Bike Curious Master Class – Trail Crossing


Welcome to a new series of posts I’m calling the Bike Curious Master Class.

I want to share the joy of bicycling particularly with those who are a little nervous (or even a lot nervous…) while riding.

For the past 15 years, I’ve been helping cyclists ride with more confidence while reducing their risk of injury through classes and weekly bike rides. Now that I’m traveling and riding in new places, each day presents some kind of cycling challenge that I think would be a useful example for both people riding bikes and those driving cars.



Some parking lot prep before the class hits the road


I ride my bike in all sorts of situations but I’m actually very deliberate in how and where I ride. I have a really strong sense of self-preservation and a desire to avoid conflict while I’m pedaling along. So, how does that all come together?

In bike safety classes we teach situational awareness beyond the basics of traffic laws. It’s part engineering and part human behavior. We first look at what is physically presented and how it is supposed to work and then examine its limitations once people are involved. That understanding helps us to anticipate problem situations before they happen.

In these posts I’ll tackle various intersections or challenges with ideas on how to approach them and what to look for when you are out on the road. I won’t necessarily get into the nitty gritty of debating specific legal details and proving who is “right”. Like any good parent, I want to help you “Make Good Choices” so your bike rides are non-stressful and joyous adventures.

Remember, skiers don’t start on the black diamond runs, they start on the bunny hills and work their way up. That’s the approach bike riders should take as well.  Choose easy rides to start and move on to more complicated situations as your skills build. If you ever feel overwhelmed, remember that your best option might be to hop off your bike and walk it on the sidewalk!

So, if you are among the bike curious – come along for the ride!


The Situation

Here we have a heavily used bike and pedestrian trail crossing a four lane road next to a freight rail line that is still in use a couple of times a day with crossing stop bars within 100 feet of the trail.

During good weather, hundreds of trail users cross here daily. Every level of cyclist is present here from slow-moving families with small children to steady-state commuters to racers in training. (And each user behaves differently at the crossing.)

Drivers from the south/bottom are heading to a county highway with access to the freeway so they tend to speed up as they are crossing the tracks. The crossing bars, road signs and some tree cover limit the view of trail users approaching on the right side.

From the other direction drivers are coming off higher speed roads towards an area with shopping, gyms, medical offices and apartment-type housing. The road is also a cut-through on the west side of a lake. The trail crossing is a bit more visible from this direction.


Trail crossings in the Twin Cities are inconsistent on yielding so nearly every crossing is a confusing mess for all involved. In this case, trail users are legally required to stop and yield to road traffic. Some do, some don’t. Drivers are required by state law to stop for people in crosswalks. Some do, some don’t. Technically, this isn’t striped as a crosswalk so it’s ambiguous to me if it legally functions as a crosswalk. This is where we won’t assess the nitty gritty – let’s examine how people actually use the crossing on a daily basis.

Take a peek at the google street view – click in the lower right corner to rotate the view so you get a sense of the intersection.



What to Consider As a Cyclist

Are there cars approaching? How fast are they moving?

Have the drivers actually seen me approaching? Are the drivers reacting to my presence?

Are other trail users already crossing or about to cross?

Time of day and traffic levels: Is it likely that drivers are frenzied or distracted during rush hours? Do clusters of commuting or club cyclists force their way across?

“What were the engineers thinking?” The signage reinforcing that trail users must yield to travel lanes is a big clue that this cross road has higher speeds and lots of cars. If you choose to roll through the stop sign, you are increasing your risk of a crash. You are also doing just that… rolling through a stop sign.


Major Hazards

Drivers don’t actually “see” the crossing or the people on the trail. Their focus is farther down the road either at the rail crossing or the traffic light to the north.

One driver stops and waves to let trail users cross BUT the second lane is still free flowing traffic. You have been set up!



Always approach a crossing like this at a speed that allows you plenty of time to scan the entire roadway in both directions and assess the situation before proceeding. You are judging speeds and negotiating with multiple drivers, this means you must be prepared to stop completely.

You can stop at the island if the road is clear on just the first side. Make it clear to drivers that you are stopping mid-crossing. (Step down if you are clipped into your pedals.)

I tend to slow (and stop) well before the crossing so well-meaning drivers are not tempted to wave me through. If they do, I only accept if no other driver can pass into the second lane (either no other cars present or if the driver in the second lane has also come to a complete stop.) Drivers fall into two camps here with some resenting trail crossings so they will not yield and will pass in that second lane at high speed.

If other riders have gotten all lanes stopped I make a judgement call on whether to ride through with them. (In this case, it is well marked that cross traffic has the right of way so if a rider is hit after riding through I am not sure what their legal protections would be. Better to stop and avoid rolling the dice!)


Skills You Can Work On

Starting and stopping are two of the most important skills to master on your bike. Getting up to speed quickly will shorten the time you are in an intersection and will give you confidence that you are not frustrating motorists.

Knowing your limits. You are the best judge of your ability to make it across the lanes safely. Do not let the actions of other riders push you beyond your safety zone. They may be faster than you or might not realize the risk they are taking when entering the intersection.


The January Street View

This trail is a favorite of mine and I ride it several times a week when living in Minneapolis – in the summertime. I was playing with the time function on google street view and thought this was a fun peek at the world of winter cycling in Minneapolis. This trail is used year round as proven here. Fat biking is a huge sport in the Twin Cities thanks in part to the fabulous trail system.



I’d love some feedback – Can you use these tips on your local bike rides?

Do you have any tricky intersections near you that we can explore together?