Tag Archives: Maryland

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.

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.

Green Wave, Checkered Flag?

A green wave moves out, Manhattan, 1986.

I am writing this post in response to comments by Mighk Wilson and Khalil Spencer on another post on this blog. They discussed the difficulty of cycling in a city with synchronized traffic signals (a “green wave”) set to a higher speed than cyclists can manage, and the potential of a slower green wave to make a street more attractive for cycling. I’d like to take a more general  look at the green wave and how it affects traffic.

My understanding of the green wave is based mostly on experience. (And so, anyone who can provide more details based on theory, or can correct me, please do…)

In my high-school years, I lived and learned to drive in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, one of the first cities to implement traffic signal synchronization. I have also lived, driven and cycled in Manhattan, where most traffic lights are timed to create green waves.

A green wave can only work under a limited set of conditions. If these do not apply, then despite best efforts to time traffic lights for the smoothest possible traffic flow, a signal sequence can still appear random. Drivers have no clear strategy for avoiding red lights beyond speeding up when the next light is still green. On the other hand, when a green wave is working smoothly, drivers may feel as if a green-wave Tinkerbelle is darting along overhead and pointing her magic wand at every traffic light to turn it green.

Traffic engineers use clever math so a green wave, surprisingly, can be applied to streets heading in more than one direction the same time — though it words better if they are one-way. Heading north on Charles Street from church in downtown Baltimore, my family would get  green lights for block after block, except at the few two-way streets, where all bets were off. Then as we headed into the more random street pattern at the north end of the city, we just had to take each traffic light as it was. On the other hand, traffic lights were less frequent in this less densely built-up area.

My experience was similar in Manhattan. The green wave worked smoothly on one-way streets and avenues, but  when crossing two-way ones, and when driving on them, it didn’t. This obvious difference gives drivers a strong incentive to use one-way streets and avenues for through travel, where possible. Advocates of the sort who would view streets as a neighborhood resource often protest conversions of two-way streets to one-way, see for example this call to action. Traffic engineers who are concerned with the effect on congestion and crash rates have the opposite opinion — see, for example, this presentation. (I expect that the choice is not quite so stark as these two examples make it — as usual, such decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis.)

A green wave works smoothly only when there are no stop signs on a green wave street, though stop signs can be used on cross streets.  Double-parked vehicles, vehicles that have entered the street and are waiting for a light to change, vehicles — including bicycles — that can’t keep up with the pace set by the signals — anything that slows traffic down or reduces the number of lanes available increases the likelihood of not keeping up with the pase set by the lights.

A green wave often encourages travel faster than the pace set by the signals. That’s because there is an advantage in racing to the front of a platoon — where each signal has just changed to green — when preparing a turn — then after turning, racing to the end of the block so as to catch the end of the green there. A driver may speed through another few blocks to get to the front of the platoon before turning again. The advantage of this tactic is quickly obvious: After turning the corner at the head of a green wave onto another green wave street, a driver will be facing a signal at the next intersection which is about to turn yellow, then red.

The typical 30-mile per hour speed limit in grid cities like Manhattan often leads to motorists’ speeds considerably in excess of that limit, and to more unpleasant conditions for bicyclists.

On the other hand, synchronizing signals to a speed more comfortable for bicycling will discourage use of a street for through motor-vehicle travel, making it more attractive for bicycling. I have ridden on a street in Saint Petersburg, Florida, with the signals synchronized to 15 miles per hour, and it achieved that goal quite well. It would have worked better if it had been one-way — it ran up a moderate slope from the waterfront, and for most bicyclists, 15 miles per hour was hard to maintain. Downhill, on the other hand, the speed setting could have been 20 miles per hour without creating difficulties for bicyclists.

Bear in mind, though, that comfortable level-ground travel speeds for bicyclists cover a 3 to 1 range , from about 25 miles per hour down to 8 miles per hour — not nearly as uniform as for motorists, even considering the issues with motorists’ speed already mentioned. A predictable increase in the volume of electrically-assisted bicycles and motor scooters will complicate the issue of speed setting even further. The advantage of a slow green wave, given these issues, is not so much to allow bicyclists to travel farther before facing a red light as to discourage use of the street for through travel by motorists.