A guide to safe biking for Islanders and visitors


To the Editor:

Spring has burst forth, and people are increasingly getting outside for walks and bike rides. The annual influx of visitors is underway, so it is an appropriate time to remind everyone — pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists — how to move about safety along our narrow and often congested travel ways. 

First, a perennial misconception pertains to the Island’s three dozen miles of bike paths. These are, in fact, shared use paths (SUPs), designed for recreational use by bicyclists and pedestrians. This combination requires path users to exercise caution and to practice some common rules of etiquette. Understand that even where bike paths exist, bicyclists still have the legal right to ride in the roadway. Many cyclists opt to ride on the road to avoid mixing with pedestrians (and their dogs), slower-moving cyclists, and debris on the paths. This is for their safety and for the safety of users on the paths.

Here are measures to stay safe whether you are walking, peddling or driving.

When you are walking:

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. In village centers, try to use crosswalks. 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. At night, use your cell phone as a flashlight to alert drivers to your presence.

When you are bicycling:

As a bicyclist riding on a road, you are bound by the same traffic laws as if you were driving 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 outside the fog line when there is enough pavement available. Just be aware that paved shoulders vary considerably in width, even along a single road. And shoulders frequently have deposits of sand or other 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 white line to the other. Riding in a consistent, predictable manner improves your safety.

Remember that “Share the Road” also means that you, as a cyclist, 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. Ride single-file when in groups, and spread out to allow motorists and faster cyclists to safely pass. Many Island roads present limited opportunities to pass even one or two cyclists. If you find many vehicles behind you, consider pulling off the road and pausing. Make it easier for motorists to Share the Road with cyclists.

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 that other path users may act 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 when posted in downtown areas. 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 earbuds is strongly discouraged. Why take the chance of not hearing potentially lifesaving sounds?

When you are driving:

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. 

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. 

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. 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. 

For more information on bike safety, biking to work or school, or bicycle laws, visit massbike.org. Vineyard bike shops can also provide you with information, as well as helmets, lights, and other gear. And mark May 22 on your calendar for Vineyard Cycle Fest, when there will be group rides, tours, and demonstrations promoting fitness and bike safety. 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, or veno@mvcommission.org.


Rich DeWitt, chair
M.V. Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee