Today, my family and I enjoyed a long bike ride through Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This ride was made possible by a national program called Rails to Trails. The program is pretty self-explanatory: previous rail lines are converted into bike and/or multi use trails. It is great program that has led to the completion of many fantastic trails across the nation.
The Cape Cod Rail Trail was very well designed. All of the road crossing points were well constructed, making both the trail and the road crossings easy to traverse for both cycles and motor vehicles. Part of the reason the crossings were so functional was due to the fact that all the at-grade crossings involved only two-lane of one lane roads. All the wider roads had grade separated crossings (usually tunnels, with the occasional overpass). These crossings helped to illustrate a larger point of cycling: people will be far more comfortable cycling if there are grade separated crossings. Yes, this point has been made, and yes they are expensive, but they go a VERY long way towards making life easier for both bike riders/pedestrians and drivers.
So who was using this trail? Since Cape Cod is primarily a tourist destination, I expected to see mostly recreational riders. Predictably, after traversing this trail for its entire length over a period of 7 hours, I saw very few people on the trail who seemed to be locals. This was understandable, considering the wealth of the residents of Cape Cod. But then, I thought about all the service workers in the towns on the Cape; the children who attended the local schools; the people who lived a short, bikable drive away from their place of work: why were these people not present on the trail?
Lack of connectivity is the answer.
Since the trail was built primary for recreational purposes, the planners made very little provisions for commuters. The trail was required to follow the rail right-of-way, which means it doesn’t necessarily go close to many of the major towns. In fact, there is only one major town that it passes through. In this town, the whole area around the trail is filled with parks and businesses that cater to bikers. Why can’t the other towns in the area have this?
I envision a future where the Cape Cod Rail Trail is the spine of a larger, regional network. There would spurs that would go to every nearby town and every nearby school, along with every nearby major employment center. All of these spurs would have way-finding signs from the main trail. Currently, the majority of the Cape (along with the majority of the USA) is very auto oriented, with little to no commuter bike infrastructure. The development of the peninsula is not necessarily suburban, but it is sprawling and spread out in nature.
My main point is this: having long, recreational trails are beneficial to large portions of the population, but they do little to reduce intra-urban journeys. This type of trip (within an urban area, and usually a short distance, no more than 2-8 miles) is by far the most common trip type in America; it is also the easiest type of car trip to replace with a bicycle.
If we really want to reduce traffic, reduce emissions, reduce auto fatalities and reduce obesity, we MUST focus on the low hanging fruit. In this situation, the low hanging fruit is the potential to replace short car trips with other modes, such as bikes.
If we can build great recreational trails, we can also build quality commuter networks. It’s time to stop wasting money on subsidies for car trips that are wasteful and unnecessary.
It’s time for a transportation revolution.