Rules of the road — and bike paths


To the Editor:

Recent letters to the editors in both Island newspapers raised questions about the use of the Vineyard’s “bike” paths. The Island’s nearly 40 miles of bike paths are technically “shared use paths” (SUP) designed for recreational use by pedestrians and bicyclists. This combination requires path users to exercise caution and to practice some common rules of etiquette. With the summer upon us, it is timely to remind people traveling around the Vineyard — visitors and Islanders alike, whether pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist — how to move about safely along our narrow and often congested travel ways. While this is a long message, everyone needs to know the rules of the road (and sidewalks and bike paths), and exercise patience. 

First, everyone should understand that even where bike paths exist, bicyclists retain the legal right to ride in the roadway. Pedestrians, slow-moving cyclists, and debris on the paths may make opting to ride on the road safer for everyone, especially faster cyclists.

Here are additional reminders for moving about:

For pedestrians:

  • On sidewalks, be mindful of other users. Vineyard sidewalks are usually modest in width, so it is even more considerate to stay to one side of the sidewalk when possible, especially when pausing. Try to use crosswalks in the town centers. That is where motorists and cyclists expect to have people step out into the roadway. Even when using a crosswalk, look both ways before stepping into the road. 
  • If you are on a bike path, keep in mind other users such as bicyclists, skateboarders, and rollerbladers that travel faster and will have to pass you. Stay to the right side of the path unless you are passing others. Look behind you before moving across the width of the path. If you must stop on a congested path, try to step off the path to prevent additional backup. 
  • If walking along a roadway, always walk against traffic. You need to see if a distracted driver is not noticing your presence and be prepared to jump aside. Be aware that not all roads have shoulders for you to avoid walking on the pavement. If walking at night, have a flashlight, or use your smart phone as a light to alert drivers of your presence.


For bicyclists:

  • When riding on a road, you are legally required to follow the same traffic laws as if you were in a car. Always ride WITH traffic. It is against the law to ride the wrong way on a one-way street. Generally, you should ride on the right side of the travel lane, to the left side of the white “fog” line. Some cyclists may prefer to ride to the right side of the fog line when there is enough pavement available. Just be aware that paved shoulders are highly variable in width, and can include sand, debris, and drain gates that may result in suddenly needing to merge back into the travel lane. It is best to keep a steady track rather than weaving from one side of the fog line to the other. Riding in a predictable manner — like a motorist on the road — improves your safety.
  • Remember that “share the road” also means you should not unnecessarily hold up motor traffic. While it is legal to ride two abreast, do so only when it does not prevent motorists from passing due to traffic volumes, or curvy or hilly roads. To allow motorists and faster cyclists to safely pass, ride single-file when in groups, and spread out. Many Island roads present limited opportunities to pass even one or two cyclists. Consider pulling off the road and pausing if you find many vehicles behind you. Make it easier for motorists to share the road.
  • When using the bike paths, remember that they are essentially wide sidewalks, which pedestrians also use. Pay attention and behave as if you were on the roadway: stay to the right, pass on the left, slow down to adjust for congestion. Remember that pedestrians have the right of way, and give them an audible warning when passing (say “Bike passing” or “On your left”). Anticipate other path users acting unpredictably. Be alert for motor vehicles crossing the path from side roads and driveways. Stop only when you can pull off the path, so as not to obstruct other users. Many cyclists find the paths too congested and choose to stay on the roadway.
  • Riding on sidewalks is permissible, except in downtown areas and where posted otherwise. Yield to pedestrians, and walk your bicycle when conditions dictate.
  • Protect yourself. Although Massachusetts law requires riders 16 and under to wear a helmet, all riders should. It is also the law that you have proper lights and reflectors when riding after dark. Bicycling with headphones or ear buds is strongly discouraged. Why take the chance of not hearing potentially lifesaving sounds?


For motorists:

  • Always be on the lookout for pedestrians. Even in our town centers, not all streets have sidewalks. And pedestrians have been known to cross streets at places other than designated crosswalks! Many roads in the rural areas do not have sufficient shoulders for people to step off the pavement when vehicles approach. Slow down. 
  • Bicyclists on the road are legal and are part of traffic, even when there is a “bike” path next to the road. Bikes are (usually) slower-moving vehicles that you may have to wait behind before passing.
  • Look both ways when crossing a bike path. When exiting a driveway or turning off a main road, remember that cyclists and pedestrians have the right of way. 
  • When passing cyclists on the roadway, please do so cautiously and courteously. Pass only when you are sure there are no oncoming vehicles. State law requires you allow at least three feet between you and a cyclist when passing, but you should allow more the faster you are traveling. It is usually best not to honk your horn while passing, especially from immediately behind. The blast can jolt cyclists and cause them to lose control. 
  • Remember that bicycling is beneficial. An adult on a bike may represent one less car on the road and hunting for a parking space. Bicycling is also healthier, less expensive, and more environmentally friendly than driving.


For more information on bike safety, biking to work or school, or bicycle laws, visit Vineyard bike shops can also provide you with information, as well as helmets, lights, and other gear. 

For information on how to get involved with bicycle and pedestrian issues on the Vineyard, contact senior planner Bill Veno at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission at 508-693-3453, ext. 115 (

Safety first.


Simon Shapiro, chair

Martha’s Vineyard Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee 


  1. Martha’s Vineyard Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee?
    How many freakin’committee’s do we need on this island?
    Everytime you turn around, someone is starting a different committee….

  2. When I first read the headline to Simon Shapiro’s letter (Rules of the road – and bike paths), I dreaded the thought of another screed on how scofflaw bicyclists were endangering countless lives, etc. Instead, what I found was a thoughtful, friendly and well-laid-out roadmap for all of us to travel in harmony. I then shared the letter with my cycling pal Spokémon, who asked me to tell Fielding Mellish to get off his high horse, don helmet & mask, hop on a bicycle and go practice what Mr. Shapiro so eloquently preaches. Thank you.
    Tom Pallas
    Vineyard Haven

    • Tell spokeman that my comment has nothing to do with cycling. I actually ride four or five mornings a week. Maybe you and spokeman need to get off your high horses.
      My comment is about the over abundance of committees on this island.

  3. Which makes your original comment even more inane. But that’s just me…..and Spokémon. As for high horses, we gave up on those more than 20 years ago. Spokémon and I ride a recumbent.

    • How is my questioning the overabundance of committees on this island inane? Is it because I asked the question about a committee that deals with cyclist? Again, my comment had nothing to do with cycling or the rules of the road. I just believe that one of the reasons nothing ever gets accomplished out here is because there are to many people with overinflated senses of worth that they feel the need to form a committee about any island issue? Case in point, the drawbridge. There were at least six different committe’s at one point arguing about what the bridge should look like. And people wonder why it took as long as it did to get it completed…

      • What makes you think that there are too many committees on the Island?
        Do you think that people getting together and discussing items of common interest to be harmful to the Island?

      • The Drawbridge Committee should have been a committee of one.
        The one to sign off on whatever the state proposed.
        We would have had that bridge a good two years earlier.
        I wonder what it would have looked like.

  4. Excellent and correct advice, but I would add that all of us, riders, walkers, drivers, have to expect the unexpected, especially in the summer. Many people are unaware of these rules and unaware that the shared use paths are for everyone. Don’t assume that the people you are about to pass will know the correct thing to do! Give yourself extra room and time, and everyone needs to pay attention. I see lots of walkers with earbuds in watching something on their smartphones while oblivious to what is happening around them. Not as dangerous as all the drivers doing it though! My guess is one out of four cars has an inattentive driver at the wheel, so don’t plan on them always avoiding you. You need to walk, drive, and ride defensively.

  5. As someone who “commutes” to Aquinnah from Oak Bluffs everyday for work and also loves to cycle, I truly appreciated this explanation of the rules of the road spelled out here. One of the primary takeaways I am getting from this is that if people abide by the laws laid out by the Commonwealth and also drive, walk, cycle, jog, etc. with a healthy dose of common sense and courtesy, we can all truly share the roads and shared use paths.

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