Urban Running Safety

Even at night, you can be safe in the city. (Photo credit: chnswam)

Without fail, the first question someone usually asks when she finds out I’m a New York City runner is, “Do you run in Central Park?”  The answer?  “Well no…I live in Brooklyn, so that’s a little far. And mostly I prefer to run on the streets.”  And the next question, without fail is, “Is that safe?”

I’m fully confident that urban running is just as safe as running on a country road or a trail through the woods, we just have to use a different set of guidelines to do it safely than our sisters in the country. Even the most naive among us knows that we have to be careful when roaming city streets alone; especially if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a woman wearing short shorts and a tight shirt and running faster than a city bus.

Map it

If you’re new to urban running one of the best tools you can have is a good map application.  I use Google maps with great success, but I know many people swear by MapMyRun.  Not only is this a great way to keep yourself from getting lost, it’s also a great way to ensure you stay in safer areas.  Getting to Red Hook from the South used to baffle me because I’d get lost near a highway overpass, but after mapping it a few times I can find my way to the track there with ease!  I don’t necessarily carry the map with me, but if I’m taking a new route or going somewhere unfamiliar, I’ll often write down the names of the streets where I’m supposed to turn, or landmarks to look out for.

And speaking of unfamiliar places,

Know thy ‘hood

Even though crime has been down in New York in recent years, there are definitely neighborhoods where I dare not tread alone, especially if I’m unfamiliar with the lay of the land.  Luckily here tough spots tend to be relegated to certain neighborhoods, but when I lived in New Orleans things varied block by block, so I had to keep a much closer eye on what was going on around me, and I didn’t usually feel safe running by myself there at night unless I stuck to main roads.  The important tactic is to run in neighborhoods or on streets with which you are familiar enough to gauge your safety.

When in doubt, find people

Industrial Alley at Night
Don’t run here by yourself at night. (Photo credit: Professor Bop)

I feel safe running in densely populated areas of New York at any time of day, mostly because there are people outside almost everywhere you go.  Still, I’ve taken a wrong turn and found myself in a quiet, deserted commercial warehouse district on multiple occasions.  When that happens, I turn right around and go the other way!  It’s important to know where the deserted areas are so you can avoid them in favor of a more populated road.

In other cities where auto culture is more prevalent (that’s pretty much every other city, right?) you can find yourself all alone on a street pretty quickly, so get to know where the main roads are and stick to areas where other people are around.  If there’s a long, busy main drag full of shopping centers and gas stations you’re much better off than a quiet warehouse district after business hours, even if you’re going to have to stop at a lot of traffic lights.  Better slow and safe than fast and sorry.

Oh yeah, traffic signals

It’s a good idea to obey them at all times.  But let’s be realistic; sometimes the sign says “DON’T WALK” when there are no cars or bicycles in sight.  The best thing you can do is to be extremely careful.  Look both ways like you’re a little kid and your mom is watching.  As any of my hasher friends can tell you I am one of the worst culprits of “playing frogger” on the avenues, but I promise I only jaywalk when I’m sure it’s safe, in areas where I’m very familiar with traffic patterns.

But cars aren’t the only possible collisions out there…

It’s called a sidewalk!

I hear that all the time. It’s annoying.

When you’re on the sidewalk it’s important to be extra vigilant of people who aren’t quite as sure where they’re going as you are.  Use your head and eyes to indicate where you’re going. If you look to the left of an oncoming pedestrian, generally he will take that as a sign that you will be passing him on that side.  If you come up behind a group of people walking four abreast and taking up the whole sidewalk, politely announce your presence and need to pass by saying “on your left/right,” or “excuse me,” or “may I pass?”  In my experience most people don’t mind at all.

Sidewalks are also not the places to run tangents.  If you’re turning around the corner of a building, take the turn as wide as possible to make sure you can see around.  You don’t want to run into someone else taking the turn from the other side!

Personally, I prefer to run in the street anyway.

Hey, get outta the street!

I hear that all the time too. It’s even more annoying than the sidewalk thing.

Running in the street is precarious business as we all know, and it’s important to check your local laws to make sure you know when and where you have the right of way.  I’m careful to only run in streets that aren’t too busy and have the width to safely accommodate me and any passing traffic.  I always run against traffic, so that I can see what’s coming at me.

Especially when there’s a bike lane.

Hey lady, get out of the bike lane!

Yes I do it, and I’m not ashamed. I’d say I run between the parked cars and the bike lane most of the time, but I find a nice, wide, empty bike lane is a great buffer between the cars and me on a street when I don’t want to run on concrete sidewalks.  Again, I always run against oncoming traffic, cars and bikes, to ensure that we can all see each other coming.  And if I see a lot of bikes coming, I usually duck back up on the sidewalk to make sure I don’t get in anyone’s way.

Act like you belong!

hanging on the stoop
Say hello to your neighbors! (Photo credit: Tricia Wang 王圣捷)

To me the best thing about city running is watching all the people, and you can be sure they’re watching you too.  Especially in neighborhoods where people don’t see runners very often, you’re going to have a lot of eyeballs on you, and a wide variation of reactions. I get catcalls and cheers and jeers all the time, but no matter whether someone is saying “yeah, you better run, girl!” or “go ahead now, you got it!”  or “hey sexy, nice legs!” I make sure to keep my composure and act like I belong.  And when people compliment or cheer for me I smile and wave, ’cause nothing says “we have good will toward one another” like sharing a smile with someone.

I kind of think of it like I’m am ambassador: the more non-runners like it when I run on their block, the more all of us runners are safe there.  Even the sour-pussed lady down the street (who used to call me a freak on a near-daily basis) has started to wave back and smile in spite of herself.

Got any other tips for urban running safety?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. Great tips! I loooooved Cleveland urban running. This post reminded me of those runs. I used to run alone through the deserted flats all the time: http://notpeppery.blogspot.com/2008/01/my-flats.html

    If I had company I’d get adventurous, but alone I had 2 options – run along the highway or run through the flats because there were truckers and other runners about. Pepper and I had some pretty crazy urban runs together over the years. Here the biggest worries are those deserted areas, but even more so, cars. And also dogs. There are packs of wild dogs that roam around and then also strays. When I lived near downtown I used to see the packs of dogs running at night and that at once made me horribly sad and scared!

  2. Great tips!

    I find a lot of pedestrians don’t respond to “Passing on your left/right”. If they do, the generally startle and go to the side I was trying to pass on. Ugh. So I usually prefer the street.

    I’m with Salty on the dogs. I get chased on a regular basis on my local loops. I don’t understand why my neighbors wouldn’t want to chain or fence their pets. After being nipped a couple times I’ve even altered some of my regular routes.

  3. Thanks, Jackie. Pedestrians are hard, yes! I have the worst time in touristy areas–maybe New Yorkers are just used to moving out of each others’ way?

    When I do have to stick to the sidewalk, I try to make those calls early, to give them plenty of time to glance over their shoulders and see me coming, and then when I get closer I say thank you, so they hear which side I’m on. I also like to use “excuse me,” or “may I pass?” since that tends to make them look instead of just moving into my trajectory.

    I also really try to use my body language to show where I’m going. It’s something I learned in dance class: your body is conditioned to automatically go where you’re looking, so when people see your head and eyes fixed in a particular direction, they unconsciously expect you to move in that direction. It obviously doesn’t help as much when you’re behind people, but when they’re oncoming I’ve noticed it really makes a difference to give my head a strong turn to the right if that’s the side I want to pass them on.

    1. Pedestrians can be so difficult in NYC. I used to live in Kew Gardens near a park so there were runners all the time on my street, but I think that just annoyed most of the residents. I remember one particular time where a young boy was walking with his mom in front of me and I said “Excuse me” about five times before he spun around and sassed me with a, “WHAT?!” But like you said, you have to keep your cool. Talking back to them certainly won’t help!

      All great tips in this article. Another tool I use is DailyMile.com. You can keep track of all your workouts and also map your runs before heading out!

  4. I totally agree that city running can be safe as long as you take the right precautions. I think especially when it’s dark I prefer running on the streets to parks or other areas with too much foliage

  5. Oh, one thing I forgot to mention – I always bring a MetroCard with me, or at least bus/subway fare. One of the best parts about running in the city is public transportation! If something happens out there and I have to bail, I don’t have to hobble all the way home; I can just hop on a bus or a train.

    1. Oh yes! I used to run from my apartment in the Village up 5th avenue (EARLY before tourists start to roam) and then around Central Park. When I was done, I buy a ($3) gatorade and hit the train back downtown.