How to Build a Bike Path
A major recent development in the political landscape for trails and bicycle paths has come with the Obama Administration’s focus on liveabiliy, an initiative that spans the Department of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. This new focus has brought direct federal funding to path projects across the nation. Indeed, the Ballona Creek Path through Los Angeles and Culver City (one that I frequent quite a bit) is currently being repaved with funding from ARRA (the stimulus).
Sadly, like many bicycle lanes (look for a post later this week), bicycle paths are largely built in ineffective ways. A prominent issue is the failure to properly segregate pedestrian and cycling traffic, leading to considerable slowdowns in cycling speeds and greatly increasing the potential for collisions. The normal width for paths, 8 feet, can not possibly fulfill the needs of all users in a safe and effective manner.
The most obvious solution is widening the path, or, as seen in El Cerrito and Albany, California, build a separate path for pedestrians, and, just as importantly, enforce this separation. A wider path can have aesthetically pleasing design to separate pedestrians and cyclists, including brick overlays of different colors or clear signage.
Far more important is the safety of path users at grade crossings. The general walkability of an area largely dictates the safety of any trail grade crossings. For example, the Ohlone Greenway in Albany, California has a grade crossing on every block through the city, but slow car speeds, wide lines of sight and well marked crossings make these intersections exceedingly safe. On the other hand, the Iron Horse Trail in more suburban Contra Costa County has less frequent grade crossings, but they are far less safe. In Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek, two major intersections (Treat Blvd and Ygnacio Valley Road) have bridges over them, greatly improving travel time and safety. Further south, pedestrian and cycling conditions quickly deteriorate. At Broadway in Downtown Walnut Creek, trail users are required to brave an intersection of two 6-lane streets, and use the crosswalk signal to cross the street twice to resume travel on the trail. In this scenerio, a grade separation may be expensive, but it would be the ideal solution. If a costly bridge isn’t an option, diagonal crossing across the street or tight signal timing could markedly improve the delay at this intersection for trail users.
The most glaring safety issue occurs further down the train in the Alamo-Danville area. Grade crossings in this area are with smaller residential streets, but the speed of cars and lines of sight along these intersections are terrible. The only crossing protection afforded to trail users are button-activated flashing lights, impossible to operate while cycling. These intersections beg for full traffic lights, with a default green for trail users and an activated green for motorists.
The best trails are those that are entirely grade separated, like the Ballona Creek Path, LA River Trail and San Gabriel River Trail in Los Angeles. These trails follow massive drainage canals in the LA basin, thus use an already existing grade-separated right of way.
Moral of this story is – build trails, but build them right!