The Trail or the Street?

It started on Twitter although it has been asked many times. Why do cyclists ride on the road or in the street when there’s a perfectly fine bike trail available? This time it was posed by Mark Kaboly, Senior Writer for The Athletic covering the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This could be an honest question wondering what decision-making goes into the process for a cyclist to choose the road. More likely it was a passive-aggressive shot at cyclists for daring to use the road. And it got the desired responses.

I know better than to engage in a “discussion” (argument) on Twitter but wanted to use the forum to answer the question myself. I don’t know the stretch of road in question but there are plenty of road/trail choices in Virginia I have to make every day.

I remember in 2012 when I rode more than 5,000 miles without a crash or fall over except for one. It was on the bike path on Rte 234 when a small dog on a leash crossed my path. I swerved right into the ditch to miss the dog and its owner. The overcrowding, slow traffic, and unpredictability of trail users add to the dangers one encounters.

Glass on the PW Pkwy Trail – May 19, 2022
I stopped and “swept” it clean using a downed tree branch with leaves
Thick sand and dirt at the Occoquan Creek on Va. Rte 234 (May 16, 2022)

Tractor-trailer stopped way beyond the line not only blocking the trail crossing but also the ped-head light itself
Crossing Va. Rte 234 at Minnieville Road (May 18, 2022)

Like today, on the trail on Va. Rte 123, I came to the shopping center. A car was coming out just as his light had turned red and the ped-head (for the trail) and the traffic light were green. I inched out watching him. His head was turned hard left to see if he could beat that traffic while making a right turn on red. I was in the intersection and he almost hit me without looking. These trail crossings are very dangerous.

Spriggs Road cutout to the trail
Here one cannot continue in a straight line and only have
a three-foot transition to aim for an 8′-wide path

And that was my response to Mark and just a couple of the responses. To continue reasons why cyclists may not take the trail:

7. Maintenance on the trails is almost non-existent. They build them once and then forget about them Many develop huge cracks, cracks enough to swallow a skinny tire or cause an inexperienced cyclist to crash. In addition, some trails, especially the Mount Vernon Trail south of Alexandria, are so rooted they are almost impossible to ride but that trail sure looks nice when you’re driving by on the George Washington Parkway.

Rte 234 Trail at Independent Hil. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack (May 18, 2022)

Maybe the most egregious are the sewer pipes that extend above trail level. These can cause a serious accident yet the county merely paints them.

HAZARD! (Rte 234 bike path near the Kelly Leadership Center – May 18, 2022)
I have contacted the PW Co. Supervisor for Coles District about fixing this.

8. Cyclists may want to take the road because it’s faster than a trail. Bikes are transportation and a cyclist may need to get to an appointment on time – just like a driver.

9. A cyclist may be wanting or need the cardio benefits of riding hard and not easy. Worst are the trails on Hilton Head Island which weave around trees and are popular with our little cyclists. But for exercise value, these offer little compared to the street.

10. Strava. Yes, there is worldwide competition to be the fastest in a certain segment between two points. For many segments, the fastest route is on the road.

So there are 10 reasons a cyclist may choose to ride on the trail. Ultimately the decision is up to the cyclist, not a driver.

Near Little Orleans, Maryland on a backcountry road last week there was one car on the road. Behind me. The driver pulled beside me and yelled for me to go ride on the bike trail. What he didn’t know was the Western Maryland Rail Trail ends at the Indigo Tunnel but drivers see an unconnected segment at Little Orleans and assume it is one contiguous trail. It isn’t.

In my mind, I yelled at him to drive on the Interstate. And he told me he has the right to drive where he wants. Exactly. And we have the right to ride where we want (subject to restrictions such as super-highways). But that was in my mind only. We’re just not at the point that drivers understand that cyclists can choose where to ride. Sometimes it is on a trail and sometimes it is on the road even when the trail is available.