Bike Paths: Recreation or Transportation?

Bone posted a link highlighting the kickoff of efforts to extend the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail another 11 miles, reaching from Newville to Carlisle in Cumberland County.  I have yet to ride the CVRT, however I am familiar with the region.

Where I am headed with this are general thoughts on how trails like this should be used, because in this case, I can see some conflicts evolving.  There have always been debates about the best way to integrate bicycle transportation into the infrastructure.  The big debate is whether we should configure existing roads to encourage bikes via bike lanes and markings, etc…; or whether bike specific trails are the ticket. 

Given my riding style and experience, where I live, and my general opinions on spending tax dollars; I pretty much come down on the existing road side.  But I also realize that there are communities that have built a series of bike paths that have resulted in “transportation” networks for bikes in order to relieve stress on existing roads from car traffic and parking.  I don’t have a problem with that.

The bike paths that I have used have been mostly rail trails, and are marketed and used as multi-use (hike, bike, horse) recreational trails.  Usually, they don’t connect population centers.

So here’s the rub:  When completed, this leg of the CVRT will span from Carlisle to Shippensburg.  Both towns have significant populations, businesses, colleges, etc…; and there is probably a fair amount of commuting between the two.  With that said, I could see the 22 mile stretch developing into a transportation route for bikes.  If that were to happen, would it interfere with the recreational aspect of the existing trail?

22 miles isn’t that far on a bicycle if you’re moving along at a good pace, and on level grades like you find on a rail trail.  I’ll guess that you could cruise along between 12 and 22 mph; and here you can see the problem – that’s fine if other bikes are moving along within that range, but not so good if you’ve got families out for a day ride with kids, or hikers strolling along three and four abreast.  The different use will result in conflicts and mis-adventures when fast rolling transportation bikes come up on slow moving recreational users.

I suppose the easy answer is to declare the CVRT a recreational trail and post speed limits.  That would move transport bikes over to Route 11, which isn’t a bad road – fairly level and wide berms.  But Route 11 is already congested with truck traffic, has 50-55mph limits, and has no bike lanes/markings.  Plus, why would you spend literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a rail trail, and then discourage a segment of users that could result in less cars?

If we continue to invest in these trails, I can see this becoming a more widespread issue.  The Hanover Junction spur planned for the Heritage Trail in York County; the extension of the Conewago/Lebanon Valley Trail through Lebanon, etc…  We are slowly and gradually building a transportation network for bicycles.

How will we make it all work?

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5 responses to “Bike Paths: Recreation or Transportation?

  1. I don’t think there would be all that many conflicts. Prime commuting time (at least in the morning) probably doesn’t overlap too much with peak recreation time.

    I tend to think of dedicated bike trails as incubators for full blown vehicular cyclists. By the time you are riding enough to get frustrated with the dog walkers etc, you are probably ready to get off the cinders and onto the asphalt anyway.

  2. Except for the fact that we’re talking about two college towns. I could see students traveling in either direction at all hours, except probably weekends.

    I like your theory about RTs being incubators, but in this case, the trail actually takes you somewhere. I think that in this case, given the choice of cinders and no cars v. asphalt and semi’s, many riders are going to stay on the cinders.

  3. Uh oh…now I did it.
    In theory, I agree with the author and the whole “integrated” approach. But I think that a more practical perspective needs to be addressed in this case, because I see the CVRT becoming a transportation line before the complementary infrastructure is in place to support both transport and recreation. When the trail reaches into Carlisle, there is going to be an easy, fast way to bike to Ship and back. Most recreational trail users are going to have a problem getting their heads around that.
    As for solutions, the Katy Trail example that they have is at least three times as wide as the typical PA Rail Trail. I can’t imagine the Right of Way implications of trying to do that around here.
    But in the end, I have to say that it’s a nice problem to have. This project has my support and I look forward to making the trip.

  4. I think the author has missed the cultural opportunity here. It isn’t about whether trails should be for recreation OR commuting. It’s about the “BICYCLE” becoming a “first-choice” option for ALL transportation needs. Don’t discourage either use – we don’t have enough of either.

    There also isn’t a single answer to the separate path vs integrated (with cars) bike path. Both are actually necessary to have an effective and vibrant cycling community. If you want to see an example of a place that does it well, look at Davis, CA… the first platinum level city for bicycle (as designated by the League of American Bicyclists). http://cityofdavis.org/bicycles/streetfilms.cfm

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