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Vienna Pedaler: W&OD Behavior

The trail is not a personal training or playing ground. Whether you are a cyclist, walker, or runner, safety comes first.

I wasn’t planning to re-visit the W&OD and folks’ behavior out there so soon, but given the feedback I’ve gotten on my articles, and some recent experiences of my own and others, I feel I need to say a bit more about it.

The most upsetting news I heard in this regard came from one of our who came by the shop the other day. He told me that a long-time member of the Patrol, who patrols on foot in the Vienna area, has decided to quit the Patrol after having been hit TWICE by speeding cyclists. Not passed too closely, but actually hit, while wearing a high visibility Trail Patrol vest.

There is NO excuse for this sort of occurrence. None. And as a result, we are losing a member of the Trail Patrol, the very people who are out there to try to help us all have a safe and enjoyable time out on the trail.

But it doesn’t stop there. The same Trail Patrol member (an avid cyclist) who related this story to me has also told me about his own negative interactions with speeding cyclists. As part of his responsibility for maintaining trail safety, he will call out to cyclists he feels are riding in an unsafe manner. You’d think that if you were riding along at a fast clip and someone in a jersey or vest that was emblazoned with the words “Trail Patrol”, shouted a warning to you to slow down, you might actually slow down. Yet in many instances, the Patrol member’s warning is either completely ignored or responded to with an obscene gesture or words.

I’ve lived near the W&OD for almost a decade now, and I’ve ridden and walked a lot of miles on it. I’d like to say that I’m shocked to hear of behavior like this on the trail, but I’m sorry to say it happens all too often. I’ve certainly had my share of cyclists passing me too fast and close, and others making unsafe passing maneuvers against opposing traffic. And who hasn’t watched as a rider flies through a stop sign across a road without even a pause?

Don’t get me wrong ... cyclists aren’t the only ones who behave badly on the trail. I can also tell you of countless times I’ve had to shout and ring my bell insistently before I could get the attention of a cluster of walkers, three or four abreast, blocking the entire width of the trail. And there always seems to be a runner or two who insists on running right on the yellow lane divider, despite the signs (and plain common sense) that say “stay right except to pass.” In these days of the ubiquitous MP3 player, a cyclist can’t help but be frustrated by runners, walkers, and others, oblivious to the world around them, and unresponsive to any warnings.

The simple fact of the matter, however, is that as cyclists we are moving the fastest, and therefore present a greater “hazard” to other users of the trail. In discussions about car/bike interactions, cyclists are always quick to point out that when those interactions go badly, it is the cyclist who “loses”. Well, on a multi-use trail, we are the “cars” ... simple physics means that our speed and moving mass create a risk for others, so it is vital that we behave responsibly and safely.

So remember:

  • Ride at a safe speed for the existing conditions - a busy Saturday in the heart of any trail town is NOT the time and place to go for a “personal best."
  • Alert others of your presence before passing - call out “passing on your left”, or ring a bell or sound a horn ... and while you’re at it, why not say “hello” or “nice day” as you pass?
  • Only pass when there is clearly sufficient room and time to do so, and give the person you're passing a wide berth.
  • Stop at all stop signs at road crossings. Don’t assume that drivers will stop for you.
  • Most important, remember that the trail, any multi-use trail, is for the use of EVERYONE! It is not your personal training or play ground, whether you are a cyclist, walker, or runner.


The trails are one of the truly great resources in the DC area. If we can all learn to be considerate of others, and truly share the trails, we can all enjoy them to the fullest for many years, trouble-free. If not, they will become just another hassle, and being on them will feel like being on any of the many congested, stressful roads in the region.

And none of us want that.

Alison April 30, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Thank you! It is for everyone. I am married to a cyclist but truly believe that their behavior makes it impossible for anyone with a dog or a child on a bike to simply enjoy a little time on the trail.
Phil Ingrassia April 30, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Great food for thought! I am cyclist and enjoy the trail -- now my 5 year-old is learning how to ride his bike and we are careful to obey the traffic signals and signs on our streets and around the trail. Cyclists who complain about motorists lose a bit of the high ground when some don't stop at stop signs or run red lights, so model the behavior you would like to see in others.
Kathy April 30, 2012 at 08:35 PM
I wish all dog walkers on the trail would realize that allowing your dog to roam with 4+ feet of leash is highly dangerous to the dog and cyclists (or anyone on wheels). The dog may be walking peacefully next to you but may suddenly decide to dart across the trail for whatever reason. This would cause a cyclist to hit the dog, get caught in the leash, veer off dangerously, etc. Animals are unpredictable despite how well trained they are. If dogwalkers insist on using the trail, they should have the dogs always on their *right* hand side and keep such a tight leash that the dog cannot veer from the side of its owner. If you love your dog, please do this.
Cassie April 30, 2012 at 09:54 PM
I wish they would widen the trail some and add a line separation for walkers and bikers
Lisbet April 30, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Hear, hear!! I live close to the trail but feel very unwelcome to use it as it has become the "Beltway" for cyclists--I don't want to stereotype because I'm sure there are lots of conscientious, respectful serious cyclists, but the ego-bound jerks swathed in spandex and high end bikes who soar past walkers (some elderly) without the least regard to their safety really makes me angry. Just because it is a paved path, it's not a velodrome...there is just too much pedestrian traffic around Vienna for ANY of these "high performance" cyclists to go at the speed they go. Cycling is a wonderful activity but it's sad that the arrogance and jerkiness of a significant amount of riders around here is ruining it.
Amelie Krikorian May 01, 2012 at 01:17 AM
Thank you for posting this! I used to walk to the farmers' market on Saturday mornings and had to give it up last year because of scary bikers. Around Vienna itself there are a lot of walkers and novice bikers, so it's really not a good place for the people who need to go 35 mph to show off their speed. They need to think of the miles inside town limits as "residential" -- just as cars are supposed to go 25 mph in residential neighborhoods and faster on highways. If you really want to go that fast can't you head away from town to do it?
Anne Bell May 01, 2012 at 03:00 AM
Thanks for the article. I live off the trail in the long stretch between the caboose and Hunter Mill Rd - evidently a favorite speedway. I appreciate that the badly gully washed "low road" - the gravel bridle path - has recently been groomed and leveled. I often walk my dog there for fear either of us could be hit no matter how short a leash I walk him on. But ever since the low bridge over Piney Branch washed out, we have no choice but to share the road for at least a short distance. I've seen some large railroad ties/wood planks there recently. Do you know if they are planning to replace the lower bridge?
J Anderson May 01, 2012 at 11:14 AM
I"m on the trail a lot as a cyclist and this behavior is unacceptable...particularly the obscene gestures. I can't imagine why they do that. However, I've come to the conclusion that it's people and not what they do. I've seen poor behavior by cyclists, walkers, runners, dog walkers, bladers, etc. Only kids on bikes get a free ride because they're kids and aren't thinking like adults and FCPS hasn't been providing bike/ped safety education to them for near 10 years. I am a bit dismayed that the cyclists get the bulk of the blame (as they do on the roads too) for near misses etc. They do need to slow down when approaching slower trail users .... and stop threading the needle. As a bike racer, I want to go fast and do so when it's clear but slow down to pass all the time because I fear for my safety as much as the others. I sense when a rider behind me doesn't like that but I make them suck it up. But why don't folks get upset at cars speeding on side streets or in school zones, turning right on red w/o stopping or when pedestrians are present or complain when a cyclist gets hit by a car. Balance is lacking.
Wien May 01, 2012 at 01:15 PM
The most dangerous maneuver I've seen (and saw it this weekend on a busy Sunday) is passing cyclings coming at you. As a runner, I've had to move out of the way many times to avoid an oncoming cyclist passing a group (although I haven't been hit in my few years of trail use). But as a cyclist, it's even more dangerous. This Sunday there were two cyclists coming at me abreast, and a third passed them as I was coming straight ahead. It's just stupid; the trail is barely big enough to allow two cyclists in one "lane" but it's definitely not wide enough to allow for three oncoming and one in the opposite direction. I'm fine with high-speed passing if you're going in the same direction and yell a warning, that's one thing that's just bound to happen on a trail with many different users. But the passing maneuvers some people make with oncoming traffic are just reckless.
Amelie Krikorian May 02, 2012 at 01:18 AM
They are getting the bulk of the blame on the trail because the speeding cyclists make it dangerous for everyone else. There are no cars on the bike path to blame. And I agree, there are cars speeding through residential areas and going through red lights and it's a problem -- but a biker doing those same things is far more likely to die than a car driver is. In a town the size of Vienna, chances are that the biker you hit is the father of someone your kid goes to school with, or the brother of someone in your book group, or whatever. Look how many blue ribbons are up for Jack Donaldson still, and how many people knew Hank Sternburg. Why can't you accept that bikers need to be more careful before one of them ends up being on the home page of the Patch as a tragic loss? If you want to go fast, stay away from the area near the caboose -- it's the bike path equivalent of a residential neighborhood. I saw a biker take a nasty fall the other day because he was biking full-out and a little kid ran out from the caboose area and onto the bike path. If he had been going slower, he could have stopped instead of falling sideways to stop from hitting the kid. And this accident could have had an even worse ending.
Joanna May 02, 2012 at 02:30 AM
I personally think that "some" of the cyclists are just plain rude. They whiz by yelling obscenities at those of us who walk with our dogs even when we abide by the rules! They also do not say thank you at the bike crossing at the community center!!! Just appreciate the fact that we have a wonderful trail to share!!!
Kathy May 04, 2012 at 10:23 PM
Thank you so much for this article! I think it's a great message for everyone, regardless of their mode of movement, to remember there are others out there and that safety should always be a priority. Not to mention a little kindness and tolerance. Something that seems to be lacking in our society.
J Anderson May 05, 2012 at 12:42 AM
Amelie - Did you read my post? FWIW - stats show you are more likely to be in and potentially injured or killed in a car accident than in a bike accident. The issue is that we as a society have grown to accept drivers going above the speed limit, to slide thru stop signs, to pass on the right, to turn right on red yet when a cyclist does something - it's the end of the world - let alone the fact that car drivers pull stunts that could easily kill a cyclist. Yet I diverge from the discussion at hand....and again suggest reading my post. Cyclists need to slow down on the trail but there is plenty of blame to be shared by all trail users - so it's out of balance to blame just cyclists as the root of all accidents. As I said, I am on the trail a lot and see plenty of stunts but I bet if you counted - it's a few bad riders that are bringing full blame down on all cyclists. No cyclist should be speeding thru any downtown area like Herndon or Vienna...that's just stupid...so blame the person and not the activity. Jack D's ribbons have nothing to do with trail usage and I don't know who Hank is.
Anne42pt2 May 07, 2012 at 04:00 PM
I'm happy to remain a Trail Patrol member, despite some entertaining encounters over the years. I both cycle and run. I have seen my share of foolishness from both cyclists and peds. I've seen some stupid accidents that should have been avoided. But I've not personally had any unpleasant interactions with trail users, even ones I've just had to talk to about their behavior. It is not that hard to be polite to others, maintain a safe speed and be aware of your surroundings. Cyclists are in the position to do the most harm, as Tim points out, because of speed and equipment. So when we're on our bikes, we really do bear the burden of being extra careful of those we could mow down. And please, I see a lot of silliness at road crossings. In the rock, paper, scissors world, the car is always "rock." Slow the heck down. Stop at the stop signs. Live to ride tomorrow. I'm so happy that Bike to Work Day is coming up. In my opinion, it is the best day of the year on the trail. People are having fun and they're on their very best behavior. The peds know the cyclists will be there in droves, and the cyclists are being extra attentive on their special day, perhaps so as not to bring shame upon the lot of us. I wish every day was like BTWD. If you are a frequent trail user, particularly for the polite and safe cyclists whom I believe are the vast majority of us, please consider helping the Trail Patrol. We can use your help.
Jack406 May 17, 2012 at 01:18 AM
I agree that it was probably much safer on the W&OD trail back in the 1980s when it was still a gravel trail. Bikes didn't go nearly as fast back then.
Tim Fricker June 26, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Anne - I love the "the car is always 'rock'" comment... so true! It baffles me when I see riders acting as if they are immortal. I am always very aware of how vulnerable I am in traffic.

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