Bike Path Etiquette: Chicago’s Lakefront Trail

During the summer, Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is the most popular destination in the city.  People come to jog, walk, cycle, play volleyball, lounge on the beach and people-watch. The trail is a multi-use path, not simply a bike path. Some cyclists sneer at commuters who use the path in the summer because it is so crowded.  (To get an idea of how contentious Chicagoans are over the path, check out the comments from a post in the Chicago Tribune’s blog.) I love taking the path because the surroundings are so beautiful, I prefer to avoid cars, and I like seeing smiling families and children running around.  Therefore, I simply adjust my expectations when riding in the summer and behave in a manner that matches the situation.
Chicago's Lakefront Trail at rush hour

Chicago's Lakefront Trail during my summer commute - rush hour

Unfortunately, not everyone behaves accordingly.  I recently witnessed a terrible incident caused by a reckless cyclist on the Lakefront Trail during my morning commute.

A big maintenance truck was driving on the trail, taking up both sides of the path.  I slowed down to ride behind the truck, knowing that I could not pass safely and that the truck would soon turn off the path.  Several other cyclists caught up and followed along, but once there was a narrow stretch of pavement on the left, three cyclists took the opportunity to pass the truck, despite not knowing if anyone was coming from the opposite direction.   Predictably – for me, at least – there was a cyclist coming from the other direction who had the right of way.  A reckless cyclist clipped her and kept going – did not even look back.  Meanwhile, I watched as the right-of-way cyclist tottered, horrified that she would fall under the truck.  She fell in the other direction, onto the grass.   After laying on the ground for a minute, she was able to get up and walk around.  She clearly was an experienced cyclist and looked sleek in her spandex, but was my gram’s age and recently had a hip replacement.

Chicago Lakefront Trail during my winter commute - me, myself and I

Chicago Lakefront Trail during my winter commute - me, myself and I

Sadly, humans on the path are sometimes as bad as humans on the freeway.  Too many people have a “me first” attitude and their selfishness can harm others. It’s really simple.

Rules of the Path

  • Be patient
  • Be polite
  • Reduce your speed in crowded areas, especially around children and dogs
  • Pass others with ample space
  • Always look over your shoulder before passing someone (and buy a mirror)
  • Ding your bell or nicely call out “on your left” before passing people in tight situations
  • If possible, signal your unexpected stops with an upside down 90 degree angle left arm
  • Assume that the person in front of you will stop for all stop signs and red lights
  • Remember that the world does not revolve around you

Some of the worst offenders are experienced trail users who take advantage of their experience to zoom around people dangerously, with the attitude that all these silly people are in their way.  As an experienced trail user, I consider it my responsibility to ride extra carefully and watch out for less experienced and more vulnerable users.  Cyclists are the “cars” of the path – the fastest and most potentially harmful users.  When I find myself being impatient with slower people and tempted to brush past them at the first narrow opportunity, I remind myself that drivers think the exact things about me when I’m on the road.  This works instantly to straighten my mood out, because I don’t want to be that jerk. Let’s all not be that jerk. And don’t forget to smile and enjoy life!

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27 thoughts on “Bike Path Etiquette: Chicago’s Lakefront Trail

  1. Mamavee says:

    damn straight. I just heard on the radio today about a car hitting and killing an 8 year old boy on a bike going across a cross walk with his dad. I didn’t hear correctly- perhaps the same driver had hit a 4 yr old in a cross walk also- or they were just relating another pedestrian accident in a cross walk.

    Stories like that and yours make me really angry. We all need to be aware and be careful. Biking isn’t dangerous until people start being reckless and careless.

    sigh.

  2. anna says:

    You are damn right about that. This rules should be obvious to everyone, and I even see them more as social than as traffic rules. Sad that some people always have to stand out in a bad way. Glad that not more happened.

  3. Jim says:

    I have experienced the same problems on the Riverwalk bike path in Buffalo. We were riding with a friend of ours on a gorgeous Sun afternoon on the very crowded path. Our friend,who has a degenerative brain disease, now must use a trike because of balance issues and we were accosted by a group of very fast paceline riders who insisted on passing when it really was not safe to do so. One of them clipped Karens trike and nearly flipped her over. A little common courtesy and a little common sense would go a long way toward solving this problem. The paths are there for everyone, not just fast and experienced riders out for a training ride.

  4. What you are describing sounds just like the situation on the Charles River Bike Path in Boston. I do not mind navigating the crowds on sunny summer weekend days, as long as everybody remains courteous. But more then a couple of times, I have been almost knocked over by other cyclists trying to race through the crowds at top speeds, passing on the right, not announcing their presence or using the bell, etc. Not very pleasant.

  5. Christa says:

    I’ve been thinking about ped/bike paths at prime locations (ie downtown waterfronts).

    Why do transport planners put peds and cyclists together? You’re right, it seems that bicycles are cars to pedestrians. Why can’t they just separate the two?

  6. Trisha says:

    Great rules to keep in mind. I too can vouch for how crowded that path can get! Ah, the fond memories of that rollerblader with headphones in.

  7. Dottie,

    I live in a bicycle friendly community which is listed as such by various bike organizations. Other cities aspire to be like us. However, thanks to scenarios like the once you describe, all is not well.

    Please note this current editorial in The Acata Eye:

    http://www.arcataeye.com/index.php?module=Pagesetter&tid=2&topic=4&func=viewpub&pid=1235&format=full

  8. Todd says:

    What all of you describe is the reason I avoid bike paths during the warmer months if at all possible. The people who I see zipping around are usually roadies on training rides. I don’t get it ,you are on a road bike, get on the road if you want to go 20-30 mph. That’s just me though. I have gotten used to my off hours commuting. When I ride no one else is usually around.

  9. Scott says:

    I rode the path every day for a couple years, but haven’t been on it in a good long while. I haven’t had my oma out there once since I bought it in 2007. Part of it is that I realized you can save a couple hundred dollars a month if you live in a cheaper neighborhood and ride your bike everywhere. But this means not living on the lakefront, which is the only place the path goes. I’m glad to be off it. It isn’t plowed enough in the winter, and it’s dominated by rollerbladers, people who pay no attention to anything, and spandex nerds who ride like assholes in the summer. It usually makes the ride longer, and the wind can be bad.

    • dottie says:

      I take the streets to work a lot in the winter, but rarely in the summer. I hate leaving the loop in the evening. Hate, hate. The worst drivers in the city are on Dearborn and that left-side bike lane is dangerous. The mornings aren’t bad, but getting over the bridge on the bike lane on Wells and then all the way to the left lane to turn left on Lake is tricky. My office is right by the lake, so the path does not take much longer, even though I ride 1.5 miles extra to get there.

  10. Sid says:

    Great tips. Fortunately, I know I don’t have the patience for that on a daily basis so I mostly stick to the roads for my commute. However, when I need my lakefront fix I try to stick to the stretch south of the Loop – much less congested and still a great ride.

  11. Catherine says:

    Same problems here on the mount vernon trail (and other area trails in and around DC). We have speed limits on our trails–15mph–which is kind of annoying on principle, but in practice I doubt I ever top 20 anyway. The thing is though that the spandex mafia types don’t care.

    I will also say that the pedestrians are a little out of line, too, though. They keep their dogs on WAY too long of leashes, most of them have on headphones so the little bell and “on your left” doesn’t matter.

    #1 pet peeve, though? Cyclists coming downhill, while I’m going uphill. They come into my lane to overtake pedestrians (because they’re going so fast, downhill and all) so that *I* have to slow down to avoid a collision. Ever tried breaking going uphill? Not fun to recover from.

  12. Ghost Rider says:

    Shared-use paths are a nightmare…rollerbladers, joggers, those damn Trikke riders, hyperfast cyclists. I avoid them like the plague. It’s a shame that often they are the most scenic way around an area, but it’s hard to enjoy the sights while you’re battling your way through the hordes.

    It can get worse, too. When I lived in D.C., we had the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which was frequented by horse riders. You do NOT want to tangle with a horse while on a bike. Ask me how I know this!

  13. Melissa Hope S says:

    Wow, that trail is busy! My commute is so nice on Aurora’s nature trail. My biggest contenders: little bunnies or chipmunks. And they always win, with a giggle from me. Sometimes I do see spandex cyclists or runners. My pet peeve with them is that they don’t say good morning back! :-(

  14. E A says:

    Very well stated! My philosophy is that everyone’s a jerk when there’s a crowd, since everyone is fending for themself. I just expect it – whether it’s in heavy car traffic, bike traffic, or large groups of people.

    I especially like the photos contrasting the summer and winter on the Lakefront. But I usually don’t have the patience for usually the meandering tourists or kids on vacation OR the for the racing cyclists. If I go on the path, it’s usually super early in the morning or later in the evening (before/after the rush). During the day can be tolerable, if I’m lucky enough to get in ride. But never in the daytime on the weekends!

  15. One of the busiest and fastest bike commute corridors in SF is the Panhandle. It is striped for 2 way bike traffic, and has the only bike priority traffic light in the city. It is well paved, well marked and has hundreds of cyclists a day zip through on their N-S commute. Despite this, the path is marked as a multi use path! Strollers, tourists, and worst of all, dogs! (there is a ped only path but no one will use it!)

    The other day, on the way home from picking up the youngest, a man was sitting on the side of the path and, without looking, through a ball for his dog to fetch right across the path. I was loaded with kid and stuff, so I was moving pretty slow. The road rider passing me, was booking at probably 20 MPH and couldn’t do anything other than try not to kill the dog. It was one of the worst collisions I have ever seen with rider, bike and dog all tangled up together and flying and tumbling through the air. The rider managed to roll out of the tangle when he hit the ground, but his jersey was ripped and abraded all over his back (to the degree that I could see he had quite a lot of hair), his shorts had a huge gash and ther was road rash everywhere. The dog seemed to be ok (the rider was amazing about how he hit him). The owner started yelling “it’s alright, you’re all right”, pulls the poor rider up off the road (no checking to see if the arm he is yanking is broken or not) and starts pounding the guy on the back (trying to seem hardy?)!

    I was so angry! This guy endangered everyone on the path, including his dog. The rider didn’t break his neck because he was experienced enough to tuck into the fall, but he was really banged up. If it had been me ahead in the pack, my son and I would have been the ones on the ground. And this is not an unusual incident.

    I think that in anyplace where mixed use does not have to happen, it should not. Small children and dogs do not mix well with moving bicycles and are simply a recipe for disaster.

  16. EdL says:

    Great post, Dottie. I am usually out before the crowds on my way to work, but when the sun is out the path can be pretty much a snail’s pace on the way home. Still, the scenery in the summer has its upside . . . (said distractions being another reason to slow down).

  17. I think this is an insanely appropriate post. I take the path home most days and nights because its just faster. But I am baffled by some people who act like its their own personal bike route. They are just as bad as aggressive drivers…if not worse for perpetuating a negative stereotype for the rest of us. Thank you for posting this!

  18. chicagocommuter says:

    Honestly, cyclists, rollerbladers, and runners on Chicago’s Lakefront path are probably the most responsible.

    Cyclists don’t abruptly stop – like peds do.
    Cyclists don’t quickly switch directions – like peds do.
    Cyclists don’t take up one entire bike lane – like mothers and their SUV strollers do.
    Cyclists pay attention to the middle line (when not passing) – unlike certain groups of peds.
    Cyclists don’t stop in the middle of the path to take pictures – like groups of tourists do.

    Even if a cyclist is going very slowly, it is still extremely difficult to respond to all of the unpredictable actions of the pedestrians and children that are not on leashes or holding an adult’s hand.

    I agree w/others – if a cyclist wants to train, they should do so in the AM, and stop doing so during busy times: rush hour, weekend days. And everybody should ride much more slowly during busy times.

    But the pedestrians who view the Lakeshore path as a sidewalk with no rules need to be aware that if they don’t follow the rules, they are probably going to get hurt. The line that marks the lanes on the path is the same as the one that marks the lanes on a road. When people drive, they take great caution when changing or crossing lanes then. It’s the same thing.

  19. Christina says:

    I bike and run on the path and see both points of view. As a runner I run as far to the right of the lane as possible, even on the dirt if it’s level enough. As a cyclist I try to stay as right as possible also.

    The majority of the runners and cyclists are aware of their surroundings. It’s the rollerbladers listening to music, the tourists, pedestrians who suddenly stop in the middle of the lane, people with dogs (with long leashes), and people who don’t watch their kids that are the most dangerous.

    I prefer to ride south of Navy Pier whenever possible. However, the Chicago River Bridge is always dangerous. I’ve noticed that lanes have been painted in between Grand and Illinois Aves, and they’ve removed the metal posts on the bridge path, but the pedestrians aren’t aware they have to share the path.

  20. Jim says:

    One more simple rule for all to follow – cyclists and peds both. STAY ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE OF THE LANE AND IN SINGLE FILE! Just as with cars, that is the rule of the road and with good reason.

  21. […] Bike Path Etiquette: Chicago's Lakefront Trail « Let's Go Ride a Bike […]

  22. Steve says:

    So glad to hear from another cyclist with common sense, which isn’t so common these days. I’ve always thought of biking as being about personal freedom but also about personal responsibility and courtesy as well. It’s just not that hard to slow down and watch out for others.

    Interestingly, the same people who claim it’s dangerous to ride on sidewalks can only point to stats where cyclists were not watching out for others or themselves and collided with cars backing out of driveways or didn’t stop before crossing streets. Being careful is all it takes to stay safe.

    Checkout these photos of the Fort Wayne Rivergreenway Bike Path:

    http:BikePath.EFTisland.com

  23. Kim says:

    I agree with cyclists using common sense and being patient. What I would stress a million times over is that people really need to treat the Lakefront Trail for what it technically is–a road. You wouldn’t walk across one without looking, hog multiple lanes and let dogs stray far into the middle, so there’s really no excuse for people to do it on the LFT just because there are no motor vehicles.

    The city also needs to be a lot better about posting signage, perhaps indicating for the benefit of tourists and occasional trail users that the space, including stretch over the bridge by Navy Pier, IS part of the trail (and yes, a bike lane).

  24. vmessage8809 says:

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