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Passing etiquette: In defense of the bike bell

Posted by on December 12th, 2006 at 8:42 am

About two years ago, I invested $3.50 on a bell for my bicycle. It was one of those “I heart my bike” ones. It has a tinny but audible double ring. And it is by far the best bicycle accessory or bit of gear I have ever had.

I got the bell after talking with an older woman who said she loved bicyclists but was fed up with them zooming past her with nary a warning on her daily walks across the Broadway Bridge. When she was a girl in the ’40s, she told me, every single bicycle was equipped with a bell, and every person in her generation still automatically reacts to that sound by moving to the right to make way for a cyclist passing on the left.

“Widespread bell use increases traffic safety and road sharing far more effectively than expensive infrastructure or a public education campaign.”
–Elly Blue

People her age are some of the most vulnerable when it comes to pedestrian-bicycle conflicts. She pointed out that older folks often can’t hear verbal cues, such as “on your right!”, and that it takes them longer to process the meaning of verbal input. A bell, however, is easily heard and automatically interpreted.

Most of us may no longer have this same reflexive understanding of a bell meaning “cyclist on the left.” This is probably because most cyclists don’t even seem to have bells anymore. The result is that whenever cyclists and pedestrians share close quarters — on bridges, on sidewalks, and on multi-use paths like the Esplanade and the Springwater Corridor — confusion often reigns, and the chances of a crash go up.

[On the Eastbank Esplanade]

I propose that we bring the bike bell back into style. Every new bicyclist ought to be sold on the advantages of this cheap yet effective device. All children’s bikes should be sold with bells. Heck, all bikes should automatically come bell-equipped. Those of us with bells ought to use them and model their use to others.

A bell can be understood by anyone, of any age, in any language. Widespread bell use increases traffic safety and road sharing far more effectively than expensive infrastructure or a public education campaign.

Bell or not, it’s inexcusable not to warn people — pedestrians or slower cyclists — when you’re going to pass them with less than a couple of feet to spare. It’s not only legally required to yield to traffic in front of you, it’s good manners, and good public relations for cyclists.

Don’t think you need a bell? Try walking over the Hawthorne or Broadway at rush hour before making your argument. The rules and guidelines for using such paths ought to be clearly understood by everyone. The current haphazard situation just doesn’t work.

Cyclists and pedestrians ought to be natural allies, but until we share a common language of traffic signals, we’ll be at odds. I’m convinced that within a few years, bells could become commonly understood and used again — but it won’t happen without our efforts.

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  • Jonathan Maus December 12, 2006 at 9:00 am

    This seems like a perfect opportunity for someone to use the CCC’s mini-grant program to start something similar to “Get Lit”…except for bells.

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  • Cecil December 12, 2006 at 9:06 am

    I am a big fan of bike bells and I am old enough to remember when all bikes had them and I do have that automatic response (although I also respond well to “on your left” – my main gripe, however, is that I have yet to find one that has a mount large enough for the new larger circumference handlebars. I always end up having to jury-rig a mount, or put the bell in some weird, hard-to-reach location. I have a great Cateye light with a one-size fits all mount, but I have yet to find its equivalent in a bell – grrrr.

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  • Jim F December 12, 2006 at 9:10 am

    Very, very good idea.

    I both ride my bike and run across the Broadway Bridge on a regular basis. Running the bridge has changed my perspective. I don’t know if most cyclists realize what it is like to have a bike fly by you a foot away going 30 mph. It can be startling.

    A foot may seem like a lot to the bicyclist, but let me tell you it’s not much for the walker/runner (and I run so far to the right on the bridge that my arm scuffs the rail).

    And on a somewhat related note, it would be nice if those riding their bikes in the bike lane at 12mph could try to stay as far to the right as is safe, so others don’t need to dart into traffic to pass you.

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  • Roger Geller December 12, 2006 at 9:15 am

    Great points Elly! Thanks for writing this.

    As a cyclist I formerly operated under the “no harm, no foul” rule: If I could pass somebody without hitting them, then there was no harm. This theory was brought crashing to the ground one day when I walked across the Hawthorne Bridge with my 7-year old son and his friend. It was terrifying! Cyclists fly completely under the radar. You don’t hear them until they’re whizzing by. Cyclists passing within 2-3 feet of a pedestrian at even a moderate speed is a shock to the system. What cyclists don’t see is the reaction of the pedestrian after they’ve been passed–they start in the shock of what feels like a very close encounter.

    After that day I got a bell and it’s been great. I usually ring it a good 20 feet or so before I reach the pedestrian and they seem to clearly understand what it means. When they don’t, I slow, ring again, and all’s good.

    Saying “on your left” is almost wholly ineffective. First, you have to be pretty close to somebody for them to even hear that something is being said, and second, unless you yell it it sounds like: “mmmn yrggh mmllllffat”. Using a bell and slowing around pedestrians on shared paths would go a long way to reducing the animosity pedestrians feel about cyclists (I hear it all the time, especially from walkers who say they’re afraid to use the Eastbank or some of the bridges because of cyclist behavior).

    One day, years ago, I was riding across the Broadway Bridge and passed a couple of pedestrians. They were apparently German because what I hear from them, in an angry and shocked voice, was: “vere ist ein klanger!!?” Apparently, bells are more widely used by German cyclists.

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  • Ryan December 12, 2006 at 9:21 am

    I couldn’t agree more with Elly’s observation. Bells rule. I recall reading once that a cyclist is legally required to give warning when overtaking a pedestrian on a sidewalk. Does anyone have a copy of Ray Thomas’s legal guide for cyclists handy to confirm or deny?

    No matter how polite you try to be verbally, yelling at someone from behind tends to spook most pedestrians or joggers. More often than not, they turn around and give you the stink eye. On the other hand, there is something inherently cheerful and innocent about a bike bell that elicits a smile from most adults. Heads up to Cecil and others struggling with finding a bell to fit the new oversized bar diameter – there is such a thing! I believe it is distributed by the fine folks at Soma bikes, and The Bike Gallery stocks them.

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  • Jonathan Maus December 12, 2006 at 9:25 am

    When I lived in Santa Barbara, we had a bike bell program for mountain bikers.

    Bell boxes were placed at the top and bottom of trails to encourage their use while riding amongst hikers.

    My problem with promoting bell use is that we cannot forget to also promote that just using a bell does not give you a green light to go fast and be rude.

    It all comes down to being considerate, making some eye contact, and heck, I usually try to wave and smile as I go by…a little positive PR for bikes goes a long way.

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  • ala bluehole December 12, 2006 at 9:25 am

    I’m a slow cyclist and get passed more often than not. I’m amazed at how few of you let me know you’re coming — and it’s a little scary nearly every time. And since I’ve started bike commuting year-round a few times a week, several bikers have passed me on the right with NO NOTICE. Bad, bad manners, though probably not the people reading this site.

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  • pdxMark December 12, 2006 at 9:27 am

    Roger’s “vere ist ein klanger!!?” sounds like a nice mantra for any prorgam to get more cyclists to use bells. I’ve used a bell for a long time, but I’ve been thinking of trying a sqeeky horn to see if it is less startling and harsh for the folks I’m passing.

    I’ve also tried saying “on your left,” but I think it isn’t very effective either. You have to be fairly close for it to be heard, and that proximity when saying something can be quite startling, too. I’ll be starting my squeeky horn test later this week.

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  • Wes Robinson December 12, 2006 at 9:39 am

    “I recall reading once that a cyclist is legally required to give warning when overtaking a pedestrian on a sidewalk.”

    Sounds like you’re referring to ORS 814.410 which reads “Unsafe operation of bicycle on sidewalk; penalty. (1) A person commits the offense of unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk if the person does any of the following: […] (b) Operates a bicycle upon a sidewalk and does not give an audible warning before overtaking and passing a pedestrian and does not yield the right of way to all pedestrians on the sidewalk.”

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  • Russell December 12, 2006 at 9:50 am

    I bought a bell a little more than a year ago, thinking I was just getting tired of saying “on your right” all the time. Peds seem to prefer the bell to a verbal warning. I’ve been surprised at the reaction. Many people I pass say “thank you” as I go by them. It’s a sign that I’m doing something that is helpful and that they appreciate it, but unfortunately it’s also a sign that someone passing with a bell (or any audible noise) is too rare.

    I walk as much if not more than I bike, and there have been plenty of times I felt like knocking some jerk into the street who felt brushing me on the sidewalk without warning was completely appropriate.

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  • Roger Geller December 12, 2006 at 9:56 am

    You know, I don’t think silent passing is rooted in either rudeness or being a jerk. I think it’s simply rooted in ignorance. Cyclists don’t recognize the effect that passing has on the people they pass. By the time the person reacts, the cyclist is well past and looking forward, not backwards. I’ll bet that most of the people who are passing others have never themselves been passed. I know that was the case with me for many many years.

    To all those cyclists who are “passers” rather than “passees”: take a walk on a path one day and see what it feels like, then you’ll understand.

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  • Elly December 12, 2006 at 10:04 am

    Forgot to point out the other best thing about bells, which is that they’re excellent for saying hi to people, or for giving props to someone who lets you through a busy intersection, etc.

    Who wants to start a bike bell giveaway program? “Where is your bell?” is an excellent name, much better name than the first one that popped into my head, “Get Rung.” Those CCC grant apps are due January 5th, so go to it!

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  • Andre December 12, 2006 at 11:06 am

    I agree with the bell sentiment. It’s really a lot easier and clearer for people to understand than some muffled “on your left.” It’s a lot more pleasant to ding my ‘incredibell’ than to constantly shout at people.

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  • Jessica Roberts December 12, 2006 at 11:06 am

    Roger, I had a similar “klanger” experience. I was riding a bike on familiar trails in the German town where I used to live. It was midday on a nice fall day, and there were groups of hale and hearty seniors out walking everywhere.

    There was one group ahead of me taking up most of the path, and I waited for a bit until I could get around them, and then went ahead. One of them scolded me as I passed for not using my bell…and until that moment it hadn’t even ocurred to me that my friend’s bike OF COURSE had a bell and I was OF COURSE expected to use it!

    I just (finally! mea culpa…) got one for my daily commuter bike and I’m really enjoying using it to be a good bike citizen.

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  • tonyt December 12, 2006 at 11:08 am

    I used to mountain bike and race with a bunch of guys in NC and we all somehow ended up with little Incredibells on our mountain bikes. We’d ding em at each other during races, egging each other on and it always snapped us back into the “havin’ fun” frame of mind. Good times.

    How bout this for the motto?!

    “Get your bell on!”

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  • Brian E December 12, 2006 at 11:09 am

    I believe that using a bell is integral with being a courtious cyclist. I personally feel that anouncing “on your left” is a bit rude and demanding.

    I’ve biked several cities in Geramany and the bell’s are very common. Actually, a Geraman cyclist suggested that I get a bell for my bike, as it was considered “the right way” (Der richtige Weg).

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  • Val December 12, 2006 at 11:13 am

    At one point I was concientious about being audible when overtaking, but my consistent and overwhelming experience (in Seattle, granted) was that any signal, from “On your left” to “Pardon me” to a bell was cause for the pedestrian in question to immediately leap two feet in some random direction, or to turn to look over the left shoulder while taking a large step to the left. For a while I would give an audible signal if I felt like undertaking an educational mission. I would slow to the speed of the pedestrian, hovering three to four feet behind, and quietly but audibly say “On your left”. Then, once they had leapt directly into my path, been terrified by suddenly seeing me barreling towards them (not, I was not actually overtaking at this point), and recovered their wits, I would point out: “No, that means that I am on your left, and that you should stay where you are or move to the right – thanks!” and then proceed on my way. This got old fairly soon, and I finally decided it was actually safer to pass silently, though I won’t do it unless there is at least three feet of leeway. Mostly, my goal is to avoid frightening anyone, much less ever making contact with them. I am willing to ride at walking pace until there is room, or go off a trail into the dirt in order to pass a large and cohesive group, but I have had very mixed results with audible signals. I think you may have inspired me to try again; perhaps folks are more aware by now.

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  • Burr December 12, 2006 at 11:22 am

    “And on a somewhat related note, it would be nice if those riding their bikes in the bike lane at 12mph could try to stay as far to the right as is safe, so others don’t need to dart into traffic to pass you.”

    Bike lanes are typically 3′ to 5′ wide, suffient width for only one bike. Riding to the right in the bike lane puts you squarely in the door zone. I take my position in the bike lane based on the proximity of parked cars, debris on the road surface and other cues, not on the liklihood of being passed by other cyclists; generally the safest position is near the far left of the bike lane. If you are passing another cyclist in the bike lane you need to slow down until it is clear, then merge left into the traffic lane to perform your pass. The law allows it and common courtesy demands it.

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  • josh m December 12, 2006 at 11:23 am

    exactly. Whenever I pass someone in a bike lane, I ride into the traffic lane and pass them.

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  • no one in particular December 12, 2006 at 11:45 am

    my consistent and overwhelming experience (in Seattle, granted) was that any signal, from “On your left” to “Pardon me” to a bell was cause for the pedestrian in question to immediately leap two feet in some random direction

    That is EXACTLY what I do. Even though I am an all-weather bike commuter, when I’m walking and I hear a cyclist yelling at me, I panic. Eek! I’m sure the same would go for bells.

    Still, I’ll probably get one now. Thanks for the article.

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  • Joel December 12, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Regarding “vere ist ein klanger!!?”: I just got back from Germany this weekend, and I can attest to getting belled the first day there until I figured out where all the bike paths were. I had the chance to walk through the bike store and was amazed at the variety of bells available, from little twist-ringers to big old burger “ding-dong” bells. Every bike on the rack had one, and everyone used them.

    It’s apparently soon to be the law in London to have and use a bike bell: All bikes being sold in London are required to have a bell attached. I tend to agree with the article – sort of toward the nanny-state end of things. I believe people are more likely to comply if it’s voluntary and considered good manners.

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  • Dabby December 12, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    While it is great to pass safely, alerting someone to the pass can be just as , if not more dangerous than not alerting them.
    This puts us at a, excuse the horrible pun.

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  • Roger Geller December 12, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    I’ve heard from many people over the years about pedestrians jumping into their paths when they either ring a bell or say “on your left.” I have to say that I have never had that experience. I ride everywhere and have been using a bell for the past 8 years. I’ve never had a person jump left into my path.

    How often does that really happen?

    My more common experience is that after I ring my bell (about 20-30 feet or so in advance of passing the pedestrian), people typically step slightly to the right or raise their hand in acknowledgement, or perhaps thanks.

    Of course, it helps to slow down. Going slower in potential conflict areas–whether in car or on bike–provides more time and opportunity to make adjustments if needed.

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  • nuovorecord December 12, 2006 at 12:39 pm

    Another way to look at it is to compare being passed by a car/truck/bus while you’re riding your bike.

    No one out walking or riding their bike likes to be surprised or buzzed by something going much faster and with more mass than they have. Just as we cyclists dislike being passed too closely or without warning from cars, we should extend the same courtesy to pedestrians.

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  • Euan December 12, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    I don’t ride with pedestrians, I ride on roads predoinantly with other motorised traffic. A bicycle bell is singularly useless for my circumstances.

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  • Euan December 12, 2006 at 1:08 pm

    @nuvorecord: Another way to look at it is I consider it aggressive and rude if I’m tooted by overtaking cars/trucks/busses. The key point is that they pass me with enough room so I don’t feel threatened.

    Similarly merely dinging a bicycle bell does not entitle a rider to pass dangerously close to pedestrians. Personally I don’t think pedestrians and cyclists mix very well, I’m much more comfortable on the road.

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  • Dabby December 12, 2006 at 1:13 pm

    It happens a lot. I mean a lot.
    But , that doesn’t matter, ’cause if it happened to you once, you would realize how bad of a scenario it is.
    Years ago, riding with my long dead best friend Colin on the waterfront, we passed some people.
    Called out on the left. Much ahead of time.
    And the worst happened. They didn’t pay attention at all.
    Their young boy ran out in front of Colin, and he hit him.
    The boy, luckily was thrown by the bike into the grass, due to Colin’s quick thinking.
    The boy was fine. Not a scratch.
    It took Colin a very long time to get over it.
    Weeks, if not more.
    And he was not at fault. It was a case of bad parenting. And being a bad pedestrian.
    This is a fine example of these scenarios. And this occured on the widest path in town, bar none.
    It can happen to you.
    It can happen to me.
    It “will” happen to everyone eventually! (I wonder “Who” sang that?)
    Sadly, this appears to be a case of people not really thinking this happens, as your post helps to clarify.
    I know you as a smart, thinking man. And, I know that when this does happen to you, your mind on the subject will change for the better…

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  • PFin December 12, 2006 at 1:24 pm

    Don’t be suprised. Ever. WEAR A MIRROR.

    This is more for the cyclist for whom interacting with traffic on all sides is constantly relevant (not you, Dabby).


    Don’t suprise. Ever. SLOW DOWN. Make sure that your presence is acknowledged before passing. One ring shortly after another creates a “depth perception” effect for the pedestrian, implying that the sound is coming closer (even on which side!) I’ve got my bell mounted upside down with the trigger right next to my shifter. Discreet and functional.

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  • tonyt December 12, 2006 at 1:27 pm


    It happens all the time. Really. I’m baffled that it’s never happened to you.

    Not to mention that at least HALF of the peds on the Esplanade for instance, are listening to their iPods, rendering any auditory interaction impossible.

    I agree with Elly though, if we launch a public relations effort, with information for cyclists AND peds, then perhaps we can make some headway. I’m willing to give it a shot.

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  • Elly December 12, 2006 at 1:29 pm

    Bell or no bell, yelling something or nothing, leaving three feet or six, the main point is the need to be courteous and make allowances where they’re due. People ahead don’t hear you? Slow down to their speed. Double that if there are kids in the picture. If you’re on a path that’s too crowded, get off your bike and walk it till there’s room. When in doubt, I think it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

    Sure, some people are oblivious to other traffic, even to the point of rudeness — but that’s not an offense that deserves being hit by a faster-moving vehicle.

    It’s a matter of changing our culture back to one where we have signals that everyone uses, and that work — like with bells in Germany, or the US in the ’40s.

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  • alan bluehole December 12, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    “People ahead don’t hear you? Slow down to their speed. Double that if there are kids in the picture.”

    I’ve got a nice idea: parents mind your kids. The Esplanade, especially, seems to be turning into a play park for the kids mom and dad want to ignore.

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  • nuovorecord December 12, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    Euan – Good clarification. I wasn’t necessarily implying that vehicles should be blaring their horns at cyclists, but rather should pass with plenty of room to spare. Hopefully, if the cyclist is aware, they will hear the vehicle approaching or use a mirror.

    By the same token, a cyclist should give a audible signal that they are about to pass. But they should pass only if they can do so safely. Bikes and peds don’t mix very well, but there are certain places that they have to.

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  • josh m December 12, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    I’ve had a few peds look back, see me, but not move, just keep going. this is when we speed up and scream “OH MY GOD #*($&#*$(#&*(”
    This is also quite effective when peds cross the street while you have the green downtown.

    The hawthorne bridge is plainly marked.
    Half is for peds.
    Half is for cyclists.
    Peds stay on their half, they shouldn’t be surprised.
    I grew up in a small town and spent a lot of time walking/riding the highway w/ little or no shoulder and having log trucks and other viehicles buzz me at 65+mph. I guess I am biased and just deal w/ it.
    If I can fit, I go. I’ve yet to hit anyone. Though, many times I’ve been tempted.
    I know of many people who have wrecked to avoid peds, especially children.
    Peds are often in their own world.. this is plainly obvious riding on the esplanade. You will give them plenty of room and they’ll just decide to turn left right into you…
    It goes both ways. If you’re on a multi-use path, everyone should pay attention.
    But I am an asshole, so what do I know…

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  • Kd December 12, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    The esplanade is a multi-use path giving the right of way to pedestrians before cyclists. If you don’t want confrontation with children, I recommend not cycling past Omsi. The route may be apart of your commute, but it’s little more than a large sidewalk intersecting a park. Though parents should be keeping their children’s safety in mind, expecting them to goose-step in line so cyclists can avoid a little rush hour automobile traffic while maintaining speed is both unrealistic and missing the point. I treat any of the shared paths as sidewalks- I try to avoid them if at all possible, but when I can’t- I slow way the hell down and give a lot of room.

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  • john December 12, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    keep it simple. Just use your voice. I say “coming bbbbbyyyyyyyyy ” or “on your leeeeeeffffftttt”. A bell is too startling. a voice is nice and calming. Does it matter if anyone can understand you ? No of course not ! Its where you voice is coming from that is the warning. That said i will probably get that bell on one of my most ridden bikes.. but how about the other 4 bikes. !

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  • firemaplegirl December 12, 2006 at 6:32 pm

    I agree that wider bell usage would aid pedestrian-cyclist relations. As a pedestrian, I appreciate some warning when someone passes on the same path. Loud voices tend to startle me, causing me to stop and turn around, sometimes inadvertently stepping into the line of travel. However bells immediately trigger ‘bike’ and I can react appropriately, moving to the right. I’m significantly younger (mid-20s) than the women mentioned in the article, so I think it’s intergenerational to a certain extent. Plus bells also elicit a smile and wave from me.

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  • Garlynn December 12, 2006 at 6:56 pm

    I think that bike shops really need to bear the brunt of the responsibility for this. After all, who sold all those bikes to folks without bells in the first place?

    The bike shops.

    And who sometimes just doesn’t carry the right bell for the bike?

    The bike shops.

    For instance — one of my bikes is a Litespeed Firenze. It’s made of titanium. It only weighs 18 pounds. And the handlebars are fully wrapped with whatever that stuff is that they wrap the handlebars of racing bikes with.

    It’s obviously made for riding fast.

    Yet, one of the first accessories that I picked up for it was a bell, so that when I pass pedestrians/other bicyclists on a path, I can *ding* at them to let them know that I will shortly be flying by at a high rate of speed, and would appreciate them not stepping in front of me for both of our sakes.

    Then, guess what?

    I hit a particularly bumpy stretch of road, and the bell just plain fell off.


    I figured that it was the bike rejecting what it clearly felt was an unnecessary adornment, and I haven’t replaced the bell yet.

    However, I would love to put a bell on it again — but only if I can find a bell that makes sense for that bike (i.e. small, light, loud yet cheerful, and able to attach around handlebars that are extra-fat because of the aforementioned wrapping).

    Any suggestions?

    All of my other bikes have bells, BTW, and I use them whenever necessary, and sometimes just when I feel like it. Bells are great. Everybody should have them. Heck, I even think some pedestrians should use them.


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  • Treadly and Me December 12, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    Elly, I absolutely could not agree more–right down to the type of bell you prefer!

    Cyclists who don’t ring sometimes use the argument that when pedestrians hear a bike bell they tend to turn-and-look, which can make them stray into the path of the bike. However I did a little study earlier this year and found that (on my route, at least) very, very few pedestrians do this. In other words, the risk of a turn-and-look collision is not an excuse–on shared pathways cyclists should ring their bells.

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  • MikeOnBike December 12, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    Can I get one louder than the I-Pods all of the pedestrians have stuffed in their ears?

    I currently use ‘On your left!” in a loud, clear voice but it rarely gets through. I do think a bell would be a good idea. I need to find a really loud one for my commuter bike.

    Thanks Elly, Michael…

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  • PoPo December 12, 2006 at 9:19 pm

    The bike bell is a super idea. All we have to do all get a bell and then endure the “break-in” period as pedestrians get used to hearing them and understanding what they mean. Yes there will always be new pedestrians who will be surprised and unpredictable even after the learning phase, but that is why we should still slow down and pass carefully even when using a bell.

    I lived in Japan for five years and bicycle was my main mode of transportation for most of it, along with lots of Japanese. Every bike had a bell there, most of them a tiny, single “ding” kind where you bend back and then release a single spring-loaded hammer with your thumb. All new new bicycles were so equipped.

    Interestingly, the Japanese pedestrians all knew that if they heard a bell behind them, they were to simply continue walking however they were without changing course or speed until the bike passed. (If they were clearly completely blocking the sidewalk they would move over, but most Japanese cyclists weren’t blowing by either.)

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  • that girl with the bell December 12, 2006 at 9:24 pm

    Wow, I am fairly new to biking (for this decade – of course I rode a bike everywhere when I was a kid) and I have been using my bell like crazy because I thougth that was what I was supposed to do. I love my bell! I had no idea there was any sort of controversy over the use of one.

    I have been a pedestrian, a driver and on a bike and I have to say that a warning that someone is coming near is way better than a surprise wooshing past you. Cars of course make enough noise to be heard, but on blind corners of narrow roadways, I was brought up to honk as you come around the bend.

    If the bell were the norm, the argument of it scaring pedestrians would be void. It only exists as an argument because pedestrians aren’t used to hearing a bell.

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  • Javen December 12, 2006 at 10:17 pm

    Bravo! Well-said, Jonathan and Kelly!

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  • Dabby December 13, 2006 at 12:46 am

    Bells are neat. I have yet to own one actually. Maybe for my birthday…..I think I turn 29 soon….
    My friends tonight were guilty of bell abuse though.
    We went out for burrito’s, and they kept dingin’ em and dingin’ em, for no reason. Just ridin’ down the road, dingin’ away……
    I suppose it is fine though.
    Just kinda felt left out…
    At least I still have my mind.
    Oh, wait…

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  • adam December 13, 2006 at 3:55 am

    well, pardon me, treadly and me, nothing personal but I want to share a story from my ride to a meeting downtown.

    I was crossing the hawthorne bridge the other day and, while riding west at a very modest speed, I used the bell and “passing on the left” signals to what seemed to be some lunchtime walkers. well, they turned and stepped about a foot left.

    funny enough, since they were walking 3 wide, the lady nearest me came really close to hitting shoulder. ok, that is funny.

    what was not funny was the bus going past my other shoulder(do a little research, how much clearance is there on that combined path?). not funny at all, in my humble opinion.

    so, consider the peer review to fail. unless someone appreciates your research out there?

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  • Michael December 13, 2006 at 8:14 am

    “On your left!” or “On your right!”

    How many times does this get confused? Too many.

    I think this call comes from the ski slopes where it is used consistently and correctly.

    I walk and bike. Too many cyclists don’t seem to understand what is left and what is right. For example I was walking on a Division sidewalk when I heard a shout of “On your left!” I moved RIGHT expecting the bike to pass on my LEFT. As I moved right, the same shout repeated, “On your left!” with a strong note of irritation.

    I looked back to see the bike on the right, trying to get around my right side.

    This has happened a number of times and it is a mystery to me how they got the message and intent so mixed up.

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  • Michael December 13, 2006 at 8:35 am

    I have used a bell for nearly 3 decades of bike commuting. I have sometimes also used the shouts of “on your left,” etc. In my experience the bell works far more effectively.

    The sound of a bell seems to cut through ipod sound much better than does a shout. I know this from biking and from walking with an ipod. A shout is easily misunderstood or missed entirely. A bell is distinct and the intent is always clear.

    On the pedestrian crowded Hawthorne bridge I will start dinging the bell as much as 100 feet behind the pedestrians and continue to ding every couple seconds until I have passed them. No one has acted like it was rude. The repeating chime seems to give them a clear indication of my approach and speed. It is like watching Benny Hinn when I do this. The pedestrians all move toward the rail in a wave that gives me a awesome feeling of power. With that comes improved safety for all of us.

    My first bells were the cheap stamped out steel bells found for children’s bikes because that was all I could find years ago. Now I have an excellent brass bell from Bike Gallery. The sound is musical instrument quality and is a pleasure to use with frequency.

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  • patrick December 13, 2006 at 10:44 am

    My latest bike has TWO BELLS!!! There is a bell available from Rivendell and Velo orange that is beautiful and brass, with a sinuous tone. I have found that it is too quiet for motorists to hear, though, so I only use it for pedestrians.

    Meanwhile, the standard available-everywhere “incredibell” is mounted on all my bikes. It’s loud and piercing enough for motorists to hear, in most circumstances.

    My suggestion for the campaign, “You can ring my bell”



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  • Jeremy December 13, 2006 at 10:53 am

    This could solve the oversize bar problem: Bar-End Incredibell. Cool!

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  • Ian December 13, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for this commentary Elly. I am a big proponent of bike bells and agree that they should become more of a culturally-enforced norm here in Portland.

    Regarding bike shops and the mandatory sale of bells: I don’t think we are yet at a point where we should be putting restrictions on retailers. However, there are several steps which retailers could take to dramatically increase awareness and education in this matter. For example, bike shop employees could easily become the vanguard of an education effort by consistantly asking customers if they would like a bell with their new bike, perhaps even pointing out to service customers that a bell is absent from their trusty steed. Also, all display bikes could easily be equipped with bells, furthering this new “norm”. It need not come across as “up-selling”, it could be easily delivered as a public-awareness type of education, much the same way lights are now sold in many shops.

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  • josh m December 13, 2006 at 11:53 am

    You can’t blame bike retailers for not putting bells on bikes.

    You have to remember that the majority of bikes people ride in portland are second hand or built by them…

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  • ian December 13, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    Josh –

    It appears that you misunderstood my post. I am not placing anything resembling blame on this city’s fine bicycle retailers.

    Also, regardless of whether a bike is second hand, it is far more likely than not to have paid a visit to one of our many bicycle retail establishments in this city. I am simply saying that retailers are an excellent point of contact for cyclist education.

    I don’t make this point to be glib or “pass the buck”. In fact, I work for a bike shop. And I, for one, will be making a point to encourage more cyclists to equip their bikes with bells (and use them wisely).

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  • josh m December 13, 2006 at 3:31 pm

    Ian, my mistake, I should have noted who’s post I was refering to, which was #37.

    “I think that bike shops really need to bear the brunt of the responsibility for this. After all, who sold all those bikes to folks without bells in the first place?

    The bike shops.”

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  • Garlynn December 13, 2006 at 3:59 pm


    Thanks for the bar-end bell link. That does indeed appear to solve the large-handlebar problem, though it does preclude putting those cool bar-end lights in the same place.

    but hey, until they make a bar-end light that operates on a (rechargeable) AAA battery instead of those stupid watch batteries, it’s kind of a moot point anyways.

    Ian — well said. I meant to imply what you said, which is that since bike shops are the main point of contact with bicyclists, they would be the most logical folks to push bells — both bundled with new bikes, and to customers coming in for service/parts.

    Josh — I’m not trying to advocate for legislation at this point. And blame — well, if you want to play the blame game, you might be able to assign blame to bike shops, but that was not my intent either. Blame does no good.

    Rather, I think that a friendly, loose-knit, casual effort by the fine bike shops serving the region to try and get more bells out there, is definitely a good approach.

    However, the European approach of mandating a bell on every bicycle using the public road systems is probably worth considering, too. Call it the nanny state if you want, because you know it’s for your own good.

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  • trevor December 14, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    All this talk about which solution for the wrong problem! In the roadway, pedestrians are required to walk in the opposite direction (on their left side of the way) as vehicular traffic, and peds are required to yield. It’s hard to be surprised by something coming towards you. Why is there no standard set of rules for shared use of pedways (sidewalks)? Appropriate speed limits, and requirement for bikes to yield to peds, but still ped/bike should be going in opposite directions. Same for bike paths, which ought to have the same rules as roadways.

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  • IanO December 15, 2006 at 9:44 am

    Thank you to Elly and all you peds who have written about your experiences. I will be using my bell much more consistently from now on.

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  • Jonathan Maus December 15, 2006 at 9:48 am

    I think we should put together a ride to give more cyclists the pedestrian perspective.

    We’d meet near the Esplanade, lock up our bikes and then walk on the path for a mile or so.

    anybody interested in doing this…maybe after the New Year?

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  • Cecil December 15, 2006 at 10:28 am

    Jonathan, I think that is a great idea. I walk to work at least once a week (gotta let the bike rest sometimes), which includes a loop around the whole Esplanade (gotta get exercise somehow). Because of my experience in walking that path on a regular basis, when I ride it I am much more cognizant of how pedestrians perceive and interact with the cyclists and I am much more attentive to, and solicitous of, the pedestrians.

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  • Jim December 18, 2006 at 5:29 pm

    I was just leaving an intersection when passed by a bus. The driver slowed down to get my attention and pointed that he was pulling over to the bus stop to let off a passenger. I was thankful for the ‘heads up’ and waved back to let him know it.

    I also put my bell back on after reading this post.

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  • Cecil January 22, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    It’s probably pointless to post to a thread this old, but in case anyone is reading I thought I would note my experience walking the Esplanade yesterday (Sunday, January 21). I, my husband, my 75-year-old mother and our two corgies went for a walk on the Esplanade at about 11:30 AM. We started down by the Opera and looped around across the Steel Bridge to the Hawthorne Bridge and back to the Opera building. During the course of our walk we were passed from the rear by about 20 cyclists. Of those 25, one and ONLY one warned us of his approach (“On your left, corgies . . .”). No one else gave any indication of his or her presence before passing – no bell, no whistle, no verbal signals. Many of the riders were going at a pretty rapid clip, and only some of them gave us more than a foot clearance as they passed. Fortunately, I had the dogs short-leashed and had warned my mom that there would be cyclists on the path and that she should be vigilant. But just because I now walk that path with the assumption that I could be run down at any moment doesn’t mean that cyclists should assume that everyone is on hyperalert for their presence 🙂

    So to the one rider who let us know he was coming, thank you. To the others, I hope that you didn’t end up running over someone who was less aware of the chance that might happen.

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  • Todd May 15, 2007 at 7:54 am

    “A bell can be understood by anyone, of any age, in any language.”

    Not deaf people! Don’t let the bell become an excuse – it’s nice to try to warn people that you’re coming up behind them, but it’s still your responsibility to pass with care.

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  • Josh May 15, 2007 at 9:36 am

    I agree with Todd about bells. When I am passing pedestrians, the only effective way is to slow way down and pass at a speed that is closer to their own speed.

    Speaking out “On your left” is rarely heard. Shouting out “On your left” usually startles people. Ringing my bell might as well be the same as firing an AK47 into the air to see the reactions of fear those things put into people.

    Because of these responses, I rarely make a sound and simply slow down to pass. I treat my bell, now, more like a car horn to warn people who are about to dart out in front of me.

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  • Bonnie May 15, 2007 at 11:45 am

    Ring a bell, call out. Just let me know you’re coming! I walk the Esplanade loop every weekday and a lot of times it just makes me mad that I get no warning what so ever that a cyclist is about to pass. Of course there is a learning curve for people who don’t know what the bell or the shout out means. They will learn, without a crash. It’s just so darn easy to slow down and be courteous. Do it. Cyclists expect other cyclists to warn them in close quarters, extend that to peds, too.

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  • Scott Mizée May 16, 2007 at 4:30 am

    The Esplanade was very busy yesterday after work. I used the bell on the Bakfiets all the way across the Hawthorne and up the through the Rose Quarter.

    Bonnie is right. There is a learning curve. Some people jump up on surprise. Some people give a simple wave and others yell out a “thank you” in acknowledgment. Regardless…It is well worth ringing the bell in my opinion.

    …now if we could just come up with an equally effective method to prevent getting Doored!

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  • Matthew May 16, 2007 at 11:15 am

    I have the “Ringing my bell might as well be the same as firing an AK47 into the air to see the reactions of fear those things put into people.” problem about 10% of the time too, but yes, training the peds will make that better.

    I think the problem is that those people assume that bells on bikes are kind of like horns on cars. I (and most people in Portland) were trained when driving that you should use the horn only in an emergency, and given the speed at which car emergencies go, the last thing I am worried about is the horn, and as such, I don’t think I’ve ever used it. And after seeing enough scared pedestrians as a result of my bell, I started to wonder if they thought it was like using a horn. Given that this isn’t Boston, and cars don’t feel the need to honk when they pass a bike, maybe their logic went, why should a bike use a bell when it passes a ped? I don’t know if that is really what they think, I should ask one of the startled peds the next time I see one.

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  • Scott Mizée May 17, 2007 at 5:07 am

    Good points, Matthew. I agree.

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  • Tomas Quinones May 17, 2007 at 8:25 am

    Maybe we need a bell and a air-horn.

    Bell: Hey, just letting you know I’m going to pass you, or please move aside so I can get by thanks have a great day!


    What say ye?

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  • spencer May 17, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    I ride a roade bike and spend most of my time on the hoods. Any suggestions on bell type that is easily accessible?

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  • Greg July 11, 2008 at 1:40 am

    This article is an inspiration! I remember as a ped dealing with both \”On Your Left\” shouts and bells, and the bells are far more pleasant and seem to be more of a courtesy caution than a demand.

    I have always used the slow-to-walk-speed and leave-lots-of-space techniques, but the bell does take out the startle factor that can still exist.

    What a great idea! I\’m going to mount bells on our family bikes and teach my sons to use them (my teen may resist at first, but I\’m pretty persistent).

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