Bike paths?

If you mention bike paths to a cyclist, their first instinct is “ugh… avoid at all costs.” They usually run from one crowded parking lot in the middle of nowhere to another, slightly more crowded parking lot that’s *also* in the middle of nowhere, with a lot of dog walkers, rollerbladers, meanderers (is that a word?) and people out to explore nature without having to leave pavement. It conjures up the image of middle-age people pulling comfort bikes off the back of their SUV and heading out for a nice bicycle ride without the hassle of cars or the unsanitary conditions of dirt, grass, leaves, etc. Trek even has a bicycle category named Bike Path, complete with hybrids and comfort bikes, or “Old Lady Bikes” as a friend of mine calls hers.

Here’s the thing, though: I actually *like* bike paths, or at least the ones we have here in Madison. Depending on the amount of other users or my desire to get somewhere, I avoid them as often (or more) than I use them, but I think they’re unfairly maligned.

So, today, I want to offer up a defense of bike paths.

1. They go places

Everywhere I’ve lived (before Madison), bike paths were something that you got in your car and drove to. The nearest one would be 10 or 15 miles away, with winding, narrow, bike-UNfriendly roads to get to it. You could ride from one parking lot to another, occasionally passing through a small town or gas station to buy food/water.

Here in Madison, however, the trails are actually useful. (Click HERE for an interactive map of Madison bike trails) The Capital City (East side) trail really does do a nice job of collecting riders on the East side and dropping them off in downtown, about 2 blocks from Capitol Square, and there’s even a bicycle elevator in Monona Terrace if you don’t want to have to ride/push your bike up that hill. Capital City (West side) and the Wingra Creek bike path collect riders on the Near West side, and the Southwest Commuter Trail is a very efficient artery for getting people to and from the West side to the UW campus.

In addition, the Southwest Commuter Trail now connects up with the Badger State Trail, and comes very close to the Military Ridge Trail as well (you can connect via the Capital City Trail). Basically you can go from the East side of Madison, travel through downtown, and end up in Verona utilizing bike paths the whole way. Or you can go from Belleville (the first part is a dirt/crushed gravel trail, but turns into a paved trail about halfway along the Badger State Trail) to our favorite brewery as well. The Southwest Commuter Trail really is a “commuter” trail, heavily traveled by bicycle commuters traveling into downtown and the university areas. Basically, bike paths in Madison are actually *functional* instead of just recreational strips of asphalt winding through the woods.

(Bicycle/pedestrian bridge in Fitchburg right next to The Great Dane location)

2. Relatively few people

Aside from peak hours on gorgeous days, traffic (pedestrian & bicycle) is actually pretty reasonable. Compared to other bike paths (namely, ones that I used to ride on back in New York and on Long Island), the trails are a breeze, with walkers (the main impediment, uh, completely legitimate other users) concentrated around parking lots and downtown. Sure, you have to be cautious of other riders, understand that small children can (and will) change direction at any time, and know that “on your left” for some reason means “weave suddenly to the left,” but overall it’s not too bad if you’re not late for an engagement or trying to keep your heart rate at exactly 158bpm for triathlon training.

3. Social aspects

When we’re out riding, we try to be considerate of motorists. Even though we’re allowed by law to ride 2 abreast as long as long as “such operation does not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic,” we usually ride single file when we’re out on 2-lane roads outside of town. It keeps motorists happy, and happy motorists mean less confrontation with cyclists. While it allows us to get outside and ride to our hearts’ content, it also doesn’t make for a very sociable ride. On bike paths you can ride next to someone and talk, and make it a truly sociable and enjoyable ride.

So meet up with some friends or a significant other and head out on a nice, leisurely, sociable ride on our awesome bike paths, and maybe hit up one of our fine drinking establishments on your ride!

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3 Responses to Bike paths?

  1. Kristin says:

    I’m still madly jealous of the commuter bike paths I saw in Finland. They went directly from the burbs to the center city and were (reportedly) plowed and lit in the winter.

    The situation in central Virginia is much as you describe in the pre-defense paragraphs—nice rail trails that go from nowhere to nowhere. Lynchburg (of all places) has a great rail trail that skirts the downtown area, though. And there’s one short bike/pedestrian path in Charlottesville that I love because it bridges over a busy multi-lane road AND takes bikes on a shortcut where cars can’t go–there’s no on-road connection between the two neighborhoods unless you go circuitously. When I bike to work, I have to do the rest of the ride on city roads, but this one shortcut makes a big difference.

    • Shannon says:

      I think this is one of the big steps toward supporting cycling as practical rather than as purely recreational. I think that rail trails and the like provide an important safe space for newer or less confident riders to get comfortable on a bike (as well as just a fun place to ride), but adding shortcuts as you describe and then building systems are what really make cycling for transportation feasible.

  2. Pingback: Suggestions for Madison’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Project Meeting? | Stray Cat Bicycles

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