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Gear Prudence: Twice within the past two weeks, I’ve been scolded by people walking on the trail for dinging my bell to let them know I’m passing. Come on! One guy called it “downright rude.” Wouldn’t it be even ruder if I didn’t ring my bell and passed silently? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Some people just don’t want to share the trail with bikers. —Kindly Notified, Erroneous Loper Lectures

Dear KNELL: All right, let’s get the standard stuff out of the way first: 

  • Most trails are shared between bicyclists, runners, walkers, amblers, tourists, scooterists, and everyone in between. 
  • Each individual is responsible for behaving conscientiously around others.
  • Speed disparities will always exist.
  • Sometimes people should slow down.
  • Sometimes people should move over.
  • Giving a polite and timely warning before passing is preferable.
  • And lastly, even if you do everything right and you’re conscientious, signal your pass, slow down, give ample room, and mail a hand-written embossed thank you note afterward, some people will criticize your behavior because that’s just what people do. Suck it up and keep doing your best. But if the criticism happens repeatedly perhaps your best could be better, so think on that. 

What a bell ring actually means and why bell-based communication is so often problematic is a topic worth exploring. For the most part, a bicyclist ringing a bell hopes to convey: “I am behind you” and “I plan to pass to you since I am moving faster.” Often what people who are not on bicycles hear is: “Get out of my way!” This latter interpretation of the ding makes it a rude message (though in a broad sense, an accurate one.) Turns out, sonic vibrations might not be the best way to facilitate human interaction in a shared space. However, it’s not the bell ring itself that’s the problem, but what happens next. Does the cyclist whiz by too closely? Does the other person not acknowledge the bell at all? Or get flustered and move in the wrong direction? Does the cyclist ding repeatedly? (Please don’t over-ding.) Does the non-cyclist jump and get startled? Each fraught or unexpected post-ding interaction retroactively ascribes a negative connotation to the ding itself. Thereafter, each subsequent ding carries with it the vestiges of past dings gone wrong. 

GP proposes a reset. From this point forward, after each ring, whether you’re the ringer or the one hearing it, mentally insert a question mark. “Do you know I’m here?” “Is now an OK time to pass?” “Could you please move over?” Transposing dings from imperatives to interrogatives can help establish a much more cooperative form of communication, one that recognizes that coexistence on the trails requires cutting through misunderstandings and being more charitable with one other. And if you don’t like it, ride on the road, where no one can hear your bell anyway. —Gear Prudence