How to Walk on a Bicycle Path

First of all, don’t. You shouldn’t walk or run on a bicycle path. Hardly ever. I want to be clear about that. But I say “hardly ever” because there are a few circumstances when it may be grudgingly permissible. For example:

  • If there is sidewalk construction or the sidewalk is otherwise blocked and you have little choice but to use the bicycle path.
  • In some less urban areas where there are bicycle paths that exist on their own, with no pedestrian path nearby. I can’t begrudge runners and pedestrians using those. (More on this at the bottom of this post.)
  • If the path is clearly marked as a shared pedestrian/bicycle path.

I spend a lot of time cycling on the various bicycle paths in and around Montreal, and I see pedestrians on them frequently. It’s really annoying when people choose to walk or run in the bicycle path when there is a pedestrian path right next to it. This is not a rare thing; I see it all the time. In many cases it’s when a parallel set of paths run through a park and the bicycle path is paved and the pedestrian path is gravel. It seems that people who don’t think much about what they’re doing will gravitate towards the paved one, just because it’s paved.

But this isn’t about whether or not you should be walking or running on a bicycle path. That’s a separate discussion. This is about those times when, for whatever reason, you choose to do so. This is about the preferred, and safest, way to do it.

It’s simple. Walk against the bicycle traffic.

No, this isn’t a joke. It comes from the same wisdom that says if you’re walking on the shoulder of a road you should walk facing the traffic. The reason is simple:

The most important thing is that the pedestrian and the cyclist see each other.

It’s like this; when you walk with the cycling traffic (i.e., in the same lane as bicycles going in your direction), you can’t see the bicycles in your lane coming. You probably can’t hear them either, based on my observation that at least 50% of pedestrians on a bicycle path are wearing earphones. The result is you get the crap scared out of you every time a bicycle whizzes past, because you didn’t know it was coming.

Now let’s consider it from the cyclist’s point of view. You’re cycling along and you see a pedestrian up ahead. As you get closer you see the person is in your lane, walking in the same direction as you (with their back to you). You know they can’t see you. You ding your little bell, but you don’t know if they heard you. You slow down a bit, but you need to get past them. You’re worried that they will make a sudden random step to the left — into your passing lane — because they don’t realize you’re coming up behind them and wanting to pass. Or you’re worried they’ll realize at the last second that there’s a bicycle behind them and try to jump out of the way, to the left, right in front of you.

Don’t laugh. Every single time I come up behind a pedestrian in my lane on a bicycle path who is not facing me, I suffer those worries. That means dozens of times a week.

Now think about what happens when you do it the way I suggest. A pedestrian is on the path, facing oncoming bicycle traffic. Both parties can tell from a hundred feet away that they are aware of each other. The pedestrian has ample opportunity to step off of the path for a moment while the bicycle passes, or if for some reason they can’t, the cyclist simply changes lanes and passes by without any worry that the pedestrian will suddenly jump or move.

It’s as simple as that. Walk facing the oncoming bicycle traffic because it is safer and better for everyone.


I know a lot of people will completely ignore everything I just said because they can’t get past the initial argument of whether or not people should walk or run on a bicycle path. I don’t plan on engaging in that discussion because it’s one of those issues, like religion, where the more vocal people are, the more blinkered they tend to be, so there’s no point in even talking to them.

However, I suspect some people might be curious about cases (or more precisely, places) where I don’t really object to people walking or running on a bicycle path. Here are two of them:

Case # 1: South Shore, along the river

On the south shore of Montreal (which is actually east, but Montreal has a strange relationship with geography) there’s a long and reasonably well kept bicycle path that runs along the Saint Lawrence river from Boucherville to Brossard. The stretch that runs for a couple of kilometres south of the Jacques Cartier bridge is quite isolated, and there is no pedestrian path. To the east is a bit of grass, then a fence, then a major highway. To the west is a bit of grass, then a rough slope down to the water.

It’s a great place to go for a run, walk, or bicycle ride, and I do not begrudge anyone from using that path for any of those purposes. You can see the path somewhat in Google Streetview, if you look on the left.

Case # 2: Lachine Canal

There are a few stretches of the Lachine Canal bicycle path that do not have a corresponding pedestrian path, such as the area around the McAusalan brewery. There’s lots of grass, and it’s quite spacious, but I can’t blame people who are travelling on foot for stepping onto the path. I did that myself one day last summer when I was walking along there. At first I thought I’d be all “correct” and walk in the grass, but when you’re hoofing it for more than a few feet, walking in the grass can get annoying. (I’m not talking about idyllic strolls with your sweetie, I mean when you want to get from point A to point B). So I walked on the path, facing traffic, and I stepped off the path whenever a bicycle approached.

You can see it in this photo from Google Maps (give it a few seconds for the photo to load).

Afterword 2

Walking through Parc Lafontaine yesterday, I spotted this sad scene. Pedestrians on the bicycle path (not so unusual) and a bicycle on the pedestrian path.

pedestrians on bike path, bikes on pedestrian path

8 thoughts on “How to Walk on a Bicycle Path

  1. As someone who lives near one of the busiest and most dangerous bike paths (rue Rachel) as well as the paths through Parc Lafontaine, all I can say is thanks, Ed, and on those particular paths, there’s no reason anyone should EVER walk on those paths. It’s just too dangerous, for them and for the cyclists, and there are plenty of decent alternatives. You’re completely right about pedestrians and people pushing strollers jumping and being totally unpredictable when you yell or ring a bell at them; around here a lot of them are tourists who haven’t the faintest idea what a bicycle path is or who it’s for. I’m glad our city doesn’t have a lot of do-and-don’t signage, but I do think the busy paths should be marked “no pedestrians.”

  2. Ed, what absolutely terrifies me are people who let their toddlers wander unescorted on bike paths. I cannot imagine what these people are thinking.

    Just last week, a women was wandering down the middle of a bike path with a stroller and mobile phone. And with a sidewalk immediately to her left. She genuinely seemed surprised to see a bicycle on the path.

  3. I agree in theory, but I find it a hard transition since traditionally bikers have been grouped more with walkers instead of drivers. Like walking against traffic on a road without a sidewalk is a given. If we were going to change the psyche of people, I would get them to stop wearing headphones while in motion in public spaces. When I was running in high school in the city, I realized that wearing headphones was just too dangerous. In the city, you had to be able to hear anything approaching be it a car, a bus, or a mugger.

    This reminds me of a notorious location where biking, walking, and just being is actually deadly. At North Avenue Beach in Chicago which is about a mile long, there is the beach, a pedestrian/bicycle path, and a stretch of green with trees before Lake Shore Drive. You can see it here: Well during the summer, many people with their families stake out a position along that green stretch. They then cross the pedestrian/bike path to get to the beach. Often the children do this unaccompanied or on their own. This mile stretch of the bike path that is shared with pedestrians is part of a total 26 miles of path. So bicyclists use this for their training and become impatient that they should slow down on this stretch. Multiple children have been hit and I believe one even lost his life. A simple solution would be to construct a separate path against Lake Shore Drive, but the local park advocates decry the lost green space.

  4. Frank, it’s actually illegal in Montreal to ride a bicycle while wearing headphones, although it doesn’t stop people from doing it.

    I keep thinking about getting one of those really loud horns, like you get on large trucks and blasting people off the path with it.

    The problem seems to be multiple levels of cluelessness. A lot of people see bicycles as toys for amusement, so they don’t take them seriously (these are the people who yell at you when you’re riding on the street and tell you you should be riding on the sidewalk). Yes, those people still exist.

    Then there’s the general cluelessness like the three of you describe; people who think that as long as their kids are not on the street then they’re safe.

    A side note: another annoyance (something that Frank alludes to) are hard-core cyclists who think that bicycle paths are meant for training. NOT! In particular I’m thinking of the paths along the Lachine Canal, which are essentially bicycle paths through a long park. That bicycle path is there for commuting and for recreation, not for speed training! Just last week I saw an altercation on the path at the Atwater Market — and if you don’t know the area, let me assure you that there are few bicycle paths in the city that have more families and children on them than this one does — where some guy all done up in his stretchy suit almost rear-ended someone and then yelled at them for slowing down on the bicycle path. He then proceeded to take off again at top speed. Grrrr!

  5. Interesting. I feel the same way about bicycles on roads.

  6. Travis, do you mean you think bicycles should travel facing traffic? Wow. I couldn’t disagree more! That’s really dangerous, and it’s one of my biggest annoyances with cyclists (when they go against traffic, particularly on a one-way street).

  7. Actually, I was talking more about people walking and running should not be wearing headphones. It’s so commonplace, I doubt it would change.

    It’s interesting how the range of bicyclists are similar to the range of drivers. You have the people who use it often like bike messengers and taxis that stretch the limits of common driving practice and courtesy for speed, then you have the part-timers who don’t know the generally understood rules of city driving.

    Bicycle riders on the sidewalk and those who drive the wrong way down streets annoy me a great deal. Many bikers complain about not getting respect (which I give), but when I see those actions along with blowing through stop signs (when they don’t have the right of way) it becomes hard to be sympathetic.

  8. Re Travis’ comment, I too wonder and curse at cyclists on the road when there is a perfectly empty and safe (i.e. no cars) bike path right next to them. Why do cyclists do this? Not sure about Montreal, but in Gatineau and Ottawa I see this a lot. I’ve commuted to work by bike and also drive. As a driver I find this frustrating, as a cyclist I’m at a loss.

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