Bells and bikes

This is a guest post from reader Tim Frank

I regularly use a shared path, often with my children. I constantly have to look over my shoulder to see whether a fast bike is coming. From a pedestrian or slow cyclist view, some of the bikes come up very quickly indeed. When we return home after school, often on our bikes, but sometimes with a baby buggy and the older children on rip-stiks, it’s difficult to talk about the school day. Somewhere along the way a cyclist may come along and complain that we are cycling or walking alongside each other rather than in a single line. Our shared paths are not a relaxed place for youngsters.

Shared path in Hagley Park

And yet, it could be so easy. A friendly ring with the bell from the distance and most children will more or less consistently move to the left. Parents will know that they need to interrupt the conversation briefly and can continue it again a few seconds later. Dog-walkers would hold their dogs a bit closer. There is no need for people getting out of the way abruptly to let cyclists pass. There is no need for complaints from cyclists or the call “Coming through!”.

On shared paths, cyclists theoretically should give way to pedestrians, but through the use of bike bells the apparent conflict can easily be resolved and pedestrians will normally let cyclists pass. Yes, we need to be aware that there are people with hearing difficulties and that some walkers use ear phones. Not everyone will respond to bells. But I think it would be good for cyclists to “announce themselves” when passing slower users of cycle lanes or shared paths. Overall, I think it would be beneficial if we could create a culture of ringing bike bells in Christchurch. I think it should not be considered rude, but rather the expected way to courteously let somebody know that a bike is coming up, even if they are not obstructing our way. I think it would make using our roads, cycle lanes and shared paths more enjoyable and safer. There might be more noise around bike thoroughfares, but I hope that neighbours won’t complain too much (I certainly wouldn’t and a shared path runs not far from our house).

May be an image of one or more people, bicycle and outdoors
Cyclist and pedestrians (source https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10226427558497992&set=g.1132468177268327)

I am not sure what the research on this subject is, but the little I could find seemed to suggest that bike bells are normally sufficiently associated with bicycles by those hearing them and are not perceived as very intrusive. That’s why it is important to keep using bells, rather than some modern warning device such as a horn.

To achieve greater use and acceptability of bicycle bells consistent messaging and a small bike safety campaign might be helpful. Could Waka Kotahi or ACC be behind such a campaign, which could target also sports cyclists and micro-mobility device users?

I’d be interested to know about your thoughts, experience and knowledge on bike bells.

10 thoughts on “Bells and bikes

  1. As a cyclist I have bells on the bikes I use when commuting however I often feel reluctant to use them as this often seem to startle people I approach from behind. I try not to be aggressive in the way I do this but depending on the model of bell that is not always easy.
    I am generally in favour of them although do find on some bikes it can be tricky to find a “within easy thumb reach” position for them on the handlebars with all the other levers found on many bikes.
    If you want one check at your local bike shop. Many bikes are imported with bells but these are not installed when the bike is assembled as they are not required by law in NZ unlike the UK for example.
    Alternatives I have found that work include a squeaky brake or a cough at a strategic time.
    Overall a good thing to have but don’t want to see them made compulsory.

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    1. I can definitely relate to the squeaky brake- purple tend to jump out the way super quick when you do that. Interesting they’re compulsory in the UK, I didn’t know that.

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      1. In the UK it is compulsory to sell bikes with bells and reflectors fitted. However, it is not compulsory to keep them on the bike.

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  2. I totally agree. I have had a bell, and a hooter on my bike for years. Bell for adults, hooter for kids and dogs. They always receive a positive response.

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  3. Since it can be hard to find a good place for a bell on a road bike for example, I think a simple call of “On your right” or similar should be used. Similarly to your statement of a bell shouldn’t be seen as rude, a cyclist announcing themselves verbally also should be seen as rude.
    In general on shared paths it makes sense as a cyclist to slow down when passing groups or pedestrians, to not frighten them and to have enough time to react to a change in direction. Slowing down, and announcing yourself either verbally or with a bell or horn should allow everyone to use the paths safely.

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  4. I ride, but slowly. I have been known to yell ‘get a bell, Lance’ to speedy cyclists overtaking too closely. I would have gladly moved over if I’d known.

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  5. I have a bell and use it. Never had a negative response to it, though it has caused evident surprise.

    Look, on a shared path you have to go slower. Pedestrians (and worse, dogs) move unpredictably, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to look behind. We should be exercising the same care and consideration we want from motorists.

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  6. Thanks for your thoughts. A few days after this appeared I was the witness of a collision between a pedestrian and a cyclist on a shared path. The pedestrian was a young girl on her way to school probably not keeping a straight line; the cyclist came through quickly without warning anyone and ran into the girl. Both ended up on the ground. Luckily there did not seem any major injury, but it could have been quite different.

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