I occasionally ride the Riverwalk Park here in Columbia, South Carolina. The Riverwalk is a multi use path that is partly in Columbia, SC, West Columbia, SC and Cayce, SC. The West Columbia and Cayce trail winds its way alongside the Congaree River with twisting, tree covered, paved pathways. The Columbia side has less curves with areas where you can stop to look at the river while taking a break, and has a gravel path next to the paved path that people and cyclist use.
Early mornings you will find the trail sparsely occupied with people walking, running, cycling and sometimes wildlife crossing the path. In the afternoon, the trail gets more crowded with people working off the stress of their workday. Weekends are when the trail gets the most use. As a cyclist, the trail is nice to ride casually, but it can get crowded with people and their pets. I like to use the light posts that set a few yards apart for interval training. Of course I only do that when there are no people on the path, but most of the time it's too crowded to ride fast.
Riding a Multi-Use Trail
A multi-use trail can be a dangerous place for a cyclist to ride. We are moving much faster than a person running or walking, so we have to be very careful when approaching someone. People are very unpredictable and do not pay close attention to their surroundings. I have been riding the Riverwalk before and seen joggers running on the right hand side of the trail, for no reason I could see, make a u-turn without looking behind them to see if anyone is coming up. Other times I have seen people walking two and three abreast, blocking the entire pathway, with no regard to anything around them. There have also been times I've witnessed a cyclist flying by people walking or jogging without slowing down or giving them warning. In all these instances, proper education on trail etiquette would benefit both cyclist and walkers/joggers.
Alerting People When You Approach
When riding a multi-use trail, or on the road or sidewalks, and you approach people, they need to be alerted. One common way cyclist alert people is by using a bell. If you use a bell, make sure it is loud enough for people to hear. Many times they will be distracted or busy talking to another person and not hear the faint "ding ding" of your bell. Having a louder bell will help with this, but you may have to use it a couple times in order to get their attention. I've been walking on the trail before and had a cyclist behind me use their bell. It took a minute for my mind to make the connection that it was a cyclist and by the time I realized it, the cyclist was already by me. Be sure to give enough time for the person you are alerting to react.
Another way to alert people is by shouting "On your left" when passing. This way of letting people know seems to be a very common choice. Just like using a bell, you have to give people time to react to your alert. Shouting "On your left" as you quickly pass the person is not smart. Combining the use of a bell and saying "on your left" will work also, but again, be sure to allow time for their reaction.
People’s Reaction to "On Your Left"
In my experience, when people hear the phrase "on your left," they get confused and don't know what to do. The few times I have used it, it caused reactions that were dangerous for me and the person I was trying to pass. After I gave the warning, the person looked around and ended up moving to their left directly into the path I was trying to take. Other times, the person did not react at all, which is kind of a good thing because they stayed in their lane and I could easily pass on their left. Unfortunately, it was because they had earphones in and did not hear me.
The Best Way to Make Your Approach Known
The best course of action you can do on a multi-use path when approaching other people, is to slow down, alert the person or people and cautiously pass on the left hand side. If children or pets are involved in the scenario, then extreme caution should be used, as they are even more unpredictable. Crashing into or running over someone is not worth you keeping or breaking your KOM on Strava. Even when alerting people of your approach you have to be cautious as you pass. A bell, horn or shouting "on your left" should never be used to allow you to pass at high speeds on a small trail.
For me personally, when I approach someone on a multi-use path, I'll slow way down and watch how they are proceeding. If they are wandering around in their lane and not in a straight path, then I'll slowly pass on the extreme left hand side. If there are two or three people blocking the path and not paying attention to their surroundings, I'll slow down and say "excuse me" to get their attention. At one point, my bike had squeaky brakes that I used as a sort of horn. That seemed to work best, but I wouldn't advocate poor bicycle maintenance as a good way to alert people! I try not to take the gravel pathway. The few times I tried that I ended up getting a flat tire from the transition from gravel back to the paved pathway.
Stay Alert When Passing
One other word of caution when riding a multi-use trail, and I have seen this happen lots of times. If you are behind someone and are looking to pass them, be aware of people approaching you on the side you are passing on. If you see another person jogging or running towards you, and you can not pass the person in front of you without causing the person approaching you to slow down, wait. The same goes for cyclists coming towards you. I have had cyclist pass someone on their left, come into my lane, and cause me to slow down, or worse, pass them too close. Do not do this. It is very dangerous and rude. Instead, be patient and wait for a good opening to pass. If you want to ride fast and get some miles in, ride on the road or a dedicated bike path.
After years of cycling, I choose to not ride multi-use paths as often as I can. It frustrates me when I do ride them because of the lack of knowledge from both walkers, joggers and cyclist. When I would ride in Charleston, South Carolina, I would sometimes use the Wonder's Way path along the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge. On certain nights, the pedestrian side would be full of people walking up the bridge as I passed them headed down. The amount of people who would walk or jog in the bike path was crazy. You would have to ride your brakes as you went down because they would mindlessly cross into your path with no regard of their safety or yours. I finally decided not to ride the path and to find other areas to ride.
It does not matter if you ride a multi-use path, or ride on the road, your biggest concern should be riding safely around people and cars. Obey all of the traffic laws and always be aware of your surroundings as you ride. Stay prepared for anything to happen, and expect the worst so you can react to the situation.
Stay safe and keep riding!