Friday, August 6, 2010

Accessing the World's Great Bike Paths

My husband, Dick Burkhart, and I have been with our Bike Friday Project Q tandem on many world renowned bike paths. We have traveled old canal boat toe paths in Ohio, New York, New Jersey and beyond. Avoiding much city traffic, we biked out of Paris on a path that took us clear to farm country. From there we headed eastward across the continent on roads bordered by red poppies and rolling hills covered with pea fields and punctuated by villages of stone houses, geranium pots on every window sill.

There were occasional bike paths in Belgium too, but once we got to the Netherlands there was no more need for roads. Holland’s numbered complex of bike paths, more important than its freeway system, took us all the way across the country to the Hague without needing to get off. On our trip up the East Coast of the US we traveled a bike path all the way across Cape Cod. In fact, we had to make a special effort to get off this bike freeway in order not to miss the sweet New England Villages for which the Cape is famous.
To name a few.

Normally with bike paths you have to know where to get on and off. Except maybe in Davis, California, which was built for bikes, you can’t just get on at any street corner. Bike path designers tend to separate the path from the rest of the community. I suppose that’s because cyclists want to ride unencumbered by the rest of the world. Likewise property owners want to keep bike path users at a distance. So fences, hedgerows, and ditches tend to border bike paths, prohibiting escape before the next exit that may be a number of miles ahead, kind of like with freeways. Best to take water, tire pump, patch kit and tools, maybe even lunch, along.

Seattle’s Chief Sealth Trail is maybe one of the hilliest I’ve been on. It rises up, dips down, and up again on its ascent through City Light’s power line strip, gaining about 200 feet of elevation within a few short miles from the Rainier Valley neighborhood floor to the top of Beacon Hill. When Seattle built the Chief Sealth Trail (CST) a few years ago, they apparently assumed that users would access it dutifully, as with most of the world’s bike paths, at designated intersections a mile or more apart even though , in this case, there are no fences, hedge rows or other barriers between it and the houses. Instead the Trail runs through the City’s mowed grassy power line strip with no encumbrances on either side to keep anyone out or in.

So once in place, the Trail’s access system began to take on a design of its own, a network of pathways the planners had apparently not envisioned. The wide expanse of mowed grass spreads out on either side of the CST turning this mundane power line strip into a walking park to gaze upon a majestic panorama that spreads one arm westward along the Olympic Mountain Range and the other eastward over the Cascades with Mount Rainier crowning her snowy head to the south.

No, the Skyline Footpaths, as I call them, were not part of the City’s plan for the CST. They were made by feet the way cow paths form. CST users don’t enter from the mile apart cross streets the planners had in mind. Most access the Trail by human made foot paths that lead from houses, sidewalks and yards. Humans have created their own network of paths the way deer and groundhogs do. It’s the same way towns and village streets were formed before there were city planners.

Looking out over the power line strip park, you can see lots of people on the CST. Some are on bikes. A few are in jogging shorts running up and down the hills. Lots are walking dogs. There are African women in long colorful veils and Asian women in cone shaped coolie hats corralling their kids. There are people in suits and ties heading down to the Othello Link Light Rail Station on their way to work down town and others wheeling suit cases to the airport via light rail. But if you bike the Trail, be sure to drop your bike at its intersection with Holly Park Drive and scramble on foot about 40 feet up a narrow path to look out over Lake Washington and the Othello town center. From there the view is best. I’ve seen a few mountain bikes up there from time to time, but mostly it’s feet, and you never have to lose sight of your bike to enjoy the view.

I am working with a group of neighbors to apply for a grant from the City to gravel and enhance the network of footpaths people have made to access the Chief Sealth Trail. I wonder what would happen if we took out all the fences and hedgerows along most of the world’s bike paths and just let people access them at their own convenience. Would cars become obsolete?