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The Explainer – Whose bike path is it anyway?

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Oct. 7, 2009
  • Updated Nov. 3, 2009 at 11:38 PM EDT

By Charles Pelkey

Las Vegas boasts some killer bike paths … but we’re not the only ones using them.

Photo: Lennard Zinn

Dear Explainer,
The part of town that I live in is blanketed by great bike paths that I frequent but recently I ran into a small problem.

As I looked up from my power meter after completing an interval session, I saw a runner coming right at me in the bike path. Luckily I saw her in time and swerved to avoid a collision but she seemed pretty set on holding her line.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I’ve noticed a lot more runners going the opposite direction in the bike paths these days. My question is, if I had collided with the runner, would I have been at fault? I understand the whole concept of running opposite the flow of traffic but what if there’s a bike lane? Who has the right of way?

Thanks!
Mike Tsai
Las Vegas, Nevada

Dear Mike,
As you mention, Nevada in general and Las Vegas in particular have a terrific network of trails. The Las Vegas area has one of the best Safe Routes to Schools programs in the country, often allowing kids to ride from home to school without once having to come into contact with automobile traffic. Nonetheless, those paths can offer up their own hazards.

Suffice it to say the kind of conflict you mention has become an increasingly common problem over the years, especially since in most places in the country they’re not really “bike paths,” although we sure like to think of them as such. In Nevada, they’re referred to as “shared-use paths,” and your state legislature recently expanded the definition of who is able to do that sharing by including electric bicycles.

So, with roller-bladers, roller-skiers, skate-boarders, runners, electric bikes and some guy out walking a dog attached to 15 feet of nearly invisible leash, it’s enough to make you almost wax nostalgic for the days when we spent most of our time on the roads … (well, at least until you spot someone applying make-up and talking on a cell phone while trying to drive a Hummer down a narrow street).

As you mention, there’s a reason that runners and other pedestrians try to move against the flow of traffic. In Nevada, it’s spelled out in the law:

“Pedestrians walking along highways where sidewalks are not provided shall walk on the left side of those highways facing the approaching traffic.”
Nevada Revised Statutes – 484.331 §2

Despite the fact that this provision doesn’t apply to shared-use paths, a lot of people take it to heart and apply it in almost any situation they encounter. (Of course, that practice also leads to one of my biggest pet peeves, namely bicyclists adopting the same strategy on open roads … or worse, parents telling their kids that it’s safer to ride a bike against traffic.)

So, what are the rules?

I made a quick call to the Nevada Department of Transportation on this one, because I wasn’t sure what rules would govern traffic flow on those paths. Unfortunately, according to Bill Story ? NDOT’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Program Manager ? there are no specific laws governing traffic on those shared-use paths, beyond those that prevent motorized vehicles from using them.

Indeed, in many parts of the state, those paths don’t even sport a dividing line as a casual reminder to keep traffic moving in opposite directions separated. The absence of dividers stems from the fact that while construction of the paths are generally funded by state and federal agencies, the duty of maintenance falls to local governments and those entities don’t want to assume the duty of keeping the paint in good condition.

Bike paths … errr… uhhh … shared-use paths, do solve one problem, in that they get us places without having to share the road with cars. Unfortunately, they essentially ghettoize the non-motorized among us onto narrow sections of pavement where we encounter a whole new set of conflicts, which – at least in Nevada – aren’t always as carefully regulated as they are out on the roads.

As a former board member of Bicycle Colorado, I know that having a single state-wide advocacy group is an important and effective means of raising issues like that with the state legislature. As far as I know, Nevada cyclists don’t have a unified state-wide lobbying group, although there are several organizations that act quite effectively in different parts of the state.

On the national level there are very effective groups, including Bikes Belong and the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

Ultimately, it may be necessary to let your state legislator know that under existing Nevada law, those shared-use paths are a sort of “free fire” zone, with few rules governing their use (aside from the obvious ban on cars, trucks and other motorized vehicles) and it might be time to impose a semblance of order out there.

Who’s at fault?

One thing you might want to keep in mind, though, is that when and if such rules are imposed, they often include speed limits (most often under 15mph) and that would rule out doing intervals, especially when there are other users present. You may be best served by doing your speed work on a lightly traveled road, instead of a path that is relied upon by a broad cross-section of users.

In terms of your own situation, had the worst-case scenario actually played out and the two of you would have collided, it seems like the liability question would be a tough one to answer. In the absence of a state law or other rules regulating traffic flow on those paths, common sense might be the default. While you can certainly argue that the runner should have known that staying on her side of the path was reasonable, she might well argue that you shouldn’t have had your eyes anywhere but on the path ahead of you and that you were going faster than might be considered “reasonable.” Either way, it wouldn’t be pretty.

Now, were this encounter to have occurred in a bike lane, instead of a bike path, the question of fault might be a bit clearer. If you were traveling in a designated bike lane alongside a road and she happened to be running in that lane, despite the availability of a sidewalk, the fault would probably be hers. In the absence of a sidewalk, though, she has the legal right to be out there, although I have to assume that the intent of the law is to give her the ability to move out of the way of on-coming traffic and stubbornly “holding her line” wouldn’t be reasonable on her part.

To be completely honest, Mike, I’m not a big fan of getting in high-speed training sessions on trails or bike paths. While we are the slow and vulnerable out on the streets, on trails and shared-use paths, we’re the ones who become the fast, heavy and dangerous players.

My only really bad encounter on a “bike” trail happened one morning down in Colorado, when I thought riding up a mountain on a steep dirt trail at 5:00 in the morning would be a good way to start my day. Unfortunately, another guy thought it was a good time to practice his downhill technique on the same trail. Let me tell you, a guy rapidly becomes a fan of the “slow is beautiful” school after a high-speed encounter with a guy in full body armor on fully-suspended tank of a bike. (To his credit, he was a reasonable enough fellow and he paid for the damage to my bike. My wrist did eventually heal and the scar is kinda cool.)

Even if rules are eventually promulgated, my best advice is still to quote Sergeant Esterhaus from “Hill Street Blues” and say “Hey, let’s be careful out there.” The only thing I can add to that advice is to be responsible, too.

Write your Congressman

Meanwhile, since we’re on the topic of advocacy, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has been sending out reminders to cyclists and others that the U.S. Senate is considering a bill that may have a direct impact on the construction of trails of all kinds around the country. Senate File 575 – the Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act ( or “CLEAN-TEA”), would ensure that, if Congress passes climate change legislation, a portion of the revenue collected from such legislation would be available to expand clean and affordable transportation choices, including bike – okay, okay, shared-use – trails.

As the Conservancy points out, cars and light trucks emit about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases generated in the U.S. each year. Unfortunately, however, the current U.S. House bill steers a meager one percent of climate revenue to clean transportation.

What the heck, if we all get out on bikes, not only will it cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, it might actually make us a bit healthier … and that could have a positive impact on that other big issue in front of Congress these days.

Let your Senator know how you feel about the bill and make sure that your Congressman knows, too, since any differences between the two versions of the measure will have to be resolved in Conference Committee and then voted on by both houses.


Dear Explainer,
I just read the article about Milram getting a one year extension to their ProTour license and Bbox and Cofidis losing their spots. How is it that two established teams can have issues getting or renewing a license and it’s assumed that Lance’s new team will get one?

Not that I am complaining but here is a new team with no history getting a ticket and the established teams with some history albeit not the best being sort of screwed?

It doesn’t seem all that impartial.
David Wilson
Oakville, Canada

Dear David,
First off, it really isn’t assumed that the new RadioShack team will be automatically granted a ProTour license, while avoiding the same level of scrutiny that those teams seeking renewal were subjected to.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, (“Who gets ProTour licenses and why?”) the UCI rulebook has a specific set of criteria that teams have to meet in order to qualify for a new license or to renew an existing one. Among those are the financial health of the program, the compliance with accounting requirements, respect for anti-doping rules and the quality of the team’s roster. If it’s a new team, those criteria are applied to the past records of the individual riders and the management team being brought together to form the new program. So while the team itself has no history, the elements that make up that team do and those are now being reviewed by the commission.

As of today, RadioShack’s application remains under review by the licensing commission and no decision has been yet been issued.

Stay tuned.


Email Charles Pelkey


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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