Paved Trails: My Problematic Fave?

Posted on October 27, 2016 · Posted in General

Shout out to Hastings, the birthplace of Kool Aid!

Before I say another word, let me emphasize the word FAVE.  As in, FAVORITE.  As in, I’m a huge proponent of trails.  I’m positively pro-trail.  Trails are on fleek. Or something like that.


As I’ve been helping with the Nebraska Walkable Communities project over the last several months, I’ve had a growing sense of cognitive dissonance happening with trails. Let me explain.

I have a 16 year old daughter, so I am treated to a steady stream of interesting vocabulary with which I attempt to keep up. Most of the time I purposely use the phrases of the day in combination just to get an eye roll out of her.  (“Your outfit is fleekishly on point today!”)  At any rate, the latest phrase I’m trying to work into my daily vocabulary for entertainment purposes is “problematic fave,” which I’ve been told by the Urban Dictionary (there goes another eye roll) means “A favorite person (usually a character) who has problematic views and opinions.”

Indianapolis has an amazing trail system, and the pro-bike mayor, Greg Ballard, has been on record touting the benefits of the system, going so far as to say, “You can’t build enough trails.” I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Mayor Ballard and hearing him speak several times, and I reference him often when I give presentations to groups about how trails can help make our cities bicycle friendly. We celebrate the news of new of new trails and trail segments with fanfare: “Every time a new trail opens, an angel gets it’s wings!”  We laud our cities for creating trail master plans.

There is much enthusiasm from the cities we’re working with on the Walkable Communities project around trails, and with good reason.  Trails provide a safe, car free environment that makes walking and bicycling quite enjoyable. Studies show that property values for homes near trails are higher than those that are not.  Several of the communities have used the momentum of their work with us to kick start fundraising and planning for more trails, and several of these towns have master plans in place that support these ideas.

However, more and more often, the trail maps I’ve seen have prospective trails located around the perimeter of town, without any connectivity to anything in the middle – you know, the places a person would like to get to, like neighborhoods and schools and downtown districts and places of employment. Many plans I’ve read reference that they want to create places “for people to go to bike.”

This is problematic.

My fear is that a singular vision to build more trails is reinforcing the notion that bicycling is merely a recreational activity, and that people on bikes should be relegated exclusively to them.

For a good trail system to truly be great, it needs to provide connectivity and be complimented by safer streets, on-street bike lanes/routes, traffic calming, and other facilities that encourage people to ride.  In fact, if you check out the Indianapolis bike map, you’ll find 64 miles of on street bike lanes in addition to the amazing trail system they’ve built.

indymap           indylegend

Paved trails are very expensive and often take years to get from idea to completion, especially if federal funding through the state is involved. Bike lanes take paint and a tape measure.  OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch; my engineer friends would tell me that this is really oversimplifying, but you get the picture.   Here’s some data from a 2013 report from the UNC Highway Safety Research Center: 

bikeway-costs path-costs

I’m concerned that only half of our (bicycle advocates’) message is being heard.  Yes, it is essential that we continue to advocate for safer streets and to point out the inequities in funding and opportunities for these types of facilities. Many of our streets are not safe for people on bikes, but this doesn’t mean that we should look to ONLY build off – street trails that prevent cars and bikes from coexisting. It is essential that we make sure to talk about paved trails in context with the 5E’s: Engineering, Encouragement, Enforcement, Education and Evaluation/Planning.         Engineering is only one of tools we need to use to make our cities more bicycle friendly, and even then, it needs to be diverse:


Source: League of American Bicyclists

Let’s make sure our trail game is strong, but let’s make sure that connectivity and on street facilities are on fleek, too.  If we do that, we won’t have a problematic fave issue.  (I’m high key sure that I’ve exceeded the recommended number of catch phrases there. Oh well.)