Some years ago, a thirtysomething friend of mine who was training to run his first Boston Marathon sought advice from a mutual friend who had a bunch of Heartbreak Hills under his belt. “At some point during the race, a little old lady is going to run past you,” our friend said. “Don’t fight it. Just accept it as one of the mysteries of life.”
I think about those words when I’m on my beat-up 21-speed hybrid and I hear the whir of a cyclist gaining on me from behind. Will it be a fit young athlete on one of those wafer-thin models that might as well have wings? A middle-aged guy in full spandex reflective regalia who seems a smidge desperate to be seen as a Serious Biker? Or the cycling version of that little old lady from the Marathon?
Whatever the answer, the chances are good that all of them will announce themselves the same way: “On your left!”
I really hate that phrase.
So as we enter another autumn of thickened weekend crowds and cool-weather commuters along the region’s many glorious bike paths, my proposed list of Revised Rules for Bike Path Etiquette begins with this entry:
1. “On your left” is now officially banned.
Sure, it’s dispiriting for anyone engaged in any athletic activity to be passed. But believe me when I tell you that the act of being overtaken doesn’t bother me half as much as the way it is announced. “On your left” is shrouded in safety and mutual concern but is more often just a vector for smugness and braggadocio.
There’s a reason I’m focusing my revised rules on bike paths. The roads where bikers must share space with barreling SUVs and weaving motorcycles are always life-threatening and, as we’re reminded all too often, can become life-ending. I’ve got no business wading into that perilous territory with my complaints. If you want to continue to shout “on your left” when passing another biker on Comm. Ave., be my guest (though, for everyone’s safety, you might consider waiting until the next red light to make your move).
Bike paths are different. Although they see occasional incidents, these car-free spaces are largely safe. The right of bikers to set the culture for them is undisputed (except, perhaps, by the power walkers and, until her death earlier this year, the llama that regularly strolled the Minuteman Bikeway). That accepted dominance is a real departure from the roads, where bikers continue to be viewed as interlopers.
State bike law requires only that “the operator shall give an audible warning whenever necessary to insure safe operation of the bicycle.” There’s a good deal of discretion in deciding what’s “necessary.” Maybe I’m lucky, but whenever someone has passed me on a bike path, it’s never come as a surprise, even when the other biker has said nothing. I’ve always heard the pedaling behind me, and as long as there is no one coming in the opposite direction, the risk of collision is quite small.
Because there’s such a range of athletic abilities on bike paths, I find myself passing about as often as I get passed. Just to make sure not to startle the person I’m passing, I’ve experimented with different ways of communicating my presence. The one route that I’ve found works best for both parties is a warm “Good morning” and then, if the biker courteously moves more to the right, a simple “Thank you.” I like to think we both emerge from that interaction feeling better about ourselves. (Riders who insist on using “on your left” will be forgiven if they say it in a friendly tone and follow it with a thank you.)
While we’re on the subject of courtesy, here’s the second new rule:
2. When you say hello to a biker traveling in the opposite direction, and that biker fails to reply in kind or at least smile back at you, he or she will be stripped of bike-path privileges for 90 days. Don’t leave me hanging, brother.
3. Any group of chatting friends walking across the bike path four abreast will be immediately rounded up and deposited at the nearest mall food court. Hey, Dolores: I’ve got no problem with your dishing about how your niece doesn’t seem to be herself since she started seeing that moody guy with the man-bun — unless, you know, it prevents me and everyone else on the path from getting on with our day.
4. Kids. I love them — have three of them myself. But, as one parent to another, let me break it to you that a busy bike path on a weekend is a pretty terrible place for you to take Connor and Madison to find their balance on training wheels. They may find it almost as unnerving as the rest of us do when they nervously weave into the oncoming lane without any warning. Instead, try a big, flat office park that will be reliably empty on a Sunday afternoon.
5. In places where bike paths intersect with a public road, I’d make it standard practice to ride — rather than walk — your bike along the crosswalk, unless you’re a child or an infirm elder. I know you’re technically not supposed to operate a vehicle in a crosswalk. And I know some bike paths even have signs reminding cyclists to walk their bikes in crosswalks. (Rest assured that those signs will be promptly removed upon enactment of my rules.) While it makes sense for unsteady riders to walk their bikes through intersections, for everyone else, slowly riding the bike along the crosswalk is the most efficient approach, provided, of course, that you look both ways before crossing and pedal carefully.
Motorists who do their part by stopping to let bikers move through crosswalks should be thanked with a wave and minimal delay.
The operating logic behind all of these revised rules is empathy. In shared “multiuse” spaces like bike paths, things go a lot more smoothly when individuals remember to think about how their actions will affect the people around them.
Most of us could use more empathy. I’m never more aware of my deficit than when I’m driving in a crowded area like Harvard Square, getting steamed as pedestrians take their sweet time crossing the street, only to flip my attitude entirely after I park and become a pedestrian myself. All of a sudden, I can’t believe how impatient every driver around me seems to be. As they blithely edge their cars into the crosswalk, I’m tempted to rap hard on their windows and yell, “On your right!”
Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter@neilswidey.