Atlanta Beltline or Bell-line? Old-fashioned ringing helps clear way

Maybe we should start calling it the Bell-line …

That ringing in your ears along the Atlanta Beltline these days? Relax, you're not losing your marbles. Truth is, folks are jingling all over the wildly popular Eastside Trail, which runs from the tip of Piedmont Park to the increasingly hip Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park.

The 2.2-mile, smooth-as-a-baby’s-behind paved pathway can get downright Downtown Connector-ish on sunny afternoons and weekends, what with all the runners, strollers, dog-walkers and baby buggy-pushers traveling up one side of it and down the other.

And right in the middle of it all — literally — are the bicyclists. As a result, more and more of them are making like Pee-wee Herman and using a ringing handlebar bell to herald their presence and help avert accidents.

“We have noticed an increase in bell usage along the Eastside Trail, especially on crowded days,” confirmed Atlanta police Lt. Jeff Baxter in an email. As commander of the APD’s Path Force Unit — which patrols the Beltline and surrounding areas full time, much of it on, ahem, bicycles — he oughta know.

So should Benjamin Stimis. On a recent Thursday morning, Stimis pointed out a nearly empty box of bells at Atlanta Beltline Bicycle, the rental/sales shop he owns near the Inman Park end of the trail.

“Look, this was full at the beginning of the week,” he exclaimed. “People like a bell. It’s fun. It’s like an ice cream truck.”

Or maybe it's just better than the alternative: crashing into some unsuspecting (or inattentive) walker and flattening them like an ice cream sandwich. That's not cool anywhere, but especially not on the Beltline. Rule No. 1 on its many strategically placed "Etiquette" signs (hey, this is still the polite South) reads "Pedestrians always have the right-of-way."

Meanwhile, an unwritten rule generally cedes the middle of the 14-foot-wide trail to faster-moving skateboarders, roller bladers and, in particular, cyclists. In return, those wheel-ing dervishes are expected to pass pedestrians on the left and to give a loud shoutout — “On your left!” is the recommended phrase — to those whom they’re about to pass.

It’s a good idea, in theory.

But “theory” may have nothing on a set of earbuds.

"Wearing headphones (on the trail) is not safe," said Jeremy Leifheit, vice president of development for Atlanta Cycling, which caters to riders of all ages and interest levels at its two metro area locations.

Indeed, hearing “On your left!” shouted from behind can be hard with Beyonce bringin’ it in your ears. Chattering away with friends or keeping an eye on kids and pets can also distract pedestrians. On the other hand, some cyclists fail to give fair warning before attempting to pass. Or they might not understand how “On your left!” can actually prove confusing to pedestrians, who may react by moving to their left and into the line of fire.

Enter — like a giddy 6-year-old on a hot pink banana bike — bells.

Their high-pitched trill makes them awfully hard to ignore, an ingrained-from-childhood command to look up and pay attention, now! That makes them a good addition to the Beltline, many people feel.

“Having a bell on your bicycle is a great tool for making people aware of your presence,” said Baxter, the Path Force commander. “(That) ties into safety, adding situational awareness in avoiding a possible accident or contact, without having to yell or speak loudly, which someone could possibly take offense to.”

That last part gets a, uh, ringing endorsement from Walter Czachowski.

“People don’t pay attention,” sighed Czachowski, an Atlanta graphic artist who was riding on the Eastside Trail with a baseball-sized bell strapped to his Schwinn. “It’s better than letting out a string of expletives at them.”

Others aren’t so sure. Not about the expletives part, but rather, about the comparative usefulness of bells.

“Calling out is louder and can communicate more effectively,” said Leifheit of Atlanta Cycling, which offers frequent group rides where the “On your left” etiquette of passing is emphasized. “It’s just a matter of awareness and education.”

Meanwhile, you probably won’t spy a bell anywhere near the handlebars of those spandex-ed Tour de France types who occasionally bomb down the Eastside Trail. Maybe they’re afraid it would mess with their aerodynamics, suggested Stimis of Atlanta Beltline Bicycle.

Or maybe they’re afraid of looking like little kids (what’s next, baseball cards in their spokes?). Or, even worse, nerds.

They should know that Baxter’s given his officers (aka “Atlanta’s Fittest”) the option of outfitting their bikes with bells; and that one of them’s already taken him up on it.

Try calling that guy a nerd when he whizzes by.

Better yet, just ring your bell.