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Meeting the "Bike Path" Challenge

Five Steps for Making the Multi-Use Trail Movement

Work for Road Cyclists


By Noel Weyrich



 In the next three or four years, nearly $1 billion in federal

transportation dollars will be spent throughout the U.S. on the

construction of "multi-use trails," the familiar 10- to 12-foot wide

paved or gravel facilities that are often mislabeled "bike paths."


 Developed largely by recreational planners, many of these projects

have secured funding with ample support from bicyclists. Now, those of

us long accustomed to road riding must deal with the enormous number

of threats and opportunities that the coming trail-building binge will



 On the positive side, more trails will almost certainly turn some

non-cyclists into cyclists, giving us a larger constituency for all

cycling issues-improved bike parking, better public education and

promotion, etc. And, since hell hath no fury like a new convert to a

holy cause, many of these born-again bicyclists may well become fresh

troops for growing state and local bicycle advocacy groups.


 On the downside, multi-use trails, especially when they're

erroneously called bike paths, can poison the minds of planners,

politicians, and other citizens in strange and dangerous ways.

Planners, for instance, have an increasing tendency to conflate the

terms "bicycling" and "trails." As a result, many counties have put

together their "comprehensive bike plans" by merely compiling lists of

planned trail rights-of-way, ignoring potential on-road accommodations

entirely. City councils, having provided a place for bicyclists on a

trail, now tend to feel less guilty about banning cyclists from nearby

"dangerous" roads. And there is bountiful anecdotal evidence that road

cyclists suffer the worst abuse and harassment from motorists while on

roads adjacent to sidepaths. Motorists want cyclists out of the

way-off the road and on the path, even if the path is jammed with

strollers, joggers, and in-line skaters.


 These are the pitfalls of the multi-use trail trend that is now upon

us. Some hardcore road cyclists may find it difficult to swallow, but

these thousands of miles of new facilities will inevitably have a

tremendous impact on conditions for bicycling for many years. It's up

to us to make that impact a positive one.


 In other words, even if you believe that trails are absolute lemons,

now is the time to start working to turn them into lemonade.


 How to begin? Here's a five-step program for responding locally to

the challenge of multi-use trail construction:


 1. Watch your language. Never use the word "bike path," and never let

anyone use it in your presence! With the rarest of exceptions, none of

the new generation of trails will be designed for the exclusive use of

cyclists. Almost all of them will be multi-use trails, and, according

to The AASHTO Guide for the Development Bicycle Facilities (the

engineering profession's "bible" of bikeway design), "In general,

multi-use paths are undesirable: bicycles and pedestrians do not mix

well." The guide, last revised in 1991,  doesn't even mention in-line



 2. Get the story straight. Before opening your mouth on the subject,

it's wise to get clear about the single inherent limitation of

multi-use trails: they simply can't accommodate all cyclists at all

times, and therefore they are at best a supplement-never a

substitute-to on-road bicycle access. Most trails aren't lit in the

evening, don't drain well in the rain, and aren't plowed when it

snows. Multi-use trails can be impossibly crowded during peak usage

hours and can provide a security risk at off-peak times. The paved

ones are increasingly dominated by in-line skaters, and the unpaved

aren't suitable for touring and racing tires.


 Research has shown that bicycle crash rates are higher on trails than

on roads. Few decisionmakers, however, are willing to believe that

trails are "more dangerous" than roads, because cyclists die

overwhelmingly from collisions with cars, and there are no cars on

trails. There is, however, a very effective way to stand this argument

on its head, a tactic I've used successfully in my hometown of

Philadelphia. To wit: "If  high-speed cyclists are forced to use the

trail, sooner or later, one of them is going to collide with a baby

carriage, a toddler on a trike, or someone's grandmother. We need to

improve cycling conditions on the adjacent roads to lure the serious

cyclists away from the trail. How can we work together on that?"


 3. Protect your rights to the road near trail projects. If a trail is

being planned or under construction near where you ride, you want to

make sure it won't degrade your road-riding experience once its

completed. One tactic is to meet with the group or agency sponsoring

the trail and go over some of the above arguments. Explain how trails

can create truly dangerous levels of motorist antagonism toward

cyclists riding on nearby roads. Request that "Share the Road with

Bicycles" signage goes up on parallel roads as a part of the trail

project. If sidepath construction involves also changing a roadway's

width, ask for their help in pushing for wide outside right lanes or

paved shoulders.


 4. Use trails and trail plans to advance the on-road cause. The very

existence of multi-use trails and long-range trail plans can provide

an effective argument that bicycle-friendly road improvements should

be made on many of the surrounding roads. Since few trailheads have

adequate parking for all trail users on a summer Sunday, trail

planners are likely to lend support for on-road bicycle accommodations

to ease trail access. And petitioning at a trailhead for this kind of

improved on-road access is a much more effective way to organize

cyclists than the traditional tactic of leaving literature at bike



 5. Push on-road projects before off-road projects in bike planning.

Federal transportation law mandates a planning process for bike-ped

facilities in every metropolitan region in the U.S. Thanks to the

superior resources of recreation and parks planners, many areas are

evolving "bike plans" that focus first on trail rights-of-way, and

then add tenuous on-road connections from trail to trail. In fact, an

ideal bicycle transportation plan is designed in the precisely

opposite way. First, an integrated network of on-road bike lanes

and/or bike routes is laid out, and then connections to trail

rights-of-way are appended. Cyclists in every metropolitan area need

to inform planners that a true bicycletransportation plan must be

organized around the existing on-road transportation infrastructure,

rather than a set of off-road recreation facilities.


 Politicians and planners got where they are by being reasonable and

listening to constituents, and we are fortunate to live in a society

with a basic level of respect for personal freedom of choice. For

these reasons, trail construction should not spell doom for road

riding in any region, but instead should provide new opportunities for

non-cyclists to join our ranks and evolve into the next generation of

road cyclists.


 But road riders who fear the effects of trail construction must get

involved in the planning process and register these concerns. Our

perspective is not a self-evident one, and nobody will stand up for us

if we are not there to stand up for ourselves.



The League of American Bicyclists is a 501c-3 non-profit association

working to create a bcycle friendly America through national advocacy

and education, and grassroots organizing.  To support their efforts,

join by sending $30 to L.A.B., 190 W. Ostend St., Suite 120,

Baltimore, MD 21230-3755, or call 1-800-288-BIKE.

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