Head East on Spruce Street and take a left turn off the South Street Bridge onto a locally famous riverside right-of-way and you’re promised a speedy trip from downtown to points upriver on the Schuylkill. There are broad lanes, gorgeous river views and limited access points. It is vital to the health and well-being of Philadelphia. This right-of-way, however, has been ruined by excessive traffic, people on cellphones, inappropriately-sized vehicles, and worst of all, slow people who aren’t paying attention. And it needs to be widened.
I’m not talking about Interstate 76, which is a lost cause. I’m talking about the Schuylkill River Trail.
(In fairness, both get you from Center City to Conshohocken in about the same amount of time.)
If you’re like me, the only thing that keeps you from falling into suicidal depression and allows you to control your otherwise crippling alcohol dependency is regular exercise. My usual exercise bike ride is from my home (near the Fresh Grocer) to just about the county line (just upriver of Manayunk) and back. I don’t go further because I don’t trust the suburbs (They vote Republican out there!). It’s twelvish miles to the county line, and seven of them are very pleasant, easy, fast riding. Two and a half further miles are on-street and that’ll be the subject of another irate cyclist opinion piece. Then there are two and a half miles, from the South Street Bridge to the Connecting Railroad Bridge (just north of Girard Avenue), which are consistently fender-to-fender hell on wheels.
And what a variety of wheels there are: Segway tours. Rollerbladers. Skateboarders from Payne’s Park. Cyclists, of course. On mountain bikes. Or BMX bikes. Or serious commuter bikes. Or recumbent bikes. Or Indego bikes. Or those four-person bikes which take up the full lane.
Add to that the runners, joggers and walkers, and you have a lot of traffic moving at a wide variety of speeds. And thanks to the fit and beautiful people of Philadelphia who make use of the trail, a hell of a lot of these people are riding or running distracted.
This is a “mixed-use” trail, of course, so all these people have a right to be there. It also has signs posted reading “Speed Limit Five Miles Per Hour” so if you’re a law-abiding citizen, passing oughtn’t to be an issue, since you’re then jogging, running or riding at just above a brisk walking pace.
This is patently ridiculous of course. Part of the reason you ride a bike, jog, or run is to get somewhere quickly, or to get exercise from going nowhere quickly, so a 5 MPH speed limit defeats the purpose of a multi-use trail—it restricts it to being a walking trail.
Furthermore, it’s unenforceable. Traffic engineers have known this for ages, and that’s why your typical 55 MPH limited freeway has a “design speed” (the speed at which a curve can be taken safely) much higher than 55 MPH, since free-flowing traffic picks its own speed, frequently as high as the lower 80s
On the trail, it is more nuanced: Runners run at 7 MPH, cyclists ride at 12-14 MPH typically. Add in the Segways at 10MPH, rollerbladers at some other speed, and so forth. Now add the skateboarders screaming down the hill from Payne’s Park. Then add the couples with baby carriages and the small children on small wobbly bikes everywhere. Then, of course, realize that many of these people see the yellow line in the center of the trail as nothing more than a pretty decoration, and you have a recipe for nasty collisions. (The combined impact speed of a head-on collision between a cyclist and a baby carriage can be as high as 20 MPH, remember.)
All this traffic is expected to coexist in a 10-foot wide trail with one lane in each direction, and traffic is only getting worse as the trail grows in popularity, not only with recreational users but cycle commuters, for whom speed is essential. (Philadelphia, incidentally, has the highest share of cycle commuting amongst major cities in the United States. A whopping 2 percent of Philadelphians get to work by bike, despite our generally poor-to-nonexistent cycling infrastructure.)
The trail is becoming a victim of its own success, in short. We’ve seen this before with the construction of Interstate highways, which promised free-flowing traffic, easy relaxing commutes to work and a bright clean suburban future free of the dirt and grime of the inner cities. We ended up with miles-long traffic jams instead, thanks to the phenomenon of induced demand. Who would have thought that better roads would lead to more drivers? (At the expense, of course, of the railroads, of walking and cycling, and most of all, of the natural environment, which we paved over to build subdivisions and Walmart parking lots.)
If we acknowledge that widening roads causes more traffic, then why advocate it for the trail? Well, it would require widening with a caveat: separation of traffic modes. Cyclists traveling at 12-14 MPH shouldn’t have to interact with traffic moving at 5 MPH, especially not parents with baby carriages. A separate trail, only through the most crowded lengths, for cyclists and other high-speed traffic, would do wonders for trail safety and speed.
The right-of-way, of course, is constricted in many areas, so a fully separate trail may not be practical in some areas. The Federal Highway Administration recommends a five-foot minimum width for cycle lanes, and such even if the lanes were added as interior “fast lanes” they would at least double the width of the trail and would have to disappear in some areas. Even if they are limited to where room exists, they would eliminate a vast amount of traffic conflict along the trail. Ideally these fast lanes would have some kind of barrier between them and the slow lanes, to prevent stray pedestrians and small children from wandering into the fast lanes and being run down and mangled into unrecognizable smears of blood and viscera. It’s common sense.
As we move forward into a less suburban and more urban world, we’re going to have to rethink what constitutes a major artery. We think nothing of widening an Interstate highway or an arterial road. Let’s then take the Schuylkill River Trail for what it is: an arterial high-capacity multi-use trail, and treat it accordingly. And that’s to say nothing of the public health benefits: a wider Schuylkill River Trail means a less wide Philadelphia.