Rant: Rail Trails and Bike Paths
Bennett on Portland Bike Trail by Airport
I have never been much of a fan of Rail Trails and Bike Paths. For me they just don’t seem to serve much purpose except in Urban areas and in the West where they need all the help they can get to survive the traffic. I often feel that paths are being put where they are easy to build not where they are useful or desirable.But after attending some Rail Trail Meetings, I feel bicycle riders are sometimes being used by the Rail Trail Movement. Their philosophy is that here is a resource let’s grab it before it is gone. They also sometimes cover the desire to use the land for another purpose.
There are some wonderful exceptions. The bike path through Franconia Notch is a rare and wonderful experience. It may be the most challenging bike path is the US and it is through a very special place. There is some foot traffic but no horses and it winds and climbs with beautiful views. There are many other short bike paths like this along rivers and through parks. These are wonderful rides even if short and deserve our support. But part of the reason they work is that we can safely ride to them on our bikes from town. Bike Paths as destinations need to be special places, be fairly long, and not just straigt railroad tracks.
However, I have become very suspicious about the Rail Trail Movement. I have ridden many of the longest. The Coeur d’Alene and Cape Cod Trails, both are boring. The Cape Cod Trail however, severs a real purpose because of the traffic on the Cape. Like the Washington, DC bike trail system, it makes bicycling practical transportation. The Couer d’Alene Trail is there to cover a hazardous waste site.
However, the concept of dirt trails through the Maine woods being proposed at some of the meeting didn’t make a lot of sense to me until I attended one of the Rail Trail Planning Meetings. The claim is that these trails would be used by bicyclist (not dirt bike riders because they like old roads and tracks), skaters, pedestrians, and powered wheelchairs.
Lets, take a look at that thought. I live on the border of Maine and New Hampshire and weather is a big factor in bicycling here. These trails will be covered by ice and snow from November through March or April. In the area they are planning this is not loose snow. It is snow that has melted and refrozen, or ice. Even with studs this is hard to ride at best and not worth the effort most of the time. For the rest of the year, on the average we get rain one day out of three except in July. So there paths will be muddy holes. Why when we have so many low traffic scenic roads in this area would anyone want to ride a straight dirt path with no views through the woods. If I wanted to do that, we have a lot of dirt roads to ride. In fact that is what I do during the winter on my mountain bike.
But there was one group at the Bike Trail meeting that did not have my objections, horse owners. Everyone there seemed to own a horse or have a daughter who rides. They see a lot of value in these trails and don’t think they can get public support for horse trails.
I am a big supporter of bike routes, routes where bikes can travel safe from traffic. These make practical sense. They let people substitute a bike for a car in their normal life. But dirt trails through the Maine Wodds don’t make much sense to me, we already have plenty oif them. Much can be accomplished with marked bike lanes along low traffic volume roads and bike paths where that doesn’t work. This is especially needed in the West where they often have no road but the super highway and in urban areas where traffic is a problem. Portland, Washington, DC and Montreal are great examples of how bike trails and paths can enrich the community.
Let’s not let the drive to build pratical bike paths get diverted building dirt trails only useful for horse owners or have trails that have no pratical value but are easy to build. This just diverts useful energy and weakens our case in the future.
Useful Bicycle Routes and Trails enrich a community and deserve our support. But like all things Bike Trails need to be done with an eye on what works and what is useful.
Rails with Trails: Lessons Learned 2002 Report – US department of Transportation
Getting on Track 2001 Massachusetts Senate Report
Rail Trail Maintenance and Operation July 2005 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Northeast Regional Office Tim Poole -lots of info on what works