Mount Vernon: An Ode to Dedicated Trails

A couple weeks ago Danielle and I joined a couple of my new classmates on a ride out to Mount Vernon. The beautiful trail winds its way along the Potomac from the Washington estate past Alexandria, where it is briefly interrupted, DCA , the National Cemetery, and Fort Meyers, terminating finally in Rosslyn at the Key Bridge. Almost all of it is off-street trail much like what I was used to in Minneapolis. In general it is quite a nice trail; smooth pavement, except for some boardwalks here and there, beautiful scenery (can’t get much better than the monuments), even a place where you can get so close to landing aircrafts that you can almost touch them. With all that, though, the trail lacks some surprising features I’ve seen other places.

Most prominently in Lake Park, Korea, exist speed-segregated trails. All the way around the lake were walking paths, “fast walking” or running paths, and bike or really fast running paths. Even when the paths converged, they did so only in that there was no physical barrier between the three; occasionally the walking and running paths would join forces. In a park as busy as Lake Park was, it was hard to imagine not having these trails separated out. Even during the slow periods there were dozens of people sharing the path with you, after all it was the biggest, and only real outdoor recreation area for a city of a million. Sure there were other bike paths, but they almost all pass through the park at some point, and if you are terrified of the traffic on the streets (as I should have been) Lake Park is the longest stretch of uninterrupted trail. The segregated trails exist back home, too, in Minneapolis.

Though not so rigid as the Ilsanite park, the Minneapolitan Grand Rounds Scenic Byway is almost all split into “wheeled traffic” and “biped” traffic. There are signs around the lakeshore bike trails telling walkers, “If you don’t have wheels under your feet, you’re on the wrong trail.” It’s a friendly convenience both to bikers and pedestrians. The trails are supposed to be speed limited to 10mph, but even at that speed, crashing into a walker or runner who can’t hear you shout “left side!” is going to do some damage to someone. Thus the separation allows bikers to only worry about slow pokes weaving around the bikeway in a carelessly unpredictable manner with iPods loudly obstructing their hearing, and there is almost always an opportunity to safely pass such nuisance bikers.

On the Vernon trail there is no segregation, a perfect union where all ambulation is created equal, with no special treatment or exclusion. Want to walk very slowly down the middle of the path with headphones on so you can’t hear people telling you to get out of your way? Go for it! This is America, you have that right. And so, I make my first argument in favor of segregation, but only as it applies to speed and mode of travel. It is not as though there is no space for a second two-way trail for walkers. Throughout most of the Mt. Vernon Trail there is plenty of room for separate trails, and the congestion certainly merits it. As an example of the benefits, I present my experience riding this weekend.

For some reason Saturday was the day everyone decided to wander aimlessly down the trail without really paying attention to their surroundings. I was coming up quickly behind a runner who had headphones on and shouted “left side!” from a good distance. Her reaction was to stop in her tracks and say, “where, what side!?” I’m not sure how she could be confused by “left side.” A reasonable person should assume the person saying it is behind (answering the “where”), and coming up on the left side (answering the “what side”) and then get to the right, or at least not be spooked by the biker whizzing past. To her credit, at least she heard me, dozens of others think it is perfectly acceptable to throw in the headphones and tune everything out, as the old Atmosphere line goes, “put my headphones on for this world I ignore.”

Bikers can shout “left side” at these people all we want but they won’t hear us, and sometimes will get spooked, and if they do something dangerous (like stop, or move to the left instead of the right) someone could get hurt. The point is, with segregated trails this shouldn’t happen, or is at least limited to the few points where trails merge or biped traffic meandering onto the wrong trail.

Washington and Arlington are great places to bike, but especially during busy times and around tourist attractions (which are everywhere in this town) the trails can become overly congested and therefore inconvenient and dangerous. I suspect it will be a long time before it happens, but I hope there are plans for expanding the trails around here to separate the wheeled from the non-wheeled.