Bike bells are almost as universal as car horns, but there are still some rather peculiar differences in how they’re both used and perceived all around the world. Considering how useless they are amidst heavy automotive traffic, it seems that bells are really only useful (at least marginally) for alerting Pedestrians according to what we discovered under Bike Bell Protocols. Not surprisingly, there are differences in these protocols around the world, and they aren’t limited to just how bells are used, but also in how people react to being dinged by a bell…So let’s take a quick world tour, and see what lessons we can bring back.
Let’s start in Japan, where we would expect to see the gold standard set for social civility and courtesy. In this video you can easily note the instant and considerate reaction to a bike bell…even on the most absurd settings for a bike – such as an escalator!
An example of the mutual respect offered in Japan is this beautifully crafted piece of brass metalwork called the Universal Sound Bell that creates a melodious ring tone every time you need to let someone know you’re coming. As the sellers describe, “It doesn’t say ‘Get out of my way’ but rather ‘Here I am’ with such charm that even the most hard-bitten pedestrian has no option but to dance gracefully to one side.”
Elsewhere in the Far East…Among the teeming masses of India, it seems that nobody cares about the bicycle bell, no matter how hard or how much you ring it. In fact, according to some Commenters, the default rule in India is to use your bell or horn every 5 seconds. If you don’t make a sound for more than 5 seconds, it indicates you are no longer alive, and no longer at risk of being crushed to death in traffic. Allegedly, motorists and bikers from India are so good at honking/ringing that they’re able to crudely mimic a few popular Hindi songs…Now that must take lots of practice!
In keeping with their stereotypically sensible sense of efficiency, it’s generally acceptable for a German Cyclists to pass Pedestrians without announcing themselves. As common sense would dictate, you only ring the bell when you absolutely have to. Otherwise, you do not need to say anything. If you need to pass a Pedestrian within a meter, you may wish to make a sound or announce “bicycle” (Fahrrad), so they know not to make any sudden movements as you ride past. As many North-American Cyclists also realize most people will stop and turn in the direction of the sound of a bell, making an otherwise considerate warning more dangerous than just passing them silently. In the land of the Autobahn, everyone already understands the innate logic of slower traffic keeping to the right…and everything just sorts itself out in orderly fashion from there.
Although there are still lots of dedicated bike paths in the US, and some remarkable closed routes to be discovered around Montreal and the rest of Quebec, there are precious few dedicated bike lanes, and no dedicated Bike Paths (even those clearly marked as such) here in Toronto. Instead, what we think of as bike paths, are actually all considered “Mult-Use” paths for everyone’s benefit, including baby-strollers, rollerbladers, Joggers, and of course all manner of Pedestrians. Calling out to alert pedestrians which side you’re on…but some walkers presume you’re telling them which side to walk on to get out of their way. People turn their head to check what’s coming, and by that completely loose their ability to walk straight forward
The Dutch long ago figured out the obvious – Which is that Pedestrians and Cyclists already don’t mix well, without also throwing in baby strollers and dog walkers into the mix. In all large cities in Holland and Denmark there are clearly marked bike paths reserved for the high volume bicycle traffic, and not surprisingly, this designation just encourages more people to use this sensible mode of transport, knowing that they can move at safe and full speed, without being on the constant lookout for sudden moving roadblocks and other forms of erratic or oblivious behaviour. In North America, it seems that we’re still figuring out the these basics, after having designed cities for the exclusive use of motor vehicles for far too long already.
On shared paths in England, like canal towpaths for example, bells being rung to let people know that a bike is coming often leaves Pedestrians feeling offended. Akin to saying, “Who do you think you are, telling me to get out of your way”. One dog walker was quoted as saying, “she’s a dog mate, she don’t understand!” If we can count on one nationality to come up with some dignified protocols around the use of bike bells on mixxed paths, perhaps it might be the Britons. It’s notable that there’s a concerted effort to develop good British decorum and protocols around bike bells via the Two Ting campaign at http://www.lcc.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=864
Meanwhile, here in Toronto, we’re looking at all the reasons why bike bells really don’t work all that well,
and considering the Why’s and Wherfore’s of how to change this right HERE