Some people are never satisfied. Bicyclists are always complaining about the roads. But suggest a separate bike path, and many serious riders are quick to say "no thanks."
No question, it can be harrowing to navigate on two skinny tires next to speeding cars when the shoulder is narrow, crumbling, sandy, littered with debris or nonexistent. But there is no less frustration and danger in steaming along at 15 mph and having to dodge walkers, joggers, roller skaters and parents pushing baby strollers on an isolated ribbon of pavement barely wide enough for two bikes to pass.
Moreover, some cyclists fear that if we acquiesce to being relegated to bike paths, more and more motorists will think we don't belong on the road at all, and pretty soon the powers that be will try to ban us from the streets entirely.
"I've been a victim of that in Germany and in Holland," said Nick Sotar, owner of Sotar Bicycles in Southbridge. "It's no fun at all to be restricted to bike paths."
"It seems to me if money is scarce, the emphasis should be on transportation, not recreation," said Phil Goguen of Grafton, who commutes on his bike 19 miles round-trip daily to his job at Landry's Cycling & Fitness in Westboro.
"In order to use the bicycle as transportation, you've got to use the road system," Goguen said. "I'm not foolish enough to think there will ever be bike paths anywhere you want to go."
However, both Goguen and Sotar see the value in bike paths. For casual or novice riders, and for children too young to ride in traffic, they provide a safe place to build bike-handling skills and confidence -- which could later serve well on the roads, Goguen noted. They also serve as a fun entryway to appreciation of a region's natural history.
Sotar is vice president of the Grand Trunk Trail Blazers, which has proposed a multiuse trail -- including a paved bike path -- on an unused 11-mile spur of the Providence & Worcester Railroad from Southbridge to Webster. "This is more of a family-oriented project," Sotar said. "People are really looking for a place to ride safely with their kids."
When I lived in Linwood (gateway to Whitinsville) and wanted to bike to Worcester, I ruled out four-lane Route 146 and settled for Route 122, lousy shoulder and all. Something like the Blackstone River Bikeway, a 26-mile path being planned from Blackstone to Worcester, would be ideal -- if it is designed properly and when it is not crowded with noncyclists.
Bicyclists are the first to sound the alarm about bike paths, because we've all seen bad ones. The Paul Dudley White Path along the Charles River in Boston, for example, is too narrow for two-way traffic, and the lack of a separate path for people on foot puts ambling pedestrians and high-speed bikers and skaters on a collision course.
Even the brand new Minuteman Bikeway from Bedford to Arlington is a disaster, cycling advocates say. The pavement is crumbling already, there are speed bumps too big for bikes, and metal gates at street intersections are often closed, forcing riders to dismount frequently and walk around.
But I've cycled on some well-designed, well-maintained bike paths, too, such as the ones circling the lakes in Minneapolis. Traffic goes one way only, and there are separate paths for walkers. Speed limits are posted and intersections are well-regulated. Cyclists and skaters call "on your left" and have room to pass politely without losing speed. I'm sure it takes continuous education and peer pressure for the community to enforce the rules.
Such success gives me high hopes for the Blackstone River Bikeway, which is making its way slowly through the bureaucratic pipeline.
The Massachusetts Highway Department has negotiated a contract with Cullinan Engineering Co. of Auburn for 18 months' work -- topographical mapping and data crunching -- to determine the exact route with the help of a Citizens Advisory Committee that will have its first meeting next month, according to project manager Jane Weidman.
And the bikeway is piggybacking nicely onto the state's second-largest highway project, the planned Massachusetts Turnpike interchange at Route 146 in Millbury. The Highway Department and the Turnpike Authority have agreed "in concept" to build a separate bikeway over the approximately five miles where the bike and highway projects overlap, Weidman said. Public acknowledgement of this came in March in a letter from Highway Department deputy chief engineer Gregory Prendergast to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stating that "segments of a commuter bikeway will be built within the roadway right-of-way."
A Federal Highway Administration grant and state money totaling $311,000 have been allocated for the bikeway, but the Highway Department has yet to award the engineering contract, which calls for about $125,000 more. The state could set the ball rolling and pursue the additional money later, but "they just haven't made it a priority," Weidman said. "We're on the launching pad."
To prod the Highway Department off the starting line, write Commissioner Laurinda Bedingfield, Mass. Highway Department, 10 Park Plaza, Boston 02116, or Josh Lehman, state bicycle-pedestrian coordinator, at the same address or call (617) 973-7329.
Meanwhile, cyclists can get a preview of the Blackstone Valley's scenic cycling terrain on a 35-mile bike ride from Uxbridge to Providence on June 5. Sponsored by the East Coast Greenway, the ride will have stops -- and pick up more riders -- in Woonsocket, Lincoln and Pawtucket, R.I., and will end with festivities in Roger Williams Park. For more information, call Weidman at (401) 884-3797 or community planner Nancy Brittain at the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission (508-278-9400).
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