Bike-path runners: the blowback

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May 6, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

Few things I’ve written as a Southwest Journal editor or columnist provoked a response like “The arrogance of the bike path runner” (April 22). I meant to kick up a hornet’s nest over runners who use the wrong Chain of Lakes path, and many readers stung back.

Because I started it with fighting words — calling a Minnesotan “arrogant” is the equivalent of insulting one’s mother — I’m going to be considerate in assessing the feedback. Some was harsh, but a lot of it was instructive, and even constructive.

Several critics focused on moral equivalency — “cyclists going over 10 mph are the bigger danger,” “what about all the other park laws people break?” The cycling issue is a real problem, but one that has received more condemnation, unlike the bike-path runner danger — where I felt harsh light need to be shed. I do agree there’s a complex web of responsibilities here, but discussing one strand should help, not hinder, a holistic understanding.

I was impressed with Jack Delehanty, a “rabbit” who speedily hit the Journal’s online letters page the same day my column ran. Jack runs 12 mph — faster than the bike speed limit observed in the breach. His argument, made with diplomacy, is that he runs as fast as people bike, so it’s safer to use the faster path.

This is, perhaps, an argument for path-separation by speed, though trusting everyone’s internal speedometers seems fraught. My opinion is that we don’t let Ferraris race down city streets, so a speedy runner must run during quieter times or find the equivalent of a test track. But I respect Jack for offering a thoughtful perspective.

More pointedly, Kristine Wyant states that women run on or alongside the bike trail for safety in off-hours, since it’s more visible from the street. I know enough about “mansplaining” to accept her point. To thine own selves be true; please be careful of cyclists in the dark.

A subset of runners were mad I questioned running on the cow-paths — the informal dirt trails alongside the paved path. They are easier on runners’ legs, if not on tree roots or erosion risk. For the latter reasons, I personally only use the pedestrian cow paths to pass, a regrettable but acceptable congestion alleviator. I should’ve been more clear I was only talking about the bike-path cow paths (Kristine’s exception now noted).

I was heartened by thoughtful responses from Parks commissioners Meg Forney, John Erwin and Brad Bourn. They took my concerns respectfully, asking on Facebook what signage was needed and what enforcement mechanism preferred.

I believe in clearer signage and more ticketing; the latter would send a quick message through the Southwest chattering class. The commissioners noted that park police aren’t free, and the cost of added enforcement must be weighed against other pressing maintenance and programming needs. I hope they run some numbers.

One of the neater things to come out of the discussion was a recognition that the park system has no monument to Betty Malkerson, the pedestrian whose 1972 death led to the path separation we have today. The split paths are a profound memorial in their way. Still, something that visibly links Betty’s death to obeying the rules may be the most humbling educational tool we can unleash.

Finally, thanks to all the readers who looked past my finger-wagging to say, “Thanks for writing that column, I never knew that!” Some even pledged to change their behavior. I hope in some small way, violating the norms of Minnesota Nice can be forgiven if it spares an injury or even save a life.

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.