub-optimal way.

  10. I somehow made it to the age of approximately 19 having never encountered (or at least registered) the single-ping bell form. My childhood consisted only of dring-dring models.

    Until one day I was walking along an otherwise empty pavement, next to an otherwise very quiet road, and kept hearing this weird pinging noise behind me. Given my lack of knowledge of pingbells, my mind raced to find an explanation, and decided that someone or something must be smacking a metallic object against the lampposts. The combination of “don’t look back at the lamppost-smacker” terror, and my general attitude of forced nonchalance at that age, stopped me from verifying this version of events, until a woman sailed past on her bloody bike.

    She didn’t say a word. Cow.

Comments are closed.