Why are so many people running in the street lately?
March 25, 2021 5:44 PM   Subscribe

In the last year, I've noticed a huge increase in the number of runners who are using the edge of the road rather than the sidewalk. I thought it was a response to poor snow and ice clearance, but it hasn't changed now that we're experiencing summer weather and the sidewalks and parks are wide open. Why are they doing it? Is it organized? Does it have a name? Or, am I just now noticing something that's always existed?

To be clear, it does me no harm. I'm a big fan of reclaiming roads from cars. I'm not complaining. But, it sure seems different from what people were doing two years ago and I'm curious what's driving it. Is it an adaption to COVID? Fear of muggings? Something else?

I live in a big city in the industrial midwestern US and mostly hang out in neighborhoods that are racially diverse but quite tony. The runners seem to be a random selection with regard to age, ethnicity, and gender. Most are masked, but that's pretty standard here. They tend to look like people serious enough about running that they buy specific clothing for it.
posted by eotvos to Health & Fitness (29 answers total)
My two best guesses would be 1) more people running overall (some who’ve taken up/resumed running because there’s not much else going on, others who maybe used to get their cardio at the gym) and 2) it’s much easier to give people space when you pass if you’re in the street rather than a narrow sidewalk.
posted by mskyle at 5:47 PM on March 25, 2021 [20 favorites]

Social distancing for COVID, yes. Avoiding the sidewalks because you know you're going to run into other people there going slower, most sidewalks aren't nearly big enough to pass others with 6 feet minimum between you (most sidewalks in residential neighborhoods don't even meet ADA width requirements of 36", let alone six feet). It's easier to just run in the street and duck into an empty parking space to let a car pass you if necessary.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 5:48 PM on March 25, 2021 [48 favorites]

I know in my area (town of 60k in Northern California) a lot of people are detouring into the street to avoid other pedestrians. If I'm running, it's easier to just stay in the street rather than dodge and out.

(The city's also put up temporary traffic calming/"no thru traffic" signs in a lot of places to make the streets less pedestrian hostile and allow us to take more room.)
posted by straw at 5:48 PM on March 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

We're social distancing. Please give us space.
posted by Amy93 at 5:52 PM on March 25, 2021 [12 favorites]

Yep, it's Covid. Take back the streets!
posted by aniola at 5:53 PM on March 25, 2021 [13 favorites]

It's been a thing for awhile here, pre-COVID. My theory is it's a habit learned from dealing with too many low tree branches and twigs. It's also a lot easier than repeatedly ducking off the sidewalk to make way for strollers and dogs.
posted by michaelh at 6:01 PM on March 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

covid, also my understanding is that pavement is easier on one's body than concrete sidewalks.

When I ran regularly, late at night, I'd run right down the middle of very quiet residential streets for this reason, and also to stay clear of hedges, tree branches, root upheavals in the sidewalk, etc. got thwacked in the face by a tree branch one too many times on a sidewalk.
posted by Sauce Trough at 6:03 PM on March 25, 2021 [11 favorites]

I used to live in the midwest and am now on the west coast, but in my experience people have generally tended to run in the street rather than on the sidewalk. It's to avoid pedestrians but it's not just COVID, it's also perceived to be polite to people who are walking and there tends to be less overhead/underfoot debris to deal with, as well.
posted by sm1tten at 6:03 PM on March 25, 2021 [7 favorites]

Yeah, probably more people running in general (gyms are closed, they want to lose Covid weight gain, etc), and it's easier to give folks space in the streets, and then you don't have to deal with curb cuts. Also, there's for sure a thing among runners that it's better for your knees and joints to run on the road rather than the sidewalk (asphalt apparently being softer than concrete).

Also, could it be that you are noticing this more because you're out for walks more often or at different parts of the day?
posted by bluedaisy at 6:03 PM on March 25, 2021 [6 favorites]

It's covid, but also that running on the sidewalk is a worse experience period, so it's not going to lessen whenever the pandemic ends.

Sidewalks are often uneven and full of trash and debris. Cars don't look when they enter or leave driveways and garages. Every block, there's a chance a pedestrian will pop out of the corner. And the asphalt is noticeably softer than concrete.
posted by meowzilla at 6:03 PM on March 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

It's been going on long before COVID. It may have to do with maintaining social distancing, avoiding pedestrians and other dangers/distractions, wanting to run on a softer and more uniform surface, or lack of concern for drivers.
posted by davcoo at 6:06 PM on March 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

Additionally sidewalks and roads are shaped for drainage. Typically sidewalks slope towards the road and roads are 'crowned' with the high point in the middle and the gutter being the low point.

This means that walking or running long distances on sidewalks and/or streets means that you will always be traversing uneven ground - specifically ground that slopes laterally. Effectively making one leg longer than the other. To correct this you need to switch sides of the street... or take turns running in the gutter which is a lot closer.

In some parts of the world it's also spring. 'Round here a lot Of snow has recently melted and a winter's work of dog feces (sigh - it's not that hard to pickup people, do the right thing or maybe consider not having a dog ok?) makes a lot of my local sidewalks.... messy.
posted by mce at 6:09 PM on March 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

For me, it's COVID. I wish I were in good enough shape to run with a mask on, but I'm not. I don't want to breathe on anyone else, and I don't want anyone else breathing on me, and the simplest solution to both those problems is to run in the street.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:37 PM on March 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think it's a COVID thing because I see people running and walking on the road and bike lanes all the time for no good reason (the sidewalks are fairly empty here in the 'burbs and there's a good 2 metres of grass between the sidewalk and road in most places anyway) and this wasn't happening before last year.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:51 PM on March 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not just covid, though covid likely made it more visible for all the reasons above. This was a common phenomenon in the suburban neighborhood where I grew up, decades ago. (Wide and mostly empty sidewalks, rare debris, no gnarled tree roots.) The asphalt thing makes sense, especially if you're older and them knees are going.

In the early 2000s, my elderly grandfather got a police warning for walking on the street. Yes, he was brown. To be fair, it was a pretty busy street and he legit could have gotten hurt.

I've done this myself for a portion of the sidewalk that is routinely muddy (including pre-covid) but personally find it more stressful to be thinking about cars clipping me at 40 mph, and get back on the sidewalk as soon as I can.
posted by basalganglia at 7:03 PM on March 25, 2021

Asphalt is softer than concrete. It is easier on the joints and bones to run on asphalt.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:22 PM on March 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Running (or even walking fast) on sidewalks is usually terrible. They are rough, crooked, bad and and dangerous sight lines, uneven with many trip hazards, many dangerous encroachments such as tree limbs, and on and on and on.

At walking speed sometimes this is all OK but when you start approaching all of those problems at 2-3-4X speed when you are running, it all becomes exponentially more problematic.

If you have a wide, straight, smooth, relatively new, well-designed sidewalk or path along a major road--and with very well-designed crossing points at intersections, driveways, etc, that is one thing. That is the best-case scenario.

Now look at a terrible, old, rough, cracked, root-ridden, narrow, crooked, bush and tree-encroached sidewalk in a neighborhood. There is your worst-case scenario. We have such a sidewalk starting across the street from the house I'm in now. I usually avoid it even when walking because you simply can't make your way down it without tripping a few times and nearly getting eyes etc poked out thanks to numerous encroaching branches. Also, you have to duck your head numerous times over the course of half a block to avoid low-hanging branches. If you have a friend with you, you can't even walk abreast--or pass another person coming the opposite direction. And it's hemmed in by bushes a good part of the way, that invariably encroach into the already-too-narrow walking space.

You get the picture.

Regarding parks and trails: We have a park about 1/2 mile from our house. A really awesome run would be to run to the park and back. Or maybe to the park, around the park trail, and back. We finally got a trail about 1.5 miles from our house. That would be a really, really great 3-mile run to that trail and back. And finally, finally, finally, they are just now building a brand-new trail across the street from us on the long-abandoned railway. Once finished, that will be an awesome place to walk, run, and bicycle. It will probably be part of about 1/3 of the walk/run/cycle trips our family takes. No one likes to go the same exact way every time, sometimes you are going the opposite direction, and generally we're going to be going to all the same places around town on foot or on bicycle that I do by car. I'm not going to restrict myself to 1/100th of the destinations around town just because there happens to be a trail that goes to those particular places.

The trail is awesome but it is literally one narrow 3-mile corridor through a (small-ish) town that has something like 300 miles of surface streets.

When you talk about "why don't people run in the park or on the trail" what you are really saying is, "Why don't people drive to the park and run or drive to the trail and run."

That is, frankly, against the whole concept of walking/running/cycling on a number of levels. One of them is that I walk, run, and bicycle precisely in order to completely avoid all unnecessary driving trips. If I can just run down to the park there is literally no reason at all to even consider driving there.

Another thing to consider: We tell adult bicyclists to stay off of sidewalks and ride in the street. There is a reason for that. The bicycle's speed and handling characteristics make it unsuitable for sidewalks. Bicycling on the sidewalk is demonstrably more dangerous to the person cycling than is riding on the adjacent road. Besides the trip and fall hazards (considerable) the person cycling is at far, far greater risk of collision with a motor vehicle at every driveway and every intersection when cycling on the sidewalk vs on the adjacent road.

Here is a thorough summary of the issue of bicycling on sidewalks--including the law, the recommendations, and the research.

Back to runners: Due to their speed they inhabit sort of a half-way point between the average pedestrian and the average person cycling. So it's no big surprise that many people running start to use some of the same strategies, and to take steps to avoid some of the same pitfalls, that people cycling do--for the same reasons.
posted by flug at 7:59 PM on March 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

I run in the street. It's because of covid distancing.
posted by Toddles at 9:10 PM on March 25, 2021

Bonus, at least around here, auto traffic is still down quite a bit. The streets feel safer than they used to.
posted by amanda at 11:04 PM on March 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

In addition to the above, running on the street means you’re less likely to be hit by the idiots in cars who, despite the stop sign at the sidewalk (assuming there is one) are only coming to a stop at the curb of the road.
posted by Dotty at 5:54 AM on March 26, 2021

I run in the street, and did so well before COVID. Like people have mentioned, sidewalks are more likely to be uneven or obstructed (kids toys, trash cans).

Plus, even before COVID, I'd generally want to avoid running up behind a pedestrian on a sidewalk since I know that can be alarming.
posted by coffeecat at 7:05 AM on March 26, 2021

I usually run in the street because it's impossible to go more than 10 feet without encountering five friggin people strolling down the sidewalk with no friggin masks.
posted by General Malaise at 7:47 AM on March 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

I definitely choose the street more often now for social distancing purposes, but I’ve done it before COVID for many of the reasons stated above. I’m also a complete klutz, and there are fewer acorns, sticks, etc for me to trip on in the street than the sidewalks.
posted by okayokayigive at 7:51 AM on March 26, 2021

I run in the street in order to stay distanced from other pedestrians - it's 100% due to covid, and at some point if/when it's safe I will return to running on the sidewalk.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:13 AM on March 26, 2021

I run in the street and it has 0% to do with covid. Started 15 years ago. Although it’s a nice bonus for social distancing these days.

It’s 100% about treacherous sidewalks — bumpy seams, debris, low tree limbs — and the (maybe mythical) idea that asphalt is softer than pavement and reduces injury.

It’s also easier to cross the street to avoid people, but again, I’ve always done that because I hate people. And nice, again, for social distancing these days.
posted by liet at 9:03 AM on March 26, 2021

Yup another data point for, if there wasn't COVID not only would you never see me running in the street, you wouldn't see me running outdoors at all. People are a real crapshoot on masking outdoors around here (though really extremely good indoors) and even though the risk is low, why chance it in either direction?

Also I don't wear my glasses to run (because glasses + mask + running = impenetrable fog) and it is much much easier for me to see car headlights than to see random branches or a cat or a big sidewalk gap/seam or an uneven curb.

SO yeah like almost everything else that seems ridiculous and unpleasant about my life right now, it's entirely covid's fault.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:28 AM on March 26, 2021

Just an aside that may get deleted: runners, please please please shoulder check before you step off the sidewalk into the street. Cyclists have to ride right at the curb. You can't hear us and we can't read your minds!
posted by klanawa at 7:38 PM on March 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

100% COVID. I never ran in the street prior, now I always do. I run without a mask (feels like I am suffocating with one) so it’s better for social distancing. There are also more people out walking in general due to COVID so there is more need to stay off the sidewalks to avoid getting too close.
posted by annie o at 6:48 PM on March 27, 2021

I've noticed this too and I've come to the conclusion that it has something to do with social distancing, well at least in my area. When I'm coming down the street, especially when I don't have a mask on, folks will run out into the street or across the street to avoid me.
posted by Feeling Hopeless1991 at 3:50 PM on March 28, 2021

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