Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Top Five Hazards of the Burke Gilman Trail (Daylight Edition)

Ahhhh the Burke Gilman Trail. It is luxury indeed to live in a city that has such a wondrous pedestrian and bicycle trail network. I ride the "Burke" nearly every day, whether I'm using it to avoid traffic on my way to work, to quickly and safely get outside the city limits for a training ride, or simply to spin my legs out and enjoy its charming views and atmosphere. The Burke is a lot of things to a lot of different people; some of its users are there to commute, some are there to stroll, some to exercise, and still others are there to make life dangerous for the rest of us. While the chances of an automobile/cyclist collision is rather low on the Burke, I'd wager that a cyclist/cyclist collision is much more likely (or a cyclist/pedestrian, or a cyclist/rickety-tandem-recumbent-tent-like-contraption). For your reading pleasure, I've collected the top five (daytime) hazards of the Burke Gilman Trail. Here they are in no particular order:

1: The Brace of Ducklings

The Burke Gilman is a wonderful place for children to learn proper bicycle handling skills and etiquette, mainly thanks to the scarcity of automobiles. However, to the average rider like myself, a flock of bobble-headed children surrounding a single "mother duck" poses a serious potential threat. The attention of this lone parent can only be fully focused on a single child a time, often leaving the remainder of the "ducklings" on their own. Small children on bikes tend be highly erratic, loosely orbiting their parent like drunken bees circling a nest. They are prone to jerky, uncontrolled deviations in heading, and are easily startled by faster riders approaching from behind. When I see a flock of duckings, I've learned it's best to reduce my speed dramatically, and use lots of vocal commands to indicate my presence. The only thing worse than running over a small child on the Burke, is moments later getting beaten-up by an enraged mother (or father) duck. VARIATION: Make Way For Ducklings (all in a row). Sometimes the duck family decides to streamline their operation into a single-file. This is often no less dangerous than the alternative.

2: The Undecided Voter

I've observed the same phenomenon in many creatures: an animal (let's say a rabbit), is calmly minding its own business when a fast-moving object (let's say a car), approaches this animal from behind, startling it. The animal bolts instantaneously, lurching forward without putting any thought into which direction it is pointed (let's say directly into the path of the approaching car). Meanwhile the rapidly approaching object attempts to change its course to avoid a collision. However, moments later (once the decision-making region of the rabbit's brain has caught up) the animal decides to change its direction, often returning the animal to harms way, with sometimes unsavory consequences for at least one party (like roadkill). The same thing happens on the Burke: you're cruising along, and approach a pedestrian. "On your left," you say. The pedestrian, startled now, lurches to his or her left, shutting down your passing lane, before jutting back to the right. Sometimes I can smell this kind indecision from several hundred meters away, giving the pedestrian ample time to figure out exactly which "left" I am referring to. Other times, they're not so lucky:

3: The Three-Abreast Walkers/iPod Guys/Rollerbladers
Math Problem: you are riding along the Burke at twenty-one mph and overtake three walkers traveling the same direction at three mph. The walkers are three-abreast, taking up the whole trail, and they are clearly engaged in conversation. By how much should you reduce your speed, and how much warning should you provide the walkers to insure everyone's safety? (Note: you can substitute walkers with an oblivious iPod user, or a rollerblader for the this question.)


It doesn't matter, you're probably going to have to either ride off the trail or come to a near stop no matter what. Also, expect a nasty scowl for interrupting any conversations.

4: The Needle-Threader

Overtaking slower riders is a part of riding on the Burke. Normally, those doing the passing are safe and responsible when doing so, using a bell or voice to notify those about to be passed, and either passing on the left when it's safe, or slowing down until a better time to pass presents itself. However, there are some among us who feel they shouldn't have to apply any pressure to their brakes under any circumstances, ever. These people are the Needle-Threaders. As though playing some kind of crazy game of chicken, the needle threaders will move into the left side of the trail, directly towards incoming traffic, and moments before impact, swing back to the right -- or not. Sometimes, needle threaders simply stay in their imaginary "suicide lane," and run oncoming traffic further to the side of the trail. You can also just call Needle-Threaders "Assholes."

5: The Time-Trailist

Time-trailist: n. A cyclist (usually male) riding a time-trial bike, in their aerobars, going fast (often with his head down), on the Burke. For those of you who don't know, when a cyclist is in his aerobars, he can't brake. In order to slow down, he must first shift his hands to his cowhorns, which takes a second, thus drastically increasing his reaction time and braking distance. When you're riding in your aerobars, it's kind of like driving with cruise control: you can modulate your speed a little with the throttle, but that's it. Just as it's better to use the cruise control when you're on the highway instead of downtown, it's better to stay out of the aerobars until the road is a little more open. Not only that, time-trailists are often found going extremely fast, and have a tendency to be needle threaders. SIMILAR THREAT: Fixed-gear riders. These guys also don't have brakes, but they do tend to travel slightly slower than Time-trailists.


One of the amazing things about the Burke Gilman trail is the opportunity for multiple hazards to converge at one location. Indeed it is possible for all five of the above dangers to be in the exact same place at the exact time, especially if, god forbid, the weather is nice on a weekend. Imagine: you approach a some Three-Abreast Walkers who also happen to be Undecided Voters. Coming the other direction is a flock of duckings and a mother duck. You have time to pass the Walkers on the left and return safely to the right hand lane before you reach the Ducklings. However, just as you're about to do this, two Time-Trailists decide they're going to beat you to it, accelerating towards this already tangled traffic snarl, trying to Thread the Needle before you do. You are now at the nexus of nearly 1,500 lbs of moving man and machine, the impact point of some strange cosmic particle collider. Somehow, usually, all parties make it out of these situations unscathed. However, I'm pretty sure that some day, the correct trail-goers traveling at the correct speed will collide at the correct moment, and a small hole will be torn in the fabric of space time.


June said...

sam thanks for the laughs on my friday!

Dessa said...

I found that in many cases it is just easier to go in the grass or gravel/dirt to pass or go around walkers, riders, dogs, kids etc.
Even better if you are on cross bike. Plus it make you work a bit harder :-)