As I have clearly stated on many occasions, I prefer that cyclists' primary advocacy efforts be directed towards improved roadways rather than towards separate bikeways. Governments are never going to construct enough bikeways to allow most cyclists to reach most destinations, while our current roadway system, with relatively minor improvements, can allow most cyclists to reach most destinations (see my other articles plus the Roads We Have by John Andersen). Nonetheless, dedicated bikeways will continue to receive support and be constructed. Based on my observations from extensive travel, most will be a waste of money, as no one will use them. When useless bikeways eat up recreational funds, they may create the false belief that "nobody is interested in bicycling" and thus have a negative effect. However, well-constructed bikeways do get lots of use, especially from the inexperienced, and thus encourage bicycling. Therefore, I think it makes sense for me to talk about why many bikeways fail and why others work, with the hope that I might influence sensible future construction.
Before going further, I would like to comment on my using the term "bikeways" rather than the much more common "bike trails" or "bike paths." A "trail" can be used either by foot traffic or by vehicles, but the word "trail" implies that the roadway is in a primitive condition, thus "jeep trails" and "wagon trails." Thus while the term "bike trail" is a proper term, it is being used incorrectly to refer to paved lanes, when it should be used to apply to more rugged bikeways, such as mountain bike trails. A "bike path," on the other hand, is an oxymoron, a contradiction, and therefore a meaningless term. A "path" is a place for pedestrian traffic alone, and not well-designed place either, such as a sidewalk or a walkway. Bikeways and walking paths should have very few features in common.
In traveling across the US and Canada, I have observed that most bikeways are not being used by anyone while others are extremely popular and are being used heavily. What is the difference between them? Here are the basic principles that cause a bikeway to be used or ignored:
Basic requirements for a Bikeway
1. There have to be cyclists (or bike riders) in the area that will use the bikeway. A lot of bikeways get built in areas that have very few cyclists, evidently with the notion that building a bikeway will create traffic. Of course, if the bikeway is extremely good, it will attract cyclists who drive in from other areas, but the run-of-the-mill bikeway is not going to do that. A good example of a fair bikeway with no traffic is one which ran from Piedmont, Alabama, and terminated in the country near Jacksonville, Alabama, a distance of about 15 miles, with extremely few cyclists/bike riders in either small town and none in-between. For this reason, I never saw a single cyclist on it, although it was nicely paved and on a good railroad right of way. Now that this bikeway has been extended into Anniston, Alabama, a small city, it should get a smattering of traffic. However, the same route built in Birmingham or Huntsville would receive much more use.
2. The bikeway has to go from somewhere to somewhere. Bike riders are not going to go to the trouble of riding on a bikeway unless they can experience travel, but many bikeways are meaningless loops. There are different purposes for various bikeways: Some can be recreational and travel through or into interesting areas. Others can provide transportation routes, say from a residential area to a shopping mall, commuter station, or downtown area. A good example of bikeways from nowhere to nowhere are many of the greenway bikeways in the Denver area which were built to cross the green space without any thought of a destination. On the other hand, many other bikeways in the same area get a great deal of traffic because they provide useful routes.
3. A bikeway has to offer something more than just being off of the roadway. Bikeways that run alongside a roadway are common and are almost always empty. That's good because cyclists traveling along such a route have a greatly increased danger from turning vehicles (75% of bicycle-motor vehicle collisions occur when one of the vehicles is turning). Some simple features a bikeway can offer are shade, distance from the noise and fumes of traffic, scenery, and more gradual climbing grades. It also helps if the bikeway offers some special advantages as well, such as frequent stopping places, with benches or picnic tables, water fountains, and restrooms. But if there is no improvement in comfort, the cyclist must give up opportunities along the roadway (sources of food, destinations, turns) without receiving anything in return. A useless loop which I saw in Maryland and which runs alongside the road for about ten miles, without offering a single advantage over the nearby wide highway shoulder, is a prime candidate for this designation.
4. A bikeway must be designed for bicycle use.
A. Bikeways are often, if not usually, constructed with a sand or gravel surface, rather than being paved. I supposed that since inexperienced cyclists ride on gravel shoulders, the powers that be have decided that we cyclists prefer gravel, but actually, it makes bicycling much more difficult. While the big tires of a mountain bike can handle gravel fairly well, even mountain bikes will travel much farther and faster on smooth pavement. In fact, cyclists prefer pavements that are even smoother than asphalt roadways. Cyclists can easily be injured when the riding surface has holes, cracks, breaks, or loose gravel and/or sand. Unfortunately, most bikeways built on abandoned railways are being constructed with sand and gravel bases, in spite of the fact that such surfaces impede progress and increase accidents. The worst bikeways I have seen was along an historic canal along the Delaware in Pennsylvania. On this trail, a cyclist couldn't even look around due to the struggle to maintain balance on a crude and rocky surface.
B. Bikeways are sometimes constructed with no thought as to how steep of a grade the cyclist can climb. While strong, experienced cyclists can climb a grade as steep as a roof, inexperienced cyclists who haven't trained up often have trouble on grades of 4% or even less and will become rapidly discouraged by steeper grades. Downhill speeds are another problem, as a cyclist going down a 7% grade will quickly reach 32 mph and will need the braking and turning distance of a motor vehicle. Finally, even a strong cyclist can not suddenly encounter a blind steep climb and climb it readily. He or she has to build up speed to make that climb. On a Wisconsin bikeway, the route up to the camping area was so steep that many cyclists would not even be able to push their bikes up it. At Valley Forge, Pa., the bikeway is extremely and abruptly steep in places, plus it has poor line of sight distances and many pedestrians, an invitation to an accident.
C. As both a related and independent problem, bikeways are often constructed with no thought of how sharp a turn a cyclist can make. Cyclists can fall when they can't make these turns. Often this problem arises from thinking about the bikeway as a path or a sidewalk; but it is not a path, and a moving bicycle has a turning radius, just like any other vehicle, and this turning radius grows with speed. Tandem bikes, recumbent bikes, and bikes with trailers have a wider turning radius than standard bikes. In Washington, DC, and in Philadelphia, Pa., I saw turns so sharp that they caused cyclists to fall, and I had to dismount and walk.
D. A few bikeways have inadequate width. While a loaded touring bike is only 18-inches wide, the cyclist needs more space to safely pass cyclists traveling in the opposite direction. For most conditions, three feet or a meter for each lane are sufficient; however, more width should be provided on turns and descents. I crossed an otherwise excellent bikeway on a bridge from Duluth to Superior which had inadequate width, poor sight distances, and steep grades, thus leading to slow uphill speeds and fast downhill speeds, a situation begging for a collision.
E. Although it sounds strange to need to say this, a bikeway should be constructed so someone on a bicycle can negotiate the entire distance on the bike. Nonetheless, a bikeway in Denver included a flight of steps, and the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia includes a steep double flight of stairs.
F. One very poor idea that is quite popular is a multi-use bikeway. While bikeways that have little traffic can be safely shared, why would someone design a bikeway that isn't going to be used very much? Bikeways and pedestrians are especially incompatible because bicycles move at speeds dangerous to pedestrians, and pedestrians will suddenly step into the path of a speeding bike without looking because they can't hear it coming. If one limits the speed of the bikes to something safe enough for pedestrians, then the advantages of riding a bike -- speed and exercise -- disappear. No competent cyclist will be willing to ride at walking speed, and such a slow speed means wobbly bicycles and frequent falls. The bikeway in Washington, DC, was the worst I have seen for pedestrian traffic, including dog walkers and dogs on leashes, making a short ride a dangerous obstacle course.
5. A bikeway should provide for the other needs of the people using it. Cyclists need to get water, to use restrooms, to stop to rest, and to get something to eat, to get out of the rain, to camp at night, and they need these things much more frequently than do motorists. Having these facilities is especially important because our society is moving in the opposite direction: Roads no longer provide picnic stops in most states, and businesses in whole regions are reluctant to provide restrooms, water fountains, and sometimes even seats. The best (and popular bikeways) include such facilities (see below); most ignore them and have few cyclists as a result.
A. In providing these facilities, it's important to remember that the cyclist has to put the bike somewhere while stopped. A place to park the bike is more important than the place to park the cyclist, as cyclists can eat or rest on the ground, but the bike won't stand up by itself. Unloaded bikes laying flat on the ground take up a great deal of room, are a hazard to walk around, and are getting their pedal bearings filled with dirt. If touring bikes are laid on the ground, the bags soon become quite dirty and half of the equipment is unavailable unless the cyclist stands the bike back up. A picnic table can be used by only two people if it also has to also support their bicycles. I visited a campground for cyclists in Wisconsin that lacked so much as a tree to lean a bike against. Evidently, cyclists were supposed to stay up all night to hold their bikes off of the ground.
B. Cyclists have to get water or other fluids frequently. That water should be cool enough to drink (often, the water in the water bottle is not). The just-mentioned campground lacked any water, even though the fees were high. Day trippers usually carry a single bottle of water which can be emptied in much less than an hour during hot weather, yet on many bikeways, there is more than an hour's cycling between water sources.
C. Along with needing to drink frequently, cyclists need to pee fairly often, a fact that is usually ignored. I sometimes wonder if the greater numbers of male cyclists is simply due to the fact that we find it easier for us to pee where there are absolutely no facilities. Along much of the East Coast and in New England, I found extremely few public businesses that sold food and drink which provided a rest room.
D. Shelters and picnic tables with roofs are much more appreciated by cyclists than by motorists, as we have relatively few places to get out of the rain (an extremely heavy rainfall will soak even a cyclist dressed in Gore-Tex). One day in Quebec, I waited out two heavy thunderstorms under such a picnic table, and I would have been in sad shape without it, even though I had a rainsuit. Yet very few bikeways offer covered shelter.
E. Cyclists also eat more often than motorists. Providing food for cyclists can be quite profitable if there is enough traffic on the bikeway. On the Petit Train du Nord, in Quebec, there were actually more places to buy food along the bikeway than along the highway because motorists drive hundreds of miles without eating while a cyclist is never going to travel more than a couple of dozen. I saw at least one cyclist with camping or touring gear for every mile that I traveled on this bikeway, and the non-touring cyclists were too frequent to count.
F. Cyclists need places to camp. Bicycling is frequently an activity undertaken by those with small wallets, such as teenagers and students. Providing free or nearly free camping, which amounts to little more than a few trees under which to pitch a tent, a toilet, and a faucet, costs very little (much less than day-use facilities), and has no negative social costs. Those with money will still be willing to pay for regular campgrounds and motels, and the free facilities will actually help support the traffic that will support the paid ones.
Well, I guess it looks as if I set an impossibly high standard. Can any bikeway meet these pie-in-the-sky goals? Actually, I was inspired to write because I traveled in the year 2000 on two successful bikeway systems which came very close.
Le Petite Train du Nord is a 120-mile bikeway in Canada traveling northwest beginning ten miles north of Montreal. The surface was often softer than it should have been, and I saw no free camping areas, but in every other way, this bikeway had all of the desirable features. It had low grades, beautiful views, excellent places to visit, lots of food shops and even more rest stops. I would have to give it a score of "A."
In Wisconsin, I traveled on the 400 Trail north of Madison. This bikeway also had too soft a riding surface, there were no interesting nearby areas to visit by bike, and the total length of this and the ajoining trails was much less; however, it also had nice grades, excellent scenery, places to eat, places to rest, and places to camp. I would have to give it a score of B+. Wisconsin is building such routes everywhere, but I don't know if they are all as good (or if they are better) than this one.
In 1990 I encountered bikeways in Colorado in the Breckinridge area and traveling east towards Denver. Here the surfaces were always paved, the grades were never too steep, and the scenery was gorgeous. Camping spots would not be hard to find in the national forest areas. However, at that time there were few facilities along the route, so I would give a score of B unless there have been additions since.
The success of these bikeways was proven by the traffic on them, with the bikeway having the highest score having by far the highest traffic. Le Petit Train du Nord is far more than just a bikeway: it is an economic asset and a strong promoter of bicycling. Perhaps it's even a good indication of what the future could be like.
One idea that I had for a bikeway over thirty years ago would still be a good idea today, I think. In a large and fairly flat park, forest, or recreational area, walking for long distances can be quite boring. Twelve miles, for instance, would be an extremely long walk. However, a bikeway through such an area -- as the sole possible method of transportation -- would be less tiring and more enjoyable than walking while allowing travelers to stop and look at animals and scenery wherever they want (in a car on a roadway through a forest, one finds oneself harassed by other motorists if one slows to look, and pulling off of the road is usually not possible and sometime destructive). Twelve miles by bicycle would be a very easy distance for all but the inexperienced.
After observations on my long, year 2000 trip, I have come to the conclusion that cyclists don't have any reason to apologize for asking for bikeways. I saw thousands of miles of destructive and ugly right-of-ways for four-wheelers and snowmobiles, vehicles which are neither environmentally friendly nor good for the health. It would certainly be better if state funds were applied to bikeways which could furnish good healthy exercise at a more modest environmental cost.
The existence of some excellent bikeways show that future bikeways can be better planned and current bikeways can be upgraded. While I think that fighting for cyclists' rights on the streets and roads is far more important, I also feel that excellent bikeways are another way to promote bicycling and a healthy lifestyle.