Los Gatos Creek bike path, San Jose, CA. Photo by Gina Morey
For many recreational, athletic, commuting, and touring cyclists, bicycle paths and multiple use paths near the water tend towards many positive features.
- Easier to locate/build facility separate from traffic
It is obvious that waterfront land is next to the water. The result: Somewhat swampy, muddy ground. This can support a thin ribbon of asphalt or concrete, or a path composed of decomposed granite or gravel, or an improved "dirt" road. However, making a roadbed that can support heavy motorized vehicles, or rail transport, is often difficult in such soils. Adding to the basic difficulty of the soils, regular transportation developments often need to be raised far above the basic ground level to avoid potential floods. The result: An entire class of land, water courses, is usually better suited for bike path and multiple use path construction than for motorways.
- Easier to plan grade-separated crossings of intersecting street
Thanks to erosion, many waterway bicycle and recreational facilities are below street level. Surface streets and highways usually cross water courses on bridges or viaducts. When the local planning integrated waterway bicycle facilities into the overall infrastructure planning, these facilities are grade separated from roadways heavily used by motorized transit and/or rail transport.
- Capable of being the long bike/ped thoroughfares cyclists (and joggers, and skaters, enjoy)
Watercourses, especially river and creek beds, form long stretches where building regular roads can be problematical. As a consequence, they're often the scene for the longest of separated non-motorized improved riding facilities in a given region. This also holds for paths around reservoirs, natural and man-made lakes, and coastal areas. These developed recreational and commuting paths feature bathrooms, parking areas, picnic areas, and in some longer examples such as trails along canals, even camping spots. These features which so attract cyclists also appeal to other recreating people, including dog walkers, joggers (especially runners working on a long mileage day), skaters, skateboarders and equestrians. I'll note here that distance-riding skateboarders tend to be far more regular and predictable than skateboarders working on their stunts. I've even seen a skateboard with headlight and taillight along the Bay Shore Bike Way at night.
Ballona Creek bike path, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Richard Risemberg
- Planners like them too (fewer worries about motorist rage over right-of-way set-asides)
The wide audience to which watercourse river paths appeal is a positive point in their favor to recreational facility and waterway managers. It can be difficult to ask for funding for even the smallest recreational facility meant for only one target audience. For example, in San Diego County there are only two velodromes, one of which is at the local Olympic Training Facility. These short tracks are far outdistanced by the San Luis Rey River Path in Oceanside, the San Diego River Path stretching from Dog Beach in Ocean Beach out to Mission Valley, the paths around Lake Miramar and Lake Murray, the Pacific Beach Boardwalk, the Bay Shore Bike Way (including the Silver Strand from Imperial Beach to Coronado), all of which are actively used by people who aren't on bicycles at that particular moment.
- Usually a low grade, if there is a grade
One of the banes of cycling is hills. Lots of people who'd be perfectly happy rolling about on two (or more) self-powered wheels fear hills. This is especially true for those who are frustrated with conventional derailleur shifting, where putting the chain on the big chainring in the front has the opposite effect of putting the chain on the big cog in the back--with the occasional "instruction" from someone screaming about how you're "cross-chaining." Most internal geared systems simply don't have the gearing range of derailleur systems, and many riders have bikes with no shifting at all. For all these reasons, the relatively low grades you find in gentle river valleys, along the edges of lakes, or near some shorelines attract many riders.
- Attractive area to ride
It's not all about the degree of slope: Many watercourse and waterway bikeways are picturesque, if they're not concrete-lined flood control channels. The water attracts birds, from plain old ducks to brilliantly white egrets. Plants grow there--and stay green there, as they have plenty of water to moisten their roots. The water itself moderates the local microclimate. Often, local ridge lines, sound walls, berms, or tree plantings block traffic noise.
Unfortunately, along with the many positive features of waterway, watercourse, and waterfront bike paths come some demerits. Ironically, many of these negative features arise from the same roots as their positive features.
- Multiple other users
Attractive surroundings, grade separation from motorized traffic, picnic and bathroom facilities, smooth pavement, relatively long linear distances, and gentle grades that attract cyclists also appeal to other path users. In part that's why these facilities get planned--they're justified by the total user communities, not just the cyclists. The result is is on-path traffic that requires care when riding. Any given multiple use path may feature bird watchers, dog walkers, walkers, joggers, runners, skateboarders, rollerbladers, equestrians, strollers, picnicking families, surfers, fishers, water sports enthusiasts, recreational drug users, and yes, other cyclists. Some of these path users, including the cyclists, may not expect other path users traveling at speeds greater, or less than, their own. The result of all this perfectly normal traffic is that riders must take more care, and sometimes travel at a lower speed, than they might otherwise prefer or enjoy.
- Potential for neglect
Physical and bureaucratic separations between dedicated non-motorized recreation facility and the roadway can lead to lousy surfaces on bike paths along watercourses. Unless the responsible planners and engineers routinely use those paths, they may not have a good mechanism in place, such as regular field inspections or a long-term repaving schedule, to find and correct problems. Further, the responsible planners and engineers may not be with a streets department that routinely handles resurfacing, but with a park maintenance or open space monitoring department that doesn't have construction resources, or even street sweeping equipment, directly under its control. This can lead to a collection of surface hazards ranging from fallen branches and soil washovers to cracked, potholed, and rutted asphalt or concrete paths.
- Planned by landscapers, not traffic engineers
The planners who plan recreational facilities are often not traffic engineers, who have a predisposition for straight stretches, but landscape architects, park planners, and gardeners. These worthy people place more of a premium on bucolic outdoor experiences than most road planners. The results can be paths with more curves, plantings that create blind corners, an absence of guard rails on bridges, and a lack of such painted amenities as lane markers or fog lines. Even features designed to keep motorized traffic off the paths, such as reinforced bollards and chained entrances, can pose hazards to cyclists, particularly at night.
It's obvious that waterway bike paths are near the water. Sometimes that water overflows. Rain, the tide, flooding, even plants downstream clogging the drainage can create water hazards on what should be a dry path. An example of flooding along a watercourse is this little puddle in the middle of the Rose Canyon Bike Path in San Diego. It is especially notable for its hazardous location just north of a downhill S-turn with tall plants, and for its size. It can reach sixty to eighty feet in length after a week or two of intermittent heavy rain. As an aside, this puddle, in this state, was enough to convince one rider to turn around.
Flooded area of Rose Canyon bike path, San Diego, CA. Photo by Robert Leone
My worst personal experiences with this particular variety of hazard were a fall on an extremely slippery patch of algae, followed by a goose attack, and a much more dangerous episode where the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had locked gates giving access to a flooding flood control channel of a river path but didn't check upstream for touring cyclists heading west from Glendora. Even high tide can make a waterway bike path problematic.
Get to know your own local paths
Your local watercourse, waterway, and water's edge paths and trails can be an important component to your commute, your shopping and utility rides, your touring and recreation. Get to know them: Daytime familiarity can help you navigate them at night. Clear weather familiarity can give you practice with transitioning temporary obstacles, and knowing the best short cuts and detours. Further, local familiarity gives you the knowledge and authority to confidently make recommendations to visiting cyclists.