Flashback Friday: Isabelle (necessary on a bicycle?)

I was showing someone around the city’s cycleways yesterday, always a fun exercise. There were a few busy sections where pedestrians and riders were mingling together and we had to slowly weave our way through. My colleague was probably better than me during our ride at using his bell to politely inform people of our presence, but it did bring to mind the perennial question of how much we should use our bike bells (vs other options like our voices). Back in Mar 2016 I posed this very question in a blog and, with the growing numbers of users along our cycleways and shared paths these days, it is probably just as pertinent…

(c/ bicycle-riding.com)
(c/ bicycle-riding.com)

An interesting initiative is being considered by the Christchurch City Council. Following a deputation to a Community Board by a dog walker, the Council has agreed to to promote and encourage the use of bells on bicycles.

The concern is that, as cycling gets more popular with the development of the Major Cycleways, there will be more pressure on the shared pathways in the network. More use of bike bells by riders would help to warn pedestrians of their presence and encourage them to make space to pass. Already some signs and markings around Hagley Park encourage warning others when approaching.

New signs in Hagley Park already recommend warning pedestrians when approaching them

I have a bell on my bike and I do find it mostly helpful when riding along busy shared pathways. A few thoughts do come to mind though:

  • Riders can get mixed reactions to ringing their bells; some pedestrians find it helpful, but some evidently can find it just as startling as no bell at all. I suspect that may have more to do with when exactly you ‘ding’; there is certainly a “sweet spot” so that you are neither too close to startle people nor too far that they don’t hear you either. Getting a bell with the right, friendly tone is pretty helpful too; some modern ones can sound a bit terse.
  • Some riders prefer to use their voice instead of a bell; personally I’ve got no real problem with a cheery “excuse me, coming through!” as an alternative warning. I’m never quite as sold on the classic cycling call “on your right!” from riders; people unfamiliar with the phrase may get confused and think they’re expected to move to the right…
  • We should make sure that we reward “good behaviour” from pedestrians who respond appropriately when hearing a bell. If I ding my bell and people in front of me make space to pass, I always make a point of shouting “thanks!” as I go past.
  • No amount of bell-ringing or calling out will help if pedestrians are “wired for sound” and listening to their favourite music or whatever. Similarly, there will always be some pedestrians who are deaf or hard of hearing. Accept that you can’t get the attention of everyone out there, and just hope that they are mostly good at keeping themselves clear of other path traffic.
  • Ultimately, if we’re experiencing significant levels of conflict on a cycle route, that suggests to me that the infrastructure isn’t quite right. As discussed previously, we already have a lot of shared paths that are clearly inadequate in width for the volumes of pedestrians and cyclists that are often present (Rolleston Ave anyone?). Most of the new cycleways are expected to be a much better width for sharing (e.g. South Hagley Park) or have completely separate facilities for each group (e.g. Matai St E). The challenge will be in ensuring that we budget to retrofit our existing pathway stocks as well, either by widening or creating parallel facilities.
No amount of bell ringing might solve some locations…

A bike bell is a pretty cheap addition to your kit from most bike retailers. There are a variety of ringers available, including those you twist or flick. If you want something particularly stylish to match your ride (or your tastes), you could check out the pretty cool offerings from local online supplier Bells & Whistles. And if it helps to keep the peace with our fellow path users, that’s a pretty good investment.

Do you think that bike bells are a good idea?

2 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: Isabelle (necessary on a bicycle?)”

  1. Bicycle bell use is an interesting issue. As there is no requirement to have one, people are not used to the sound and hence the mixed reactions. I’ve got a very resonant, attractive, old school bell which can be used at different volumes and it works most of the time. Another problem, people wearing head phones so often don’t hear a bell. I’m very much against raucous, loud devices that some have. It does no good at all to make people annoyed.

  2. I often change gears as I’m approaching people who are blocking the entire path. They tend to hear that sound and move accordingly – I think it’s the difference between them thinking they are noticing me rather than them thinking they’re alerting me to their presence. Just a subtle change in expectation.

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