I, then, have been spending a lot of time running in the street, leaving plenty of distance between myself and anyone using the sidewalk. Despite being a relatively easy transition, it did raise a pretty important question (at least for my safety): Should I be running with or against traffic?
In high school I was taught to run with traffic, the logic being that you were running “away” from cars so those drivers had more time to see you and react. But running in the streets of Chicago is a far different experience than running along the long country roads I grew up with.
“Things get particularly dicey when there’s cars, bikes and runners all using the same place,” says endurance runner Paul Ronto. “Obviously running on the sidewalk or running/biking path is safer than running in the road. But if you have to run in the road, the general rule is to run against traffic. That way you can see danger coming, because you can see drivers and make sure they see you through eye contact. And if worse comes to worse, you can dive out of the way should you need to.”
I’m not sure why I didn’t consider this in high school after the first Ford F-150 throttled by me without bothering to switch lanes, but running in the big city, I’ve made a point to make eye contact with drivers coming toward me and at intersections.
Ronto does, admit, though, “This rule of thumb gets muddy when there’s also a bike lane. It’s still safer for you, the runner, to be going against traffic and against bikes so you can avoid collisions, but you never know if you should hug the sidewalk or step out into the traffic lane.”
Technically, you should step toward the sidewalk and “let the biker pass between you and the traffic lane, but that doesn’t always happen,” Ronto explains. As such, your best bet is to stick to one-way side streets, where traffic moves slower and you can easily pop over to the opposite side of the street if a biker or runner is coming your way.
That said, you still might catch yourself running with traffic, where things can get particularly tight between parked cars, bikers and other runners. To play it safe in such a scenario, Ronto advises leaving your headphones at home. “This is the most important thing about road running, especially if you’re running with traffic and not against it,” he tells me. “Not being able to hear that car creeping up on you to make a right-hand turn can lead to accidents.”
Ultimately, though, Ronto says your city laws might settle the debate for you. “Some state or local jurisdictions have laws on the books as to which direction you have to run in regards to traffic, if they allow road running at all,” he says.
That, in fact, has settled it for me. Because it turns out that running against traffic is the law of the land in Chicago. So the next time you catch me on the road, I’ll be staring straight at ya.