Tag Archives: District of Columbia

Ian Cooper comments on the C&O Towpath

Cyclist Ian Cooper offers a report on the C&O canal towpath, which I have mentioned in a previous post. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas deserves a lot of credit for preserving the canal as a park, but as Ian reports, it does not make the grade as a bicycle facility.

Ian Cooper with Trail-a-Bike rig on the C&O towpath trail

Ian Cooper with Trail-a-Bike rig on the C&O towpath trail

Aside from the issues of safety and of priorities which Ian raises, do the parts of the path which are “paved” with pebbles the size of golf balls meet the National Park Service’s criteria to prohibit cyclists from parallel roads, introduced into the current transportation bill in Congress?

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper seconds some of Ian’s comments, while indicating that improvements are in the works. The effectiveness of the improvements is certainly open to question: more gravel will not eliminate dropoffs or necessarily provide a good or durable riding surface. The article includes the photo below.

Rough conditions on the C&O towpath trail

Rough conditions on the C&O towpath trail, Paul Christensen photo for the Tribune-Review

An online article by a bicycle tourist also reports some difficult conditions on the trail.

Ian says about that article:

The first image on the left of the page shows a little of how muddy it can get, though it can be worse than this when the path gets very narrow and bumpy. This is a different area of the trail (farther north than my ride), and again this is very wide and non-grassy in comparison with some of the trail south of Harper’s Ferry and Point of Rocks, MD. The author tells how safety is a real issue on the trail due to the bad condition of the surface.

In both the above images, the wide trail allows you to choose a path through the mud. This isn’t always the case in the part my daughter and I cycled. Sometimes you just have to stop and walk. Sometimes you get no warning, hit a pothole or a mud patch and have to rely on skill to maintain control.

Here are Ian’s comments on his own ride:

I know the C&O well. Here on the Maryland side it’s not paved, and I think anyone doing more than 10 mph on it would be taking a grave risk. I cycled with my daughter from DC to Harper’s Ferry June 2nd – 3rd, 2011 with my daughter on a Trail-a-Bike behind me. I will never use it again, as the National Park Service has stated that it must remain unpaved, as it is to retain its historical attributes as a canal towpath. The only reason I didn’t give up on using it during that trip is that I have a lot of experience cycling in winter conditions, so I had confidence that I could counter-steer and retain balance during times when the bike lost traction in the mud. Also, we were heading north, so we were cycling on the canal side of the trail, where the drop-off was only 10ft. I dread to think what might happen if a less confident or less skilled cyclist lost control going southward and fell into the river.

We averaged 5mph. On regular roads, I would have done the trip in less than half the time (in part because the road goes pretty much straight there, while the ‘so-called’ multi-use trail takes a dog-leg approach alongside the river). Also, this trail is overgrown with weeds, is ‘paved’ with loose pebbles the size of golf balls, and is 4 ft wide in places with mud patches and 10+ft drops on each side. In my view it is the worst bike trail I’ve ever seen and is literally a death trap for cyclists (which is presumably why bike trail advocates avoid referring to it as a bike trail). Sadly, most so-called bike infrastructure is poorly designed, poorly implemented and lacking in funding for maintenance. I have yet to see a bike trail or bike path that is well designed, well implemented and well maintained. Until I do see such a thing, I am 100% against such follies.

The photo below was taken around 12 noon on June 3 somewhere near White’s Ferry and is the only image I have showing the actual trail. It shows what should be considered a ‘good’ part of the trail in this area – this part is wide, relatively flat and has only a gentle slope away to the canal on one side. As you can see, even though there’s perhaps 8ft of trail, most of it is grassed over and there’s only two thin tracks of usable surface. Sometimes the trail gets so treacherous that the wet and slippery grass in the middle becomes the safest place to ride.

A better section of the C&O towpath trail

A better section of the C&O towpath trail

The C&O has few road crossings, it’s true. But if you use it in May or June, before the flood season is completely over (and presumably before any yearly maintenance is carried out before the summer season), you see it at its worst, when it is difficult just to maintain control of the bike. At some points, especially the stretch between Seneca and Point of Rocks, MD, it is quite literally frightening. In many places the trail is very narrow, it has a steep ten foot drop on one side to the old canal, and a steep twenty foot or more drop on the other side to the river (sometimes both at the same time). In May and June, the trail is so overgrown that stinging nettle bushes often thrust out into the trail. The trail is filled with pebbles and rocks, and overgrown grass and stinging nettles sometimes make all but a section between 6 and 12 inches wide unusable. This thin section can be muddy, it can change from dry to wet very quickly, it can be deeply rutted from use by previous cyclists, and other parts can be washed out so badly that cyclists can experience sudden potholes. It is extremely treacherous.

In my view, this stretch of the C&O Canal towpath should be closed as a multi-use path as its lack of adequate maintenance means that it is only a matter of time before a cyclist or a runner gets killed on it.

The Six-Way in Rush Hour

Here’s another video showing conditions at the six-way intersection of 16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW in Washington, DC, where special bicycle facilities have been installed.

Also please see my earlier post about this intersection, with another embedded video.

About Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, bikeways, class issues and segregation

The 184.5 mile long Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Historic Park is located along the north bank of the Potomac River, between Washington, DC and Cumberland, Maryland.

I recently had the occasion to see the park described in writing as a “class I bikeway”.

So, what is that? A high-class bikeway? Read on.

The California Department of Transportation used this nondescriptive and somewhat judgmental term in its 1970s manual. The “I” in “Class I”, is pronounced as a Roman numeral rather than letter “I”, as becomes clearer when “Class I” is seen alongside “Class II” — bike lane — and “Class III” — designated route on shared roadway, which, thank goodness, is not pronounced “Class aye aye aye” :-). When the California manual became the basis for the first AASHTO bicycle facilities guide in 1980-1981, the term “Class I” was replaced by “bicycle path” — and later, “multi-use path”, corresponding to the actual traffic mix observed.

A few years ago, I rode part of the C&O (only had part of one day to do it) near the Antietam battlefield and found it to be an unimproved, muddy canal towpath, — though certainly scenic and historic. As of a couple of years ago, the stretch nearest Washington, DC has a crushed stone surface, but the rest still has a dirt surface. Hike/biker campgrounds and porta-potties are available every few miles, though.

That this corridor was preserved as a linear park and not converted into a limited-access highway is due in large part to the efforts of former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (judicial activism, but while walking, rather than sitting on the bench..!?), see this report.

Keep reading after the part about the towpath, and you will see that the report also describes a very historic event, the issuance of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.

The ruling was unanimous. The Justices read the Constitution as opposing segregation, but we’re not talking about segregated bicycle facilities here. Little controversy over them had arisen yet in 1954.

I approve of this?

UPDATE: This post gives background information on the intersection. I have now ridden through it, and my opinion of it has changed. I have another post about it, and a video. Please check them out.


The image below shows a special installation of traffic signals and markings at the intersection of 16th street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW in Washington, DC. To enlarge the image so you can read the text descriptions, click on it. You also may have a look at a Google map satellite view. Then please return to this page for my comments.

16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC

16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC

Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott — and let’s also not forget African-American surveyor Benjamin Banneker — laid out Washington’s streets from scratch –  in the pre-automotive 1790s. Washington’s diagonal avenues give it an openness and unique sense of place — but the resulting uneven-length blocks and multi-way intersections make for some serious headaches now. Some traffic movements are odd, traffic signals can not be synchronized efficiently…

Before the new installation, no signals in this intersection faced new Hampshire Avenue. Bicyclists would sometimes use New Hampshire Avenue for through travel, though its conflicting one-way segments made that illegal and there was no conflict-free crossing interval.

The illustration above is from a page posted by the government of the District of Columbia describing a new installation of contraflow bicycle lanes, bicycle waiting boxes and special traffic signals. At first glance, these may raise the hair on the back of the necks of people who are suspicious of special bicycle facilities treatments.

Look again. The bike boxes look odd only because they connect with diagonal New Hampshire Avenue. They are cross-street bike boxes — which bicyclists enter from the left. Bicyclists from New Hampshire Avenue enter on a separate signal phase from the motor traffic on 16th Street, rather than to creep up on the right side of motor vehicles, as with more-usual bike-box installations. Motorists do not have to crane their necks or stare into a right-side mirror looking for these bicyclists.

The cross-street bike boxes are even more conflict-free than usual. Because only bicycle traffic runs contraflow, bicyclists do not have to negotiate with any right-turning traffic when entering the intersection.

To summarize: this installation, importantly, does not violate the fundamental traffic-engineering principle of destination positioning at intersections, as so many special bicycle facilities installations do.

Or, looking at the same conclusion from a different point of view, the installation does not require or encourage bicyclists to do anything dangerous or stupid, and it offers reasonable travel efficiency considering the situation it addresses.

I am not going to say that this installation is perfect. I can see the following issues.

  • Bicyclists’ having to wait through two traffic-signal phases is inconvenient and might lead to scofflaw behavior. A “scramble phase” could allow crossing in one step and might even apply to bicyclists arriving from other directions. It would reduce the time allocated to for all the other phases, but it might be practical, and preferable, at times of low traffic. Signals and markings which only apply at some times could, however, be confusing.
  • The installation addresses only bicycle traffic entering the intersection from New Hampshire Avenue. Traffic control remains as it was for 16th street and U street. Considering the many ways in which bicycle travel could be made slower and/or more hazardous in the name of making it better, this may be a case of “best leave well enough alone,”  but on the other hand, real improvements might be possible.
  • The bike boxes on 16th street could be interpreted as encouraging bicyclists on that street to overtake motorists on the right, then swerve in front of them, as is the more conventional with bike boxes.
  • Just outside the lower left of the picture on New Hampshire Avenue, there is wrong-way parallel parking next to the bike lane. Motorists exiting wrong-way parking spaces are in head-on conflict with bicyclists, but cannot see them if another vehicle is parked ahead. (See illustrated description of wrong-way parallel parking elsewhere, if the explanation here is unclear.) At the top right, on the other hand, note that the bike lane is farther from the curb: this segment of New Hampshire Avenue has back-in right-angle parking, avoiding the sight-line problem.
  • And, while we’re at it, I have another issue with the street grid, though it’s common to many other cities and not readily subject to correction. Streets that go east and west guarantee that twice per year,  for several days, the Sun will rise and set directly along the streets, glaring into drivers’ eyes.  If the street grid ran northeast to southwest and northwest to southeast, this would never happen. All you Pierre L’Enfants of today designing new cities, please take notice, here’s your chance to acquire a reputation as Pierre L’Enfant Terrible!

This installation is the subject of experimentation sanctioned by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, with observation, data recording and analysis to see how it works in practice. The experimentation may turn up more issues, or reveal that some are of little importance.

Now, dear readers, you also may also have points to add to the discussion. Let the comments fly.

See also: GreaterGreaterWashington blog entry about this installation; Washington, DC Department of Transportation page about it; Google maps satellite view.