I got so excited this week reading my issue of Rails to Trails Magazine, that I decided to buck the schedule and write about the Rail Trails this week.
Here's a bit about the Rails to Trails Conservancy:
Twenty-five years ago, on February 1, 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) opened its doors. At the time, only a few hundred miles of rail-trail existed in all of America. In the years since, we've helped create more than 1,600 rail-trails, totaling nearly 20,000 miles of rail-trail and representing all 50 states. What began as an interesting concept has become a national movement enjoyed by tens of millions of people every year. Like the railroads before them, these trails have transformed the American landscape and touched countless communities, from rural whistle stops to metropolitan centers.
I encourage you all to check out the Rails to Trails Conservancy website, and join up!
Rail Trails are a fantastic community asset. Communities take unused train tracks and convert them to paved paths for commuting, recreation, and fitness.
Most cities and towns hate the idea at first. Opposition is fierce! It's expensive -- on average $1 million per mile. People fear that the multi-use path will invite strangers into their neighborhood, perhaps dangerous strangers scoping out houses for break-ins. The path might allow access to people's homes to these potentially dangerous strangers! (For me this always conjures up the amusing image of the Hamburgler teetering away from a house on his bike with big-screen tv lashed to his back.) Litter! The noise and activity would reduce their privacy! House values would go down! Horrible!
But when the paths actually go in? Communities love them! Path-accessible house values increase! Homeowners create their own shortcuts to the path for ease of access. They walk their dogs, stroll with babies, go for runs, get their families out on bikes, improve their commutes by biking/walking/rollerblading to work or to the train/subway. Some families even set up rest areas on the border between their property and the path so that family members and path users can relax, picnic, and enjoy watching the world go by. Towns the trails pass through experience an upsurge in commerce from path users stopping for coffee, ice cream, lunch, bike repair, etc.
My first happy experiences biking as an adult were on the Minuteman Bikeway. I was very insecure about biking in traffic, so I felt much more comfortable on an off-road path. Another big plus for a beginner cyclist is that train tracks are generally built on the flats. So NO HILLS!!! What hills there may be are carefully graded to be long and gradual, so you hardly notice them. I soon learned that when biking the length of the Minuteman Trail Lexington Center is approximately the high point. It's a gradual uphill towards Lexington from either direction and a nice easy downhill from Lexington towards Bedford or Somerville.
On an average Summer morning, I see thousands of people using this path. It's very heartening. Look at us! We're out enjoying the Summer, getting some exercise, and having fun. This crush of people can be terrific companions or annoying hindrances, depending on the extent of path etiquette.
I'm putting this as a sub-heading because for many - runners, walkers, skaters and bikers alike, path etiquette (or, more importantly, lack thereof) completely ruins the path experience for them. Here are the basic rules of most paths:
* Stay to the right. Again, bold because this is a very important principle. Pretend you're driving. Stay to the right side of the path so that oncoming traffic can pass to your left and so that faster traffic can pass you on the left if oncoming traffic permits. This is especially important if you're biking with friends or family. It's tempting to bike side-by-side so you can chat, but as you spread across the path you're blocking oncoming and passing traffic. Stay to the right and pass on the left.
* At road intersections, car, bike, and pedestrian traffic on the road has the right of way. Even with a crossing marked, traffic may stop but then again it might not. Don't risk it until you're sure. You probably won't need to completely stop at most crossings but certainly pay attention, slow down, and prepare to stop if necessary. If traveling with friends, the first person can check for traffic and either signal a stop or shout "clear!" so everyone can get through.
* Alert others to your presence. Nobody likes having somebody swoop past and startle them. Ring a bell or call out "on your left!" Politely and cheerfully if possible. Nobody likes having orders shouted at them either. As annoyed as you may be that people aren't obeying the cardinal rule of Stay to the Right, you are not there to enforce this rule.
Idiots People who don't follow path etiquette have a right to be there too and they're more likely to cooperate if asked politely.
* Move over if requested. No matter how fast you are or what a nice conversation you're having, there is always somebody wanting to pass. Let them! As a matter of custom, get used to riding on the right side of the right side of the path and ride single-file with friends so you can be passed easily.
* Stay alert. If I were in charge, I'd completely forbid running, cycling, walking, or skating with headphones. I know music can help keep rhythm and makes workouts less boring, but it's important to hear cues from your environment, such as me shrieking at you to get the frak over to the right so I can pass you. Ooops! Did I just say that out loud? I mean, "me politely and sweetly requesting you move over." It's not just headphones. Sometimes people chatting are so intent on their conversation that they completely tune out everything else. Tuning out or zoning out can be dangerous. Pay attention to your environment.
* Pull off the path when stopping. It's very frustrating and potentially dangerous when you're cruising along and somebody suddenly stops in front of you. Just as you wouldn't suddenly stop on the highway, don't pull to a stop in the middle of the path. Slow gradually and pull off the path to stop.
* Wear your helmet, and in any sort of dim conditions turn on your front and rear lights. Safety isn't just for the roads! We usually travel with a first-aid kit as well.
* Bring a repair kit and air pump. We're lucky on the Minuteman Trail that there's a bike shop right on the path and another at the end of the path in Bedford. But that's not always the case, so be prepared to fix flats or make adjustments or repairs as necessary.
* Greet folks you see! This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, but it's certainly a good way to welcome new users and have fun. Smile! You're on the path to enjoy yourself. I can't tell you how encouraging it is to run into a batch of super-fast racers and they smile and yell "good morning!" to me. I'm not just a fat lady on a bike, I'm one of the tribe. One of the community. One of us.
Some paths are patrolled by cycling city police officers or park rangers, but most are self-governing. Like in any large gathering of people, conflicts may arise. Especially if people have differing ideas about path etiquette. But I've never actually seen or participated in any of these conflicts. I hope this is the experience for you as well.
Last summer, we discovered the Nashua River Trail, and it is a gem! Many fewer road crossings than the Minuteman, less traffic on those crossings, and less traffic on the trail itself. We also like the Cape Cod Rail Trail and the Shining Sea Bikeway.
Some cyclists find it much easier to ride on the road - fewer runners, family bikers, skaters, dogs and pedestrians to avoid. Because of all these other path users, you can't really ride much faster than 10-15 mph on the path. So if you want to go 20+mph, the road will be a much better venue. But for beginner or casual cyclists bike paths can be a great place to develop skills, stamina, and have a great time.
Do you have rail trails in your area? Are any planned? Do you like them? Do you use them?
If you don't know if there are rail trails in your area, the Rails to Trails Conservancy cited above is an excellent resource. I check there before traveling to find out if there are good trails in the area I'm visiting.
This weekend, we plan to explore the Neponset Greenway with a group ride , so next week's diary will be a report on the Greenway as well as an introduction to group rides.
Happy St. Patrick's Day! I got the Silver Streak out for the morning's commute for the first time this season. WHEEE!!
Third in a series of Introduction to Biking.
Other topics include:
* How to get started if you haven't ridden since you got your driver's license
* BWOW (Biking While OverWeight)
* Rail Trails - today's topic!
* Group rides
* Safety and sharing the road
* Finding the right commuter bike
* Panniers, trailers and baskets
* Equipment and repair
* Community rides
* Community issues
* Bike porn