The Coastal Post - July 2000

Bicycle Trails Council Pushing For Unsafe Trails; Pedestrians And Equestrians Will Suffer

By Terri Alvillar

Marin County's general plan defines four trail user groups: 1) Hikers, 2) Equestrians, 3) Bicyclists, and 4) Disabled Trial Users. It contains standards for four trail designations: 1) Hiking-only, 2) Equestrian/Hiking, 3) Combined Use, and 4) Paved Paths. The "Combined Use" designation provides "an opportunity for joint use by mountain bicyclists, hikers, and equestrians." Its width is generally 10 to 12 feet, sufficient to safely accommodate all trail user types.

The Bicycle Trails Council of Marin (BTC) has submitted a proposal to the Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD) for four "shared use trails," having a width of 3 feet. The proposed locations are Santa Venetia, Lucas Valley, Sleepy Hollow and White's Hill. The County's Trails Committee has held five public hearings this year during which the advisability of such a narrow "shared use" trail was considered. MCOSD staff went so far as to draft "Shared Use Trail Guidelines" which include a tread width of 24 to 50 inches.

Can a trail as narrow as 2 feet be safe for shared use? The Marin County Code requires all sidewalks to be a minimum width of 4 feet. Bicycle riding on sidewalks is prohibited in business districts. Bicyclists 14 years of age and younger are not allowed to ride on a sidewalk anywhere in the County. Sidewalks in areas of high pedestrian traffic are required to be wider than 4 feet.

"Multi-purpose Pathways" must be designed according to CalTrans standards. The Countywide Plan notes that unpaved hiking and equestrian trails of 6 feet or narrower are not appropriate for shared bicycle use because of potential safety problems, susceptibility to erosion, and diminished quality of experience (TR-7).

Portland, Oregon's off-street shared use two-way paths require a minimum width of 10 feet. "The path should be 12 feet wide in areas with high use by bicyclists, pedestrians, and joggers." In addition, "a 2 foot or greater lateral clearance [on both sides of the path] is necessary for safe operation." Paths can be 6 feet wide if bicycle travel is one-way. The city's early bikeway efforts were aimed at multiple use of sidewalks for pedestrians and bicycles; however, the current master plan states in most cases this type of facility should be avoided because "they put cyclists in conflict with pedestrians... Cyclists are safer when they are allowed to function as roadway vehicle operators, rather than as pedestrians."

The October 1994 Federal Highway Administration Tour for Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety in England, Germany, and the Netherlands, concludes: "Bicyclist and pedestrian facilities should be separated whenever possible, since walking and bicycling are incompatible at the same facility."

How does an unsafe, and often illegal, combination of pedestrians and cyclists on a 4 foot wide paved path magically become safe on a 2 foot wide unpaved path? Is a 2 foot wide path with rocks, roots, turns, and slopes, safer than a 4 foot wide flat, straight one with long sight lines? What evidence does the MCOSD have to demonstrate that a 2 foot wide shared use path is now safe when in 1994, a 6 foot wide shared use path was deemed unsafe?

BTC Director and Trails Committee member, Michael More, argues, "Contrary to the dire predictions of our opponents, the Wagon Wheel trail [a single track] has had not a single reported user conflict or accident.... Our opponents routinely distrust and scoff at any statistic suggesting that shared use trails work when bikes are part of the share. Their 'evidence' is largely anecdotal and emotionally based, and not necessarily quantifiable."

Directly contradicting Mr. More's statement are the minutes of the July 21, 1998 Board of Supervisors meeting, signed by Supervisor John Kress and MCOSD General Manager, Frances M. Brigmann: "Residents of Fairfax, Lagunitas, adjacent property owners and an attorney representing two homeowners in the Wagon Wheel Trail area, addressed the Board in opposition to continue bicycle use on the Wagon Wheel Trail and expressed their individual concerns regarding environmental damage, trail erosion, off-road bicycle traffic, reckless speed, illegal trails, personal safety, emergency vehicle access, danger for hikers, trespassing, noise, intimidation/threats by trail users, signage, enforcement of District policies, and damage to private property adjacent to the trails. An adjacent property owner presented a petition containing over 100 signatures to the General Manager requesting that the Wagon Wheel Trail be closed to bicycle use."

BTC Director (and wife of Michael More), Abby Minot, was a plaintiff in a law suit against Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, et. al., over shared use of single track trails at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). Co-plaintiffs included the BTC and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). The bicyclists argued that the National Park Service (NPS) "failed to give adequate consideration to the quality of the mountain bicycling experience in that several "single-track" and "loop" trails were closed to bicycles and that no concern was given the need to accommodate the most skilled bicyclists by providing them steep and difficult trails." That argument failed because the governing law did not "require that recreational opportunities be provided in complete derogation of any other interests," primarily, visitor safety and resource protection. (Bicycle Trails Council of Marin v. Babbitt, 82 F.3d 1445, 1452 [9th Cir. 1996])

Bicyclists further argued that NPS "lacked sufficient evidence upon which it could find that prohibiting bicycle use of certain trails would reduce user conflict and enhance visitor safety." This argument also failed because "Ample evidence in the administrative record supports the finding by NPS that bicycle access to all trails increases incidents of user conflict and compromises visitor safety. The record includes hundreds of letters from park users recounting stories of collisions or near misses with speeding or reckless bicyclists on all kinds of trails... they seemed to appear out of nowhere. Equestrians told how their horses have been startled by speeding or oncoming bicycles... even throwing and injuring experienced riders... other users also repeatedly recounted incidents of rudeness, threats and altercations when they have complained to an offending bicyclist about dangerous conduct." The Court confirmed that the NPS finding, "user conflict and visitor danger would be reduced by limiting bicycle trail access in GGNRA," was supported by "ample evidence."

A third argument presented by the bicyclists was "that the closing of trails might force bicyclists to ride in other areas" or "that the regulations would somehow force off-road bicyclists to trespass on the property of adjoining landowners." The Court found this argument to be "unavailing" because "riding in any other nondeveloped areas is also forbidden" and "the agency (NPS) should no more assume that citizens will violate any other law than that they will not violate the regulation being promulgated." All of plaintiffs' challenges to the NPS regulation failed and the Court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

During the recent Trails Committee hearings, it became clear that what the BTC is asking for is to build "single track" bicycle trails, not shared use trails to enhance safe recreational facilities for all user types. Although the BTC refers to the proposed San Pedro Ridge Preserve trail as "multi-use," their November 1999 newsletter stated, "We are currently in negotiations with the MCOSD to enable the BTC to build a new single track trail in the San Pedro Ridge Preserve."

In a May 22, 2000 email to Santa Venetia neighbors, Michael More, said "There are plenty of mountain bikers who own property in Santa Venetia and who would love a single track trail in their neighborhood... Equestrians and hikers have many more trails than they can use, they argue, so why can't we have a few?" Mr. More announced to the Committee that the BTC is not willing to build wider "shared use" trails. Another BTC supporter stated: "The issue is single track."

Shared use trail experiences throughout the world provide evidence that when bicycles are permitted on hiking trails, hikers and equestrians go elsewhere. Thus, "shared use" trails become de facto bicycle-only trails, contradicting the assertion that closing trails to mountain bikes will force more riders onto fewer trails. In reality, it is the equestrians and the hikers who are forced onto fewer trails.

In his 1996 report (p. 31), Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources researcher, Alan W. Bjorkman, stated "Increased traffic on high-use trails will result in hiker displacement... The result is that more than 80 percent of repeat hikers report avoiding a bike trail." In a Utah study (Ramthun 1992) only 6.6 percent of bikers actually yielded the trail to an encountered hiker.

Despite its being inconsistent with the Countywide Plan Trails Element, and absent any new evidence to indicate shared use of narrow trails is no longer dangerous when bicycle use is permitted, the BTC's proposal is still being considered by the Trails Committee and MCOSD staff. Rather than providing safe movement for all types of trail users, a two or three foot wide trail would more aptly be termed "exclusionist" than "shared use."

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