On Your Left! A Systems Lesson from the Bike Trail

by Starla J. King on September 9, 2011

I have the luxury of living just behind the W&OD (Washington & Old Dominion) Trail —  a lovely 45-mile paved trail of biking heaven. Except for the parts that aren’t.

The “aren’t” parts are mostly because it’s a quite popular trail – for bikers, hikers, walkers, pups, rollerbladers, stroller-runners, squirrels, deer, chipmunks, birds, caterpillars, and (EEEEEK! IT’S A HUGE) snake(s).  Oddly, the only ones that really bother me consistently are the bikers. (and yes, I’m a biker, so this is not a rant against bikers.)

When I’m biking this trail, snakes slither off or (oh dear god no) squish quickly; other wildlife typically gives us right of way; non-wheeled path users tend to be primarily courteous (except for that one time… a story I’m sure will come out in a blog post at some point).

It’s the bikers that bring 4-letter-words to the surface.

There’s an unspoken (maybe that’s the problem) rule that you announce yourself as you pass someone on the trail, usually by yelling (kindly) “…on your left!!” BEFORE you are beside them.

What’s the big deal, right? I know!  I would have said the same thing!  Except for all those times that I almost had to empty out my bike shorts because the stealth bikers practically scared the **** out of me when I didn’t hear them coming.

And what happens when you’re going 20 (ok, ok, 13) miles per hour and you get a sudden surprise?  You jolt.  You involuntarily jerk away from the scary sound.  You set yourself up for the perfect crash and burn pile-up of handlebars, arms, legs, wheels, and asphalt.

All because someone can’t be bothered to yell “…on your left!!”

Ok, I get that when you’re on a long ride on a paved trail, it’s easy to zone out.  In fact, that’s often why we ride, isn’t it?  To let the rhythmic pedaling and fluid movement lull us into a sort of happy-dazed trance.

But on a crowded trail, it’s not just about us. It’s about every living (and non-living… rocks. Roadkill. Etc.) thing that is using that trail.  It’s about the entire SYSTEM.

One person doesn’t announce themselves.  So another person swerves and wobbles dangerously out of their side of the path.  So the oncoming walking family has to jump to the side of the path… and the oncoming rollerblader has to come to a screeching halt to avoid a crash when the family forgets to look before stepping back on the path.  Which means the biker behind the rollerblader has to slam on the brakes.  And there’s a turtle in the middle of the path.  (that’s not part of my point.  I just like turtles).

My point?  My point is that we are always part of a larger system, and no matter how insignificant we might think our actions are, they DO impact the system.

On the exercise trail, we are all part of the movement that goes on there, and we all have the responsibility (in my opinion) to do our part to keep the movement safe and…well… moving.   It’s my responsibility as a biker to yell “…on your left!” to everyone I pass.  And it’s my responsibility to grin “thank you!” to the other bikers that DO announce themselves.

By considering the other parts of the system, I’m given the resulting delight of connecting with others on that trail, feeling the expansive energy of a perfectly-executed flowing collaboration.

So as you’re going about your work and your relationships (including the one with yourself), take a minute to consider your systemic impact. Why?  Because when you operate within the mental construct of a system, you can glimpse your true potential… exponentially more powerful than you may ever realize.

You are always part of something and always have the chance to make a resounding impact.

If a 2-second “…on your left!!” biking cry can affect an entire trail system, think of what your voice can do in your workplace, your family, your relationships, your neighborhood, your world.

I’m just sayin….

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy W September 9, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Great blog, Starla…as always! When we have time, you can tell me your biker stories and I’ll tell you my running stories. People blow my mind sometime!


Starla J. King September 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Thank you, NjW! We totally have to swap stories! Here’s to being courteous on our trails… and within ANY system 🙂


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