Last fall, a runner died after she collided with a cyclist on a recreational trail that winds through downtown Dallas.
Police determined that no one was at fault, and no charges were filed. But the incident shook the community, and showed that trail etiquette can have life-or-death consequences.
In Austin, more than 100 miles of trails, including the 10 most loved miles that encircle Lady Bird Lake, twist through the city. In recent years, those trails have grown increasingly congested. Runners and cyclists, tourists and nature walkers, sometimes two or three abreast, share a trail also populated by strollers, dogs, a serenading musician or two and the occasional squirrel that darts across the path.
According to the Trail Foundation, the nonprofit group that works to maintain it, the trail around Lady Bird Lake records an estimated 1.5 million visits each year.
The challenge is to figure out now — rather than after someone gets badly hurt — how to keep them all safe.
What happened in Dallas
The runner killed in Dallas, 28-year-old Lauren Huddleston, was wearing headphones connected to an iPod when she was struck on the Katy Trail, a 3.5-mile concrete path.
The cyclist who hit her, 31-year-old Asher Hamilton, was riding loops on the trail with a fellow triathlete, according to news reports. They were traveling an estimated 17 to 19 mph on a downhill stretch when the accident happened. Witnesses say Hamilton called out just before he tried to pass Huddleston, but she turned abruptly into him.
They hit head-on. Huddleston died in a hospital three days later.
The death has prompted a trail safety awareness campaign in Dallas and has spurred a continuing debate among city officials over headphone use and bike speed limits.
Guidelines posted on the Katy Trail website advise users to control their speed, turn the volume down on headphones or use only one earpiece, stay to the right on the trail and announce "passing on the left" when overtaking someone. They also suggest that runners and walkers use the narrower soft surface pathway designated for pedestrians, which parallels most of the 3.5-mile Katy Trail.
The Katy Trail has no posted speed limit for cyclists, although officials are now considering a limit of between 10 and 15 mph.
Also of note? A Dallas Morning News article reported that Hamilton was riding a Royal Windsor Triathlon bike, raising questions about whether the trail was an appropriate place for race training.
The Austin scene
Since last September, 18 park rangers funded through about $1.1 million from the city's general fund have patrolled the Lady Bird Lake corridor, usually in pairs, mainly by bike. They focus on the downtown trail, but also respond to issues in outlying parks. They can't issue tickets, but they can ask disruptive trail users to leave.
The biggest problem they see? "Congestion," says Pat Fuller, division manager of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department Park Rangers. "It causes a lot of problems."
Park officials had no record of serious injuries resulting from on-trail collisions, but weekly incident records show one report of unsafe cycling on the trail since patrols began. In that same six-month period, rangers stopped to educate trail users about the trail, including reminding them of proper trail etiquette, some 2,196 times, according to the report. There were no reports of collisions.
In Austin, park rules posted on the city of Austin website say cyclists must yield to joggers, and joggers to walkers on hike-and-bike trails. The rules also state that cyclists should ride at a "prudent speed."
One of the first suggestions that comes up in any discussion of trail safety is a speed limit for bicycles.
"If a cyclist is moving four to five times faster than a runner, that's a recipe for disaster," says Jack Murray, co-owner of Jack and Adam's triathlon shop. "Then you add earphones to either of them, any type of uneven terrain or variable, and something like what happened in Dallas could happen here."
Technically, a speed limit is already in place on Austin's trails. Park rules posted on the city website designate all portions of the hike-and-bike trails as "bicycle speed zones." As such, the speed limit there is 10 mph.
But no speed limit signs are posted on the trail, and the rule isn't supported by a city ordinance, so it's not a ticketable offense, Fuller says.
Unlike the concrete Katy Trail, the trail around Lady Bird Lake is mostly gravel. Bike racers aren't likely to be training on it because their skinny tires track better on paved roads. Still, some cyclists cruise at a brisk pace even when the trail is crowded.
"There's no need to carry any type of speed around the seven-mile (trail) loop," Murray says.
Annick Beaudet, bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator for the City of Austin, says a posted speed limit of between 10 and 15 mph is a good idea. Many cyclists don't have speedometers, though. "A lot of people just don't know what 10 or 15 mph is," Beaudet says.
Others have suggested bike dismount zones in especially crowded areas, such as trailheads. But they wouldn't prevent accidents like the one in Dallas, which are more likely in areas where cyclists are moving quickly.
And the problem with any bike speed limit is enforcement.
Another factor in the Dallas accident was headphones. Here in Austin, they're everywhere — on runners, cyclists and walkers. Depending on how loud the volume is turned up, they can provide either a pleasant background noise or a pounding distraction to the user.
"Some people are really connected to music when they run, and it calms them," says Paul Carrozza, owner of the RunTex running stores in Austin.
Carrozza says headphones shouldn't be banned, but the volume should be turned down or one earpiece removed.
Beaudet agrees. "No matter where you are or who you are on roadway, you have to have all your senses — all of them," Beaudet says.
Cell phones are another distraction.
Right of way confusion
Even without headphones in the mix, traffic on trails like the one around Lady Bird Lake that don't have a center line can be confusing.
"Do runners stay to the right? Then where do cyclists go?" says Carrozza, with RunTex.
Trails are so crowded at peak hours that Carrozza and his running buddies tend to take to the streets — or the paved Lance Armstrong Bikeway along the north side of Cesar Chavez Street, parallel to the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. And that, of course, means cyclists and runners are more likely to bump elbows on the bike path, where cyclists move more quickly.
Room to roam
One way to reduce the chances of a crash is to give trail users more trails so they can spread out. Plans are already in the works to close the gap on the Lady Bird Lake trail by building a boardwalk underneath Interstate 35 on the south side of the river.
The expansion will add "another layer of safety because it will relieve crowding on the west side of the trail and on weekends," says Susan Rankin, executive director of the Trail Foundation.
Wider trails could also alleviate conflict, but there's not always room to widen them. The trail around Lady Bird Lake varies from 10 to 20 feet wide. Ideally, multiuse trails would be 14 to 20 feet wide, Beaudet says. "That's what's needed to keep people moving safely at speeds we anticipate," she says.
While the broader issues are debated, the one thing Austin can do is launch a safety campaign that reminds trail users of proper etiquette. After all, the trail belongs to all of us, whether we're runners, walkers or cyclists.
(Like many trail users, I'm a regular bicycle commuter who uses the trail to get to work. I also use it recreationally, as a running trail and hiking path.)
"To me, it circles back to trail etiquette and being a responsible park user, cyclist, jogger or dog owner," says Kelly Snook, assistant director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
The new edition of the city bike and pedestrian program's Austin Bicycle Map, due out in April, will include trail etiquette and safety information.
And a recent $707,000 in funding from a federal matching grant administered through the Texas Department of Transportation will be used to implement a safe bicycling and walking campaign. Part of that could be a trail safety awareness effort, says Beaudet.
The park rangers are mulling another idea, too — portable, sandwich-type boards with changeable signs that could be moved around the trail. "If we're having a certain problem in a certain area, we can concentrate there," Fuller said.
But too many signs along the trail would make it look like a freeway junked up with billboards, some warn.
Parks officials regularly look at areas of conflict, such as the off-leash area along Auditorium Shores. The trail in that area might one day be moved farther away from the river's edge, to put some space between the dogs and other trail users to eliminate conflict, Snook says.
It comes down to basic manners.
"Assume the trail is ours, not yours, and we're here to share it," Carrozza says.
Chill out, slow down, pay attention, be polite.
And stay safe.
Trail etiquette can prevent accidents
Tips for staying safe on the trail:
• Slow down.
• Don't change course abruptly.
• Turn down the volume on your headphones or use just one earphone.
• Look both ways before crossing the trail.
• Keep your dog on a short leash.
• Don't walk more than two abreast.
• Slower users stay to the right.
• Call out or ring a bike bell when passing.
• Pass on the left.
• Consider putting away your cellphone.