Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Moaning and the Groaning of the Bells

Extra, extra, Bike Snob's latest book just dropped! I wrote a full review of it on Amazon, but very briefly, it was a joy to read due primarily to Bike Snob's charming style. It is not my favorite of his four books, but neither is it my least favorite. I mention it here for one reason and one reason only: to my horror and disappointment, I discovered that Bike Snob likes bells.

Bells? What bells? Who cares about bells and why? I care specifically about bicycle bells, and I care about them only when I ride on one of Houston's wonderful multi-use paths (MUPs). About a year ago I described how the conflict between pedestrian and cycling users of these paths has driven my wife and I off of one of our favorite paths, that through Terry Hershey Park. There are many sources of conflict between pedestrians and cyclists, some of which I described in my Terry Hershey post, but in this post, I would like to focus on one; the desire of (some) pedestrians to be warned before being passed by a cyclist and the utility of bells for that purpose.

There are a whole range of situations that arise on MUPs where a warning might be called for. A faster cyclist might be passing a slower cyclist. Cyclists will almost always be moving faster than pedestrians and thus on a busy path will be passing them constantly. Some pedestrians will be solo and experienced, running or walking in a straight line to the right of the path. Some will be couples or groups who span the entire trail. Although the rule for all path users is to stay on the right side of the trail, some pedestrians don't realize this and walk to the left as they would on the roadway. Sometimes runners or walkers will reach their halfway point, and without thinking to look, quickly turn around, going from one side of the trail to another, creating the possibility that they will step directly into the path of a cyclist. Walkers with dogs present a particular challenge as the dogs will go back and forth across the trail with their leash presenting a continuous barrier between them and their owner. Some pedestrians are listening to music with headphones and thus cannot hear a warning, some pedestrians are pushing strollers, some do not speak nor understand English, and so on and so on.

So what is a cyclist to do? I claim there is no clear or obvious answer, other than to use common sense and to worry about avoiding accidents rather than affixing blame. The question is, how best to do that? There is no doubt that an auditory warning sometimes is helpful. Personally, I use a verbal warning, usually "On your left!" (followed by "Thank You!" as I pass.) In response, some pedestrians yell at me for not warning them (even though I just did), some calmly wave over their shoulder, indicating that they heard and that it is safe to pass (and even respond with an answering "Thank YOU!"), some panic, rushing back and forth across the trail or leaving the trail entirely (not the desired goal at all), and those with headphones don't hear me at all. Is substituting a bell for the verbal signal the answer? Some say yes. The argument goes  "that older folks [for example] often can’t hear verbal cues, such as 'on your right!', and that it takes them longer to process the meaning of verbal input. A bell, however, is easily heard and automatically interpreted."

This is Bike Snob's position:
Let's say you want to pass a group of pedestrians walking three abreast. Well, you could shout, "On your left!" thus consigning yourself to the ranks of all the other impatient doofuses zigzagging through the crowded spaces and otherwise annoying people. Or you could emit a delightful Zen-like chime from the bell on your handlebars...
So an actual human voice is annoying, and a mechanical, metallic bell is Zen-like? I suppose you also prefer making love to a robot, Mr. Snob. I beg to differ.

contrary point of view is the following:
Personally, whether I am on my bike or on foot, I don't like bells. I can never get past the undertone of reprimand. The Highway Code says car horns should only be used 'to warn other road users of your presence'; and bells are to 'let [road users] know you are there when necessary'. Yeah yeah. The fact is that car horns don't say "Ahem...", they say "Oi, dickhead!", and for many pedestrians, bells do too.

I agree with the contrarian, I find bells startling and off-putting, thus the Edgar Allen Poe quote I used as my title. Since I hate being the target of bells, I don't feel I should use one. This is all in the context of lots of opinions and few facts. If it were clearly documented that bells were a significantly better warning signal than calling out "On your left," I would switch. But as best I can tell, nobody knows what is most effective. In fact, sometimes I actively choose to provide no auditory warning at all. The reason is that it is my experience that just about as many people are startled by any kind of auditory warning as are startled by being passed silently. If there is plenty of room to pass, if the person I am passing is to the right of the trail and seems like they are maintaining a straight line, then I will sometimes decide that passing silently is the best choice for everyone. I am much more likely to provide a warning to an older walker than to a younger runner. In all cases, I slow, have options in mind (e.g. going off trail) should the pedestrian dart into my path, etc. In short, I use common sense. But again, should it be demonstrated that always providing a warning had a statistically better outcome I would do so, but to the best of my knowledge, such a demonstration does not exist.

This post was inspired by reading a number of cycling articles, including Bike Snob's latest book, that argue bells are preferable to verbal warnings. Because my intuition differs so sharply from this assertion, I was moved to do some research, and then to post my own perspective. That said, I feel like perfecting auditory warnings is far from the biggest priority in improving the experience for both cyclists and pedestrians on MUPs; I think user education has a much greater potential. To date, it seems to me that what educational efforts there are, are almost all directed at cyclists. I admit to being biased, but I feel like pedestrians could use some education as well. But that is a topic for another post.

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