My autumn adventures in side path land have been at once restful and disturbing.
The peace of a car-free path is undeniably restful. I worry about very little as I ride in the secret world of the path. Hardly anyone is on it this time of year. It runs through the woods, unseen from the busy road except at a couple of crossings in Wolfeboro and a couple of long views where it runs on causeways beside Crescent Lake and Lake Wentworth. After Route 109, no other major streets cross the path for the rest of its completed length. If anyone ever raises the funds to finish the route to Wakefield, as planned in the 1990s, virtually all of it will be in the woods. My biggest worries are skunks or the occasional moose.
When I imagine myself restricted only to the segregated path I start to
feel as if I have been locked into a small room and left there. It's not
quite like being buried alive, but it's a feeling of imprisonment
Every time I ride a path, whether it was the Potomac bike path and related Washington, DC-area trails in the late 1970s and early '80s or the B&A Trail from Glen Burnie. MD, to Annapolis in the late 1990s, the C&O towpath, or the Maine Mountain Division Trail, I have the same disoriented, unprepared feeling when I emerge and have to deal with the realities of traffic cycling as it happens in the vast majority of places. Paths are relatively rare. Well-designed paths are much rarer still.
Cyclists and motorists alike get spoiled by paths. Motorists have complained to me when they see me on a road near a path, because I'm not using what they consider to be a superior facility to the dangerous road. As a cyclist, I find myself less warmed up and alert when a lot of my route consists of largely-level, segregated path instead of hilly roads shared by everyone who really has somewhere to go.
A path that makes good connections feels like an advantage. The more I have to bend my route to fit the path into it the more obvious the artificiality of the path becomes. And, as I already noted, cyclists who need or want to ride on the streets near the path may hear more criticism from motorists there. When popular paths are very busy, a fit cyclist is safer riding among the motor vehicles than dodging the many obstacles on paths choked with strollers, dog walkers, darting children, and a variety of things with small wheels, moving erratically.
The mix of users on the trail in Maine last week did give me an idea for an event called strollercross, in which cyclists sprint up to people pushing strollers, singly or in groups, and have to dismount, run past the stroller(s), remount and resume speed. My colleague envisioned stroller derby, in which the jammers are small skaters who try to get past much larger blockers pushing double-wides. That is more of a closed-track event instead of the cross-country format of strollercross.
Traffic-phobic cyclists and non-cycling planners view the only critical user conflict as a problem between motorists and bicyclists. In a broader context, bicyclists are usually lumped with pedestrians. But who gets the stink-eye on multi-use paths? The bicyclists again. We are NEVER on top.
Motorists have been the focus of road planning for decades. Pedestrians are the focus of non-motorized route planning. Sure, paths are often referred to as bike paths, but they usually turn into bike and pedestrian projects, even though they are usually barely wide enough for a moderate to high volume of bicycle use, let alone bicycle use slaloming between people on foot. The main goal is not to provide genuine integrated routes that help bicyclists ride efficiently for transportation and pleasure. It is to get cyclists out of the way and show something that looks like progress to overseers who have no idea what progress really looks like.
It's great to take advantage of some corridors, like old rail lines, that are not being used and that can connect some portions of a transportation network. Other paths follow corridors defined by things like power lines or wherever route designers can stitch together a strip of land left over from development that had a completely different focus over the centuries. This elaborate, frustrating work is all to avoid upgrading the existing rights of way used by vehicle traffic to truly accommodate the non-motorized user on a travel way appropriate to each type of propulsion: sidewalks for the walkers, lanes and intersections configured to reduce motorist-pedaler conflict, secure parking and general acceptance.