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We happened across Fred Oswald's views courtesy of an article entitled, "Middleburg Heights cyclist who bikes to work sees danger in bike lanes." The piece suggested that Oswald detests bike lanes and paths.

The idea of a cycling advocate being opposed to bike lanes and trails piqued our curiousity, so we contacted Fred to see if he'd be interested in fielding some questions.

Pete Medek provided the questions and comments for Ohio Bikeways.

Ohio Bikeways: Would you be interested in a point/counterpoint discussion on why bike trails/lanes are bad? I think it would serve as interesting reading for Ohio trail users.

Oswald: Please note that the PD [Plain Dealer] reporter emphasized the more controversial aspects while ignoring some conciliatory things. He also used some journalistic liberty to enhance or even make up "quotations". That said, there are appalling things done in the name of "bicycle friendliness".

I have limited time for a discussion unless messages are concise. I suspect that controversy will work against brevity. But OK, I'll try.

OB: A recent Plain Dealer article suggested that you detest bike lanes and bike paths. Is that a fair statement?

Oswald: First, a bit of background -- I started riding to work in the mid-80's and started keeping track in 1991. My prime motivation was to get needed exercise and to reduce my personal environmental impact. Since then I count almost 3000 trips to work and over 70,000 miles. My best year (2006) had 224 trips to work via bike and only 9 trips via car.

At first I avoided busy streets, sometimes rode on sidewalks and would have favored segregated facilities. With experience, I learned that none of these were good ideas. If you want to read more, my cycling "autobiography" is [here].

I did not learn about John Forester or his works until I joined the Chainguard cycling list (approx. 1996). I would likely have rejected Forester if I had encountered him in my early (cycling) days. By the time I started reading his work, I had enough experience to relate to it. He explained many of the things I had discovered through trial and error.

I heartily agree with Forester's slogan "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles". In most cases, separate facilities treat cyclists as _not_ drivers and therefore they are harmful.

I share the overall goals of many "bicycle advocates". I really would like to substitute cycling for motoring. But I will not hurt cyclists to do so. I do not like being a pawn or treating others as pawns.

To return to your question, bike lanes and paths beside the road add hazards. They also "teach" bad practices, contribute to fear and serve no useful purpose. So I do detest these things.

However, I do not object to properly designed, built and maintained "facilities" in the places where being a driver is not appropriate or necessary. These include single track mountain biking or very low speed recreational riding or where the segregation is complete (perhaps along a coastline with no crossing traffic). The typical bike lane or sidepath provides only partial separation. The places where traffic streams cross (intersections & driveways) become more dangerous.

I should probably say a bit more about Forester. I find his analysis of cycling situations to be brilliant. However, his political skills are quite lacking. For example, his description of the "cyclists inferiority phobia" is spot on. However telling people this without a lot of explanation makes them want to put their fingers in their ears.

OB: I believe that your personal experience with cycling is familiar to most in the respect that you started riding in a manner that was comfortable and felt safe to you. That, of course, is what bike trails enable new riders and young children to do. They can cut their teeth on the basics of safe trail travel practices and etiquette (preferably with proper supervision) and develop basic bike skills before riding on roads. Of course many will not progress to become an experienced roadie, such as yourself, but they can continue to enjoy the pleasures of bike paths and pass the benefits of their trail riding experience on to other newbies on the trail.

Oswald: If by "develop basic bike skills", you mean things like steering and balance, then parking lots and playgrounds and quiet streets are more suitable. If children try to learn on paths they will not learn traffic skills.

I have no objection to recreational paths **provided** they are properly designed, built and maintained. In addition, paths that provide connectivity can actually be useful for transportation. (See Suburban sprawl as it affects bicyclists.)

OB: I agree, empty parking lots are one of the best places to learn bike riding skills. Trails are not wide enough to practice turns and even quiet streets can provide the occasional unpleasant surprise for beginners that are primarily focusing on keeping upright and balanced.

The skills required to successfully negotiate roadways and bike trails are similar in some ways and very different in others. Learning proper trail riding does not preclude learning road skills.

OB: But let's get back to the original question before moving on. I understand you do not object to properly designed trails, but are Ohio bike trails -- generally speaking -- of proper design? Or are they simply bad news?

Oswald: My cycling is almost entirely within the Cleveland area and almost entirely for transportation --- going to work, errands, etc. I rarely go on recreational rides in the country and almost never use trails or paths.

Most of the urban paths I've seen are sidepaths. These are essentially asphalt sidewalks and they pose all the dangers of riding on sidewalks. The "All-Purpose Trail" through the Cleveland park system has a few sections that are pleasant. But it also has lots of unnecessary hazards.

Note the photo with a "STOP WALK BIKE" sign [on this page]. (About 3/4 of the way down the page.) This is from the Rocky River Reservation. I sometimes ride on the road in the background. I refuse to ride on this path because it is dangerous at any reasonable commuting speed because of several intersections and because it winds through the trees, forming many blind curves.

OB: The all-purpose trail you mention, or Emerald Necklace Trail as it's also known, is not designed to serve as a commuting corridor. The parkway road is better suited and designed for that type of riding, as you've learned. The trail is narrow (by today's trail specs) and has meandering sections designed to snake through and around the topography to create interest during leisurely rides.

The blind curves that you mention are not hazardous at low speed, provided trail users are following proper trail rules. I might suggest the same holds true on the road in your car. Just as you slow to take a sharp, blind corner, all will go well unless perhaps someone is driving in your lane from the opposite direction. That same rule applies on the trail as well.

The Emerald Necklace is not a typical Ohio bikeway. Ohio rail-trails, for example, are viable transportation corridors that follow a more direct route from town to town. They don't tend to have blind corners, narrow surfaces or some of the other shortcomings one may find on say a park loop trail or a path that was designed for a different purpose or with different specifications.

The 'Stop Walk Bike' sign is interesting. I've encountered these in areas designed to slow down the trail riders to make them more aware of multiple driveways or other unusual configurations, while giving drivers more time to see them. I question how necessary they are. Any rider crossing a road, driveway, parking lot or sidewalk should be on the lookout for all crossing traffic and be prepared to stop. Just as a motorist should do the same when backing out of his/her driveway and crossing a sidewalk to enter the street.

I believe what saves most from any conflict in these areas is that each is looking out for the other. So if you don't see me about to cross your drive on the sidewalk or trail as you back out, I'll be watching you and be prepared to stop to avoid any collision.

Oswald: I've heard of paths along rivers and old RR rights of way. If these are free of at-grade road crossings (or with only occasional crossings that are carefully handled), then they could be good for transportation and recreation.

A couple years ago, when I was vacationing in Colorado, I noticed a path between Buena Vista and Leadville, along US 24. Since this was in a rural area, it looked very useful. I did not notice what happens when this path enters town, where it would be less useful and where the hazards from crossings would increase. I did notice paths leading into Breckenridge and Dillon that had some bad crossings.

Oswald: I'm glad you are willing to discuss safety issues. It seems a majority of the "bicycle advocates" not only don't want to hear these things, they seek to prevent others from hearing about them. One of my friends calls this tendency to hide problems the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not criticize a facility advocate's work product. This means that people who make safety-critical decisions do not have their work vigorously examined, and its weaknesses corrected.

OB: I read much of the info (links) you've provided thus far regarding your cycling experience and advocacy work related to proper [road riding]. There's no question that your instructional materials are both educational for riders and public officials alike and I sincerely commend you on your efforts. Proper education is certainly needed for cyclists, drivers and public officials. However, your position on 'separate facilities' or bike trails at times seems uniformed and now I understand why: you almost never use trails or paths.

Oswald: My primary objection to "separate facilities" are for those next to roadways. To paraphrase Alexander Pope, a little separation is a dangerous thing". A completely (or nearly completely) separate path is a different animal. While I have little personal interest in these, so long as they do not introduce hazards, I have no objections.

OB: Designing trails through urban areas is much more complex and challenging than planning a simple rural rail-trail. However, urban bikeways are not hazardous simply because they parallel roads or have street crossings (addressed later in this discussion). These blanket statements are revealing. I'll take a stab at interpreting them:

  • You have little use or interest in bike trails. You've stated that already, so that's a no-brainer.
  • You've seen questionable trail designs or configurations that you condemn that reinforce the previous point.
  • Therefore you've become less convinced of the usefulness of trails and as a result of your disinterest, less informed and educated about them.

It's ok that you don't like trails -- I've no problem with that. The problem arises when others view you as a bicycling or advocacy "expert." Then more weight is given to your words, which in turn brings responsibility as well. In regard to your teachings on proper cycling on roadways, from what I've seen you are indeed an expert. Unfortunately that expertise does not automatically transfer to bike trails. When you make uniformed, blanket statements about trails you are in fact spouting misinformation, the very thing you rail against when it comes to proper education for road cycling.

Oswald: One of my friends complained about behavior on a different bikeway along the Cleveland lakefront. My response is the "rules of the road" for a path are: (1) There are no rules and (2) see rule #1. Actually, most people on a path think they are escaping the need to follow rules. That's why paths are so often chaotic unless the traffic is so light that encounters are rare.

OB: "...paths are so often chaotic..." "There are no rules." These statements may feed your established beliefs, but they are far from the truth.

Let's start with a little Bikeways 101:

Barring safety and property line issues, trails are not cordoned off. So a trail that runs alongside a beach, like a portion of the Cleveland Lakefront Trail, may have beach users all over it. Kids running around, building sand castles on the trail (perhaps), you name it. A trail through the outskirts of a small town may sport a homemade ramp built by local aspiring daredevils.

You do not need a license or even a vehicle to be allowed on trails. They are not only multi-use, but can be nearly all-inclusive at times. Unless the local overseers wish to establish a more strict transportation-type corridor or other usage, the trail will naturally be absorbed by each micro-environment it passes through.

The bottom line: If the locals don't see the path as a transportation corridor, they won't treat it as such. By locals, I mean residents and the overseers. Add the fact that a percentage of users will be new and still learning proper trail travel, while others may wander onto the trail without a clue, and you might strongly suspect to find chaos everywhere, but you'd be wrong.

A more intriguing dynamic occurs that sorts things out. In areas where transportation is the order of the day, traffic along a bikeway (runners, bladers, bikes) sets the tone, lollygaggers beware. These bodies in motion set an example that has others falling in line. Even without supervision one can quickly pickup the rules of travel by observing others and simply joining in.

Innocents using ramps will quickly be disappointed if their intended play area is overtaken by traffic. Or a big brother or trail sentinel (volunteer) may offer some advice for a better ramp location, so the next time you ride through you may see it at the end of a nearby cul-de-sac, if at all.

Families love trails and that means bringing out the little ones for a walk or ride. Mom and dad don't want to put junior on a leash, so they have to teach him the rules of the trail to keep him safe. You see the teaching process firsthand as you pass the parents and they shout out to little Billy up the trail, "Stay right, Billy there's someone coming." You slow further to see how Billy's doing. He may hold a straight line, inch closer to the right or come to a stop, just as he may have been told to do when in doubt. You send a little praise his way for staying in the right lane, then return to normal speed once you've passed everyone.

The wonderful thing is that this scene plays out on trails all across the state, not just the busy ones. The trail culture is passed between family members, friends, new riding buddies, etc., all without any traffic control beyond a few simple 'trail rules' signs.

Can you encounter pockets of "chaos" at times. Sure. But when you look at the big picture, Fred, it's uncommon.

Oswald: "Separating" cyclists in an urban area is usually an illusion. Cyclists are still in the same corridors as motor traffic. The only choice you have is whether to make their interactions with motor vehicles safer or more dangerous. The most important of those interactions (and most car/bike collisions) occur at intersections (and driveways).

OB: Your aversion for road crossings along bike trails is very telling. A crossing is not a hazard simply because it exists. When properly marked (I've yet to see one that wasn't) with trail stop signs, an at-grade road crossing where there is low-traffic and good sight lines is a non-issue. Quiet rural lanes that cross trails is one example. All [trail] users that have walked their neighborhoods and crossed streets and intersections know how to properly look both ways before proceeding safely.

Dangerous crossroads, such as highways or busy multi-lane streets, are dealt with differently. Often a bike tunnel or overpass is constructed to avoid the hazard. I'll be the first to admit that [often]times this is done after trail construction, because initial funding was not sufficient to construct both at the same time.

Trail signals -- where trail users can activate a traffic light that requires all crossing traffic to stop -- are also an option, where appropriate. The signal differs from the traditional ped crossing in that the trail lane is treated as part of the intersection, giving riders a view of their own red and green lights as they approach the crossing.

Oswald: The road crossings on paths that I've seen are generally not handled well. The is not just on the Emerald Necklace "All Purpose Trail". Tunnels/bridges are rare because they are very expensive except on old RR trails where they were built for the RR.

OB: Let's clarify your use of the term "rare" here. Some might say, for example, that a solar or lunar eclipse is a rare event; highly unusual or highly uncommon. Your use suggests simply, less than common. Though this can also be true, it will be misleading for those who think in terms of the eclipse example. Here's a list of Ohio trails with "rare" tunnels or bridges that do not use existing infrastructure:

  • Ohio & Erie Towpath -- Tunnel under scenic railway; bridge over Innerbelt in Akron (Rt. 59) & I-77 near Bolivar; Bridges over streets in Independence.
  • Western Reserve Greenway -- Tunnel under roadway
  • Holmes County Trail -- Tunnel under roadway
  • Newark Trail Network -- Bridges & tunnels over & under several streets, exit ramps & one bridge span over 4-lane I-16
  • Creekside Trail -- Bridge over street
  • Mill Creek Bikeway -- Bridge over street
  • Tri-County Trail -- Bridge over St. Rt. 104
  • Heath Trail -- Tunnel under roadway

These come to mind but are by no means a complete list of Ohio trail tunnels and bridges designed for the purpose of avoiding railway & roadway traffic. If you include river & creek bridges as well as wetland boardwalks, also built from scratch, you can put together a longer list. Though the latter is for water / ravine crossings, it demonstrates that infrastructure is in place (and being constructed) to take trails safely where they need to go. In that sense these structures are not "rare" at all.

Oswald: We need a safety "watchdog" organization that will insist on only the highest standards for paths & trails. One might think the League of American Bicyclists would fulfill such a role. Unfortunately, those in charge have zero interest in safety. They prefer quantity over quality. See the part about BFC in this article for details.

OB: In a perfect world everything would be constructed and maintained to the highest standards. Obviously many roads and sidewalks are in disrepair, so much for the highest standards.

This is a good opportunity to define bikeway standards:

In our state ODOT and ODNR oversee the dispersal of federal transportation dollars for trail construction, which a large number of trail projects are dependent upon. They build in requirements and specifications that have to be met in order for a trail project to qualify and be implemented. These include EPA requirements, construction & land acquisition specs, safety standards, adherence to the American Disabilities Act -- virtually any aspect that involves federal dollars is regulated to meet a proper standard. These projects are not simply thrown together.

However, not all trails use federal transportation funds and are therefore not subject to the same requirements. Generally, local trail groups play a key role in determining what type of trail is best suited for their community. Do they see a need for a simple loop trail in a city park or perhaps aspire to host a section of the cross-state North Coast Inland Trail? The direction they choose will determine the requirements and cost of the plan and, most importantly, the nature of the trail itself. That's why trail construction is not as uniform as road or highway construction. A "trail" can be anything from a simple footpath (where bikes are not restricted) to a multi-use intermodal transportation corridor such as the Ohio-to-Erie Trail.

To continue reading, see Part II of the discussion.

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