Trail to Nowhere

The most enjoyable and safest way for bikes to travel is separated from auto traffic. I don’t want to share the road with one ton vehicles going three times my speed – I have to. A trail or separated path is always my first choice.

Trail - Melissa

Trail - Melissa

Unfortunately, such infrastructure is absent most places. The paths that exist are often trails to nowhere, with a focus on recreation. Other problems include lack of lighting at night and lack of snow plowing in the winter.

Leaves

Leaves - Melissa

This issue is fresh in my mind after spending another day in the suburbs with Melissa. We cycled to our usual destination, the wine store, taking a trail most of the way. The trail was beautiful and allowed for much singing and bike dancing. Eventually, our destination forced us to exit the trail. The picture below shows the road we had to travel. Nothing about the road considers cyclists or pedestrians. We cycled on the small and crumbling sidewalk/dirt shoulder the remainder of the way. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t encounter any pedestrians or other cyclists. Plenty of speeding cars, though.

Overpass

Overpass - Melissa

Only with more infrastructure will a significant number of people cycle. Separated paths that are well-maintained and utilitarian are especially important in the suburbs, where high-speed nightmare streets like the one pictured dominate. Does your city or town have trails? If so, do you use them beyond recreation? What do they get right and what do they lack?

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43 thoughts on “Trail to Nowhere

  1. Blemily says:

    I am a daily commuter in NYC and my only separated bike path my whole route is the Williamsburg Bridge(although I take a less traveled route through Brooklyn). My company sent me to Dallas, TX to work for 2 months, and since I don’t have a driver’s license, I brought my bike. I rode on the streets most days, but when it was really nice out, I chose to take the Katy Trail, which connects Downtown with some residential nabes (I was living in Lower Greenville at the time, if you’re familiar at all). It was gorgeous, and there were a few people out there walking dogs, some riding bikes, but I never once recognized anyone else as a commuter (granted it was Nov-Dec, and a drop in temperatures in Texas below 60 degrees is reasonable cause for snow tires)

    I read that out of the estimated 1200 daily users of this bike/ped thoroughfare only 6 are recognizable commuters. I found it incredibly hard to believe, because this is one of the best connections in the city. I carpooled with a roommate one day, and we sat in traffic for 1/2 hour for the 3.5 mile trip – I would have been there in under 15 using the Katy Trail!

  2. Bryan says:

    Here in Milwuakee, I’m lucky enough to be able to use a bike trail for a portion of my commute. It’s nice at the end of a day at work to get on a trail and not have to worry about cars. I wish it went all the way to my house, though.

  3. Jerry Smith says:

    I live about two miles from the northern end of the lake front path in Chicago and work downtown. Most of my 10-12 mile commute is on the path. It is totally awesome. Most cars weigh about 3500 lbs or almost two tons.

  4. We do have some nice trails in the Grand Rapids area. However, like yours, they don’t go anywhere useful most of the time. They don’t run near my job or into the downtown area. So, I use them for recreation to stay away from motorized traffic, but for any commuting they are pretty much useless to me. It’s really too bad.

  5. No trails in Miami. There’s some talk about opening a couple, but that’s all it’s been so far, talk. In Miami Beach, some areas of the waterfront have a paved promenade that is usable by bikes, but then it ends abruptly and you’re forced back to the street. Mind you, there is a raised wooden promenade that extends the paved one for about two more miles, but it’s off-limits to bikes, even if it’s mostly unused by peds. Nope, the street or sidewalk for us in the Magic City.

  6. dukiebiddle says:

    I love rail trails like the one pictured above. Out of curiosity, does that one lead into downtown Chicago, or does it go from nowhere to nowhere? Rail trails can, under the right circumstances, be affordably converted into mixed use/bicycle commuter highways into the city. For better or for worse, the rail trails into my city have light rail trains built in the same footprint in the inlying suburbs, and then convert to bike trails leading deep into the exurbs. Unfortunately, that means no bike trails into the city itself, but they do allow bicycles onto the trains during all hours as a compromise. I just wish they could find a way to allow a 10 foot wide bicycle path parallel to the light rail tracks.

    • dottie says:

      The trail pictured is in a suburb that’s an hour away from Chicago by commuter train. The “suburbs” around Chicago extend very far, since the city’s so dense. 50 years ago it would have been considered the countryside. To answer your question: the trail goes from nowhere to nowhere. As far as I know, the trail does not even lead to the train station, and bikes are not allowed on trains during rush hour.

      • Catherine says:

        Ah, I was about to say that that looks like the exurbs to me and an hour by commuter train would indicate that I got it right. That’s the trouble with talking city/urban/suburban/rural….everyone has a different take on it. I suspect the type of city one is used to influences this. Newer, more sprawling cities like LA, Houston, Phoenix etc are so low density that most of the “city” resemble the “suburbs” of older, denser cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia etc). The “suburbs” of the sprawling cities look like the “exurbs” of the dense cities and I don’t think the sprawling cities have “exurbs”.

        An hour by commuter train (and the big highway and big empty semi-rural type land) is exurban to me :)

    • Melissa Hope S says:

      Actually, I think that it can Eventually lead to Chicago. I had a coworker that rode from my work to her place in Chicago. And I think most of it was on this trail. But I think it took many hours.

  7. As you probably know, this can be such a contentious topic – Mainly, because the extreme pro-VC activists believe that encouraging the government to make segregated cycling facilities will result in cyclists being forced to use only those facilities and not being allowed on the roads.

    Personally, I prefer segregated paths not only because of the safety factor, but also because I hate breathing exhaust fumes from cars, especially on large roads with lots of traffic. I don’t see this latter issue often discussed, but it is very unhealthy, to put it mildly, to expose yourself to exhaust fumes on a daily basis as a bicycle commuter.

    Having expressed my preference for paths, I will add that regardless of whether segregated facilities exist, my view is that vehicular cycling must remain legally permissible. If I am offered segregated cycling facilities in exchange for my right to cycle on the roads, I will decline. If I am offered segregated cycling facilities in addition to being able to cycle on the roads, I will happily accept and will probably use them often.

    • dottie says:

      Yeah, extreme pro-vehicular cycling activism is not my cup of tea. If we want cycling to be accessible to the masses, we need to get serious about infrastructure. I don’t believe our right to the roads will be taken away.

      • Mamavee says:

        I agree. I understand and respect the VC approach but honestly, I am happier and more and ease when I am off the road. I don’t know that I will ever be a real city cyclist b/c the busy streets wig me out too much. I like my roads suburban and fairly quiet. I agree that I would not want to be forced off the road. But I enjoy having both routes used in conjunction.

        Although for me personally- if the seg roads were WELL DONE and took me everywhere I needed to go ( seriously everywhere) I would be happy to never set pedal into a car road again. But that would be just me. I think those true VC people should be able to sue the roads as well.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      My personal preference is segregated paths in the suburbs, and vc in the gridid part of the city, with some sort of ability to connect the two systems. I’d be fine with segregated paths inside the city *if* there is room for them, but there rarely is. But, as I’ve said here before, downtown bike lanes more often than not s-u-c-k.

    • Trisha says:

      I prefer segregated paths (as long as they are not crawling with peds) but I will probably be dead before anything that allows me to stay off roads with cars and still get anywhere on my side of town happens in Nashville (we do have short greenways in East Nashville and Sylvan Park — that one actually leads to a Publix!). I will, however, continue to tilt at windmills and give suggestions to the MPO.

  8. I forgot to comment about the lighting issue. The two major trails in the Boston area – the Charles River Trail and the Minuteman Bikeway – have zero lighting, making them essentially daylight-only trails. Now that it gets dark at 6:30pm, the possibility of commuting through those paths is seriously undermined.

    Last night we were on the Minuteman trail, and ended up cycling the last 5-6 miles of it in the dark. It was pitch black, and even with the use of my lights I found cycling through it stressful, because it is difficult to see turns and obstacles on the road. On top of that, there were cyclists and pedestrians hurrying home with no lights on, making our ride like some sort of nightmarish obstacle course video game.

    If the city invests in paths, they need to install some lights while they are at it, in order for those paths to actually be useful!

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Never mind that these sort of trails often have a dusk to dawn curfew.

    • dottie says:

      Absolutely! The end of the ride yesterday was in the dark, and no lights. Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is mostly well-lit and open to commuters at any time (although the parks are officially dusk-dawn). Very important, as you mention, because all evening winter commutes are in the dark.

    • Melissa Hope S says:

      Lights would be nice on the trail but I think there’s a few decent reasons why there aren’t. Like Dukiebiddle said, the curfew is dusk to dawn (damn teenagers) and most of the trail is practically in people’s backyards so that would suck for them.

  9. Adam says:

    I live in Cheltenham township, just north of Philadelphia, and while there are pretty decent bike lanes and such IN the city proper, my neighborhood resembles Tolkien’s Shire: lovely to bike in, green, and small, and yet bounded on all sides by 35-40mph highway dangerousness. I wouldn’t mind a safer/less stressful way to ride to school at all, thanks to more/better cycling accommodations.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Just be careful of all those damned Hobbits. It’s easy to ride over those big hairy feet of theirs.

  10. Astrid Honeybee says:

    hello, I used to go on the canal path to work, but then I got a folding bike, and now I go on the road because the small wheels make the canal path bumpy. But it isn’t too bad, there are cycle paths near the busy roads that I hop on to. My favourite time is 7.00 Sunday mornings to go to work, no cars then!!!

    • dukiebiddle says:

      “My favourite time is 7.00 Sunday mornings, , no cars then!!!”

      My favorite time and place to ride is Saturday mornings through my city’s orthodox jewish community, which goes on for miles and some pretty awesome hills, but most importantly, NO CARS. My shabbat rides have become my favorite part of the week.

      • What city is this? I live in a fairly Orthodox area and cars are still an issue.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Baltimore, in the northwest quadrant. There’s a really nice 5 mile steady climb. The streets become pedestrian walkways at the top, so I have to be careful and try to give people a good 10 feet of clearance when I pass them, as that’s a road bike day for me and I’m usually going pretty fact

          • Hmm, interesting. We’ve been sorta/kinda thinking about Baltimore as a maybe-who-knows city to move precisely because of the large Orthodox population. Thanks.

            And yes, thanks for giving my peeps up there wide berth. :-)

            • dukiebiddle says:

              And the orthodox community is growing. That whole area is WAY pretty, too. It isn’t at all like the city as a whole is portrayed in the media. Plus, I’ve noticed in your comments that you’re in nursing school. Lord knows those jobs are plentiful around here. I highly recommend you continue to keep considering it, although it’s no Miami.

            • Going into Nursing school, yes. And hey, not Miami is a good point in this case.

  11. Winston says:

    Here in Nashville I live on the East Side and have relatively easy access to the Shelby Bottoms Greenway. I have just commuted down Woodland to downtown where I work, but I’ve considered taking the Greenway. It’s longer, but level the whole way and devoid of cars and other such obstructions.

    Of course with the weather lately, I’ve not been motivated to ride at all. My six block walk yesterday to the downtown library at lunch resulted in me sitting in wet pants for the entire afternoon. Not exactly ideal. Maybe if the sun would come out soon, I’ll ride in some more and try the trails.

  12. In Milwaukee we basically have one trail that goes anywhere. It only goes North and South. It is located on the far eastern side of the city. It covers about 7 of the 20 miles the city extends, which doesn’t include the suburbs.

    That said, most drivers around Milwaukee are pretty courteous and we have a lot of bike lanes.

  13. Sungsu says:

    Here in Vancouver, Canada, a new 24km commuter bikeway officially opened this year. Most of the route is separated or on traffic-calmed streets. Some parts of the route are still in bike lanes, but as funds allow most of them will be upgraded to full separation. Most of the route is lit at night.

    http://buzzer.translink.ca/index.php/2009/06/a-tour-of-the-central-valley-greenway-a-major-new-bike-and-walking-path-through-three-municipalities/

    The route in five minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BXThZRjLC8

  14. Lee says:

    Some great news for the Chicago area today — Cook County plans to complete its streets! http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=326892&src=1

    This is a good step toward addressing some of the issues of the connections around trails. And hopefully if the pedestrian and bike environment were more friendly at the trail connections, then more businesses and development would grow to target people who don’t drive. And eventually there will be a “there” at the end of the trail.

  15. Minneapolis is blessed with a large trail system, thanks to it’s founders, smartly buying up most of the lake and riverfront property. Then Horace Cleveland designed and implemented what came to be known as the Grand Rounds. It was an interconnected series of parkways and parks that ringed the city. This system gave Mpls. a leg up on other urban areas, when the demand for recreational cycling started to grow in the 70’s. The system was there and the bike trails were often just laid next to the existing sidewalk. It’s a great system, but isn’t always useful for commuting purposes.

    Now, we have to start demanding more space on roadways. That’s tougher politically, but my safety and many others, depend on it.

    • sigrid says:

      The trails in Minneapolis are awesome, and plowed pretty promptly in the winter (often before the roads). I use them and appreciate them frequently. But I also use and appreciate the road a lot too. I agree, there needs to be a place for cyclists on paths AND roads. And people need to understand that just because there is a path doesn’t mean a cyclist needs to be on it. “Get on the sidewalk” and all that… Rules of the road people… :) Depending on what I am doing I ride on paths and roads, it’s not an all or none kind of deal. Power to the wheels!

    • Ghost Rider says:

      I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about the Midtown Greenway…hype or truth?

      I love segregated trails, but in the South, this too often means a “recreation only” setup — trails from nowhere to nowhere, accessible by car at trailheads (the trailheads are mostly located off high-speed multilane roads). If folks could figure out how to link greenways and trails into a more useable network, I’d kiss the ground. Until then, I’ll be mixing it up with the motor vehicles out on our roadways.

      • I’m guessing you’re talking about the robbery spree, last November. My theory on why it happened then is, it was a warmer than normal November, but it also gets dark very early. That make for easier robberies. As soon as the snow fell the robberies stopped. Crooks are wimps, ya know.

        What bothered me was all the hype around it. It was easy for the media to sell, “Greenway, bikes, robbery!”. The city didn’t help by putting up signs that basically said “Don’t go here at night!”. Suddenly, everybody had an easy mantra “Greenway, Danger!”. A better response by the city would have been to increase patrols and address safety concerns(more lighting). Instead, I think the response only increased the danger, by discouraging people from riding on the Greenway, because crooks don’t like crowds.

        Thanks for reminding me. I’ll be stopping over at the Greenway Coalition to see what’s happening. And make sure to get some night riding in on the Greenway, too.

  16. Karen says:

    I try an stick to the Flagstaff Urban Trail and bike lanes as much as possible. I like pedaling on downtown streets, which are narrow and force most drivers to slow down and pay attention to what is going on around them. Riding on wider suburban road, usually bordered by unfortunate strip malls is just a depressing experience. One can’t really enjoy the scenery, because there is little to enjoy since the roads are typically bordered by huge, boring parking lots. And of course, the already monsterously large trucks speed. I don’t like feeling pressured to pedal fast. I prefer a slow to moderate pace in order to avoid perspiration and ruining the hair. Happily, the citizens who usually participate in public input seem to prioritize bike and pedestrian needs so I have hope for positive changes.

  17. miss sarah says:

    In our city, Don is pushing like hell for the bike plan. Even though it’s $10 million over 10 years, a lot of citizens here are making a huge fuss over it because they feel as though tax payer money shouldn’t be “wasted.”

    Funny, because did they forgot about the $25 BILLION we spent on ONE interchange? It makes me barf in my mouth a little. Actually, no. I’ll change that to a lot of barf!

    Also, I pay taxes too.

  18. 2whls3spds says:

    Little to nothing in my local area, in fact according to the DOT our division is not planning on spending one thin dime on cycling or pedestrian infrastructure this year or next.

    I have ONE Rails to Trails in my county that goes from the middle of one small town to the outskirts of another. It is a whopping 5 miles and meanders through the rural countryside. It is less than 3 mile by road from town center to town center…

    The larger town nearest my has no cycle infrastructure nor the one to the south of that…welcome to the deep, dark south.

    Aaron

  19. ben says:

    It is pretty pathetic we need to rely on history for accidental bicycle infastructure.

  20. sara says:

    One trail near here, nowhere near my bike commute. Irony, however— the only real bike wipe-out I’ve had (knock on wood) since I started really bike commuting: futzing along the bike trail, looking behind me at a cool water station someone set up for dogs, & clipping my husband’s back wheel while we were out on a leisurely kids-free ride. Clearly, I pay much better attention when I am riding the city streets with cars and with kids in/on my bike.

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