CaBi's got a brand new app

I've been using Spotcycle since CaBi came on line, but last week I downloaded the CaBi app. I'm probably not using all the features it presents because, y'know, I'm in my 40's, but I do like being able to see my all-time stats (coming up on 1000 Rides!) And I can unlock a bike with the app, which is cool even if I haven't yet used it. 

heck out some key features highlighted below!

  • Find bikes and docks: Use the color-coded map for easy viewing and real-time bike and dock availability, special icon for valet service locations and favorite station designations to help you plan your ride.
  • Purchase a pass: Purchase a 4-Hour, 3-Day or Single Trip Pass easily through the app. You can even unlock bikes using only the mobile app and avoid the kiosk all together!
  • Get ride notifications: Enable push notifications to get important updates on your ride, including a timer for your current ride and confirmation that you docked your bike successfully!
  • Rent a bike: Log into your account to get a code and you'll be on your way.
  • See your ride stats: Use the pull down drawer to see your stats, including your last ride, your all-time stats, number of rides and total miles ridden.
Want to get started? Download it now! The Capital Bikeshare mobile app is available on the App Store or Google Play!

One part of Palisades Trail Project moves forward, while other slowly falls down

A couple of stories about the Palisades Trail have popped up this week: DDOT has started the Palisades Trail Project Over ArizonaAvenue, NW study and the Post wrote an article about the decaying Foundry Branch Trestle and the effort to save and reuse it. 

DC owns the ROW from Foxhall Road all the way to Norton Street. They bought it back in the 70's to build a water main, but after insisting that the water main come with a trail, neighbors changed course and decided they didn't want it.  So it has pretty much sat untouched with DDOT occasionally saying it would make a good place for a trail and putting it into long range planning documents. Last summer, DDOT proposed upgrading the section from Nebraska to Galena as part of the upgrade to the recreation center, but when the final design was presented last spring, it did not include the trail other than to note it as a "proposed pedestrian path".

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But now they're going to study a larger section of the trail as part of a project to rebuild the Arizona Avenue pedestrian bridge.

This study will consider the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the superstructure and substructure of the approximately 110 ft. long existing pedestrian bridge across Arizona Avenue NW and the related existing connecting trail.

The study consists of two phases. This first phase will generate a preliminary design for the bridge, trail alignments and widths, storm water facilities, and other amenities along the trail. The timing and schedule of the second phase will be determined once the scope is determined and the first phase of the work is completed.

Both phases of the study incorporate multiple opportunities for community input. The first community meeting will share existing condition information and is anticipated to occur in the fall of 2017. Meeting details will be provided as they are available.

I've been told the Arizona bridge is in bad shape and also needs to be raised because it has insufficient clearance below. I don't see how this is worth the cost if a more formalized trail isn't built as part of it. I think either the people of the Palisades should get a trail from Galena to Nebraska (or Canal) or they should just have the bridge removed. 

The trestle over foundry branch is a little more complicated. That still belongs to the Rider's Fund/WMATA

But the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which inherited the structure after the trolley closed in 1962, has signaled only a desire to demolish it. Only recently, faced with the difficulties of bulldozing a designated historic structure, has Metro grown more receptive to ceding the property to the city for use as a trail.

Metro spokesman Richard Jordan said the transit agency is in discussions with various agencies to determine the best solution moving forward and is working with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) “to gauge their interest in taking over responsibility for the bridge and advancing repairs. These discussions are ongoing and no decisions have been made.”

[WMATA didn't get the bridge in 1962, but rather in 1996] 

“The bridge is a historic resource,” DDOT spokeswoman Maura Danehey said. She said the city is interested in the restoration of the bridge if it could potentially be reused as part of the city’s growing trail network. But before assuming responsibility for the structure, DDOT would first need to conduct a trail feasibility study to determine costs and benefits, Danehey said. The agency plans to launch that study this year.

But there’s no clear timetable when the agencies involved will determine if the restoration is feasible, how to fund such an effort and what would it take to rehabilitate it. A push from Metro to seek demolition isn’t completely off the table.

DDOT is reportedly starting a study to determine if the bridge has any transportation value. If that comes up positive, then it would be followed by another study to determine what would be needed to rehabilitate the bridge or if that's even possible. 

This trail still has considerable obstacles to overcome, but if the north section is built and the bridge preserved/rehabilitated, that would represent huge steps forward. 

Arlington County is updating its Bicycle Master Plan

Montgomery County isn't the only county in the area updating their Bicycle Master Plan, Arlington is getting in on the fun too

The current Master Transportation Plan Bicycle Element was adopted in July 2008.  While many of the goals and policies of the plan remain relevant, there have been significant changes in technologies, facilities and best practices that warrant a comprehensive update of the plan.  The plan update will incorporate input from people with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds from civic and business organizations. 

Since 2008, bike commuting in the county has more than doubled. 

A working group started meeting in May of this year and will continue for 10-15 months to help county staff to work on final recommendations to be adopted by the board. At the first meeting they reviewed a baseline version of the report which included this map showing the intersection of Arlington and Washington Boulvards as the crashiest in the county

Crash map

And a status on projects from 2008

  • 50 (46%) of planned projects listed in Appendix B are complete or partially built/implemented. 29 (27%) projects are funded and in process of implementation. 30 (28%) have not been funded, are to be built by others (state or federal) or have been cancelled.
  • A Significant number of bike lane projects have been implemented that were not in 2008 plan
  • 25 miles of bike lanes with 1 mile of buffered bike lanes and 1 mile of protected bike lanes now in place. Sharrow use is limited to a few locations with insufficient room for a bike lane

At the last meeting they worked on an updated framework that defined goals and sub-goals. New goals dealt with bike-sharing, e-bikes, bike parking that accommodates cargo bikes, etc...

For the next month, they're seeking public input at meet and greets.

Throughout this month and mid-September, you’ll have the opportunity to offer feedback—via a survey from the group— and learn more about the Bike Plan Update process. They’ll have the answers on all your questions about the why and how of overarching policies and what types of projects are gaining focus. Visit any of the below events to participate:

Car Free Day 2017


Take the free pledge to go car free for a day at  Telework, bicycle, walk, take transit or carpool/vanpool (car-lite).


Friday, September 22, 2017 – Take the online pledge now!


Washington D.C., Suburban MD, and Northern Virginia.


Drop your keys for a day on Friday, September 22 to reduce traffic congestion, save money, and clean the air! 

Everyone who takes the free pledge earns a buy-one-get-one-free offer from Chipotle Mexican Grill! Plus, every person will be entered into a raffle for great prizes including a Kindle FireCapital Bikeshare annual memberships, $25 SmarTrip cards, gift cards to shops and restaurants, and more!


To take the pledge to go car free or car-lite, or to find out more information, visit

Advocates attempt to resurrect the Civil War Railroad Trail

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Advocates in Washington County are attempting to resurrect what is arguably the best remaining rail trail opportunity in the state of Maryland. The Civil War Railroad Trail would run for 23 miles from the C&O Canal Towpath at Weverton (near the Appalachian Trail) to Hagerstown, passing through Keedysville on the way. It would run on the abandoned portion of the old Washington County Railroad to Roxbury and then adjacent to the still active portion to Hagerstown City Park.

The project will create tourism, economic development and healthy lifestyle opportunities for the Hagerstown and Washington County area.

Connectivity will be established, via the trail, between Hagerstown and Washington DC; Pittsburgh, PA., Northern, VA and could augment commuter traffic to the MARC rail line in Brunswick, MD

The project has already been killed twice. First in 1994, due to strong opposition "from south county residents and other groups" about property rights and fear of imminent domain issues. The project was revived again in 2012 and renamed the Civil War Railroad Trail.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners agreed... to reopen talks about building a “Civil War Railroad Trail” that would follow the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line from Hagerstown to Weverton.

Advocates were hopeful the environment had changed. 

[County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III] said the opposition in the 1990s came before rails-to-trails became common and their value was widely understood. Since then, the Western Maryland Rail Trail has been built from Fort Frederick to Pearre Station, passing through Hancock, Md.

“I think we will work diligently to try to ensure the property owners’ rights are protected,” Kroboth said. “We’re trying to create an amenity to our community that creates ... tourism opportunities and also possibly some small business development.”

There was some early support. But of course one way things had changed was the rise of the Tea Party and Agenda 21 fears.

These ribbons of trails that Washington DC environmentalists are threading throughout America are called GREENLINING (or greenways).   Back in the early 1970’s when the likes of Rep. Mo Udall (also the guy who locked up Alaska, btw) tried to get national landuse planning into federal law (and failed), the environmental statists switched to the concept of ‘greenlining’ to put national landuse in place piece by piece.

Rail-trails are one of the mechanisms they use.  Some local people may see the trail as innocuous (or as a boon to the local economy which will not be true in Washington County!), but what follows will be a clamoring for controls on the land in the VIEWSHED of the trail.   It won’t be long and the county will be pressured into re-zoning land along the trail, or the state will come in to buy more land.  Some yuppies from Washington, DC will say NO hog farms where I want to ride my bike!  And, damn, I don’t want to see old farm machinery or a lot of laundry hanging on peoples’ clotheslines!

And a lot of adjacent property owners tried to claim ownership and raise fears of crime

“Several of the neighboring landowners have been talking and we question whether the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) actually owns the land that it claims,” Daly wrote. “Some of the landowners have documents that they believe mean that when the railroad was abandoned in 1978, the land reverted to them and so does not now and never did belong to the State.

“Other landowners have used and occupied the former B&O rail bed for more than the statutory period of 20 years and therefore under Maryland law they, not DNR, own the land.”

critics had a long list of reasons against the rail trail, such as the high price tag and the possible crime and noise it could bring. 

By July of 2012, after it drew strong protests at a public meeting in Boonsboro, the trail was cancelled again. They even refused state money for a feasibility study.

“That’s the end of it, as far as we’re concerned,” said John F. Wilson, the associate director for stewardship within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ land acquisition and planning unit.

During a discussion Tuesday about Maryland Department of Transportation’s offer of $100,000 for a feasibility study for the trail, Commissioner William B. McKinley moved to end the county’s participation in the project entirely. McKinley said there were too many unanswered questions, so accepting feasibility study money “would be wrong.”

BTW, here's a statement from Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline in January of 2012

"I think it’s a good project, I really do,” 

And here he is in July

“I have no support for this trail whatsoever,”

Anyway, the project is such a good idea that supporters are reluctant to let it go. 

Retired consulting environmental engineer Chip Wood's presentation promoting the recreational trail was scheduled on the Washington County Board of Commissioners' meeting agenda.

Wood asked commissioners to consider the "rights of the public majority" who want the trail rather than the few who want to bar access.

He said the Washington County Department of Planning and Zoning has said there is a countywide deficit for walking and jogging trails, especially in south county, that the rail trail would address.

Wood referred to a letter county resident William Daly wrote five years ago to an attorney about several neighboring landowners questioning whether the Maryland Department of Natural Resources actually owns the land.

Some landowners had documents they believed indicated the land reverted to them after the railroad abandoned a large stretch of the proposed trail, according to Herald-Mail Media archives.

Wood asked the commissioners to have the state review the matter.

Opponents continue to claim they have deeds to the land and that they're concerned about "crime and safety."

Anyway, not to get too far out ahead of things, since even this seems unlikely right now....but if the trail were built, they could then build a trail along the 3.7 mile Antietam Branch that goes around to the east side of Hagerstown past parks and the baseball stadium. And that could connect to a trail built on the ROW of the old Hagerstown and Frederick Electric Railroad which connects all the way to Frederick. Ah, to dream.

Why aren't we helping students ride Capital Bikeshare to school?

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Capital Bikeshare is an important piece of DC's transportation system, and one that is found in every ward in DC, but we've made it harder for high school students to use it to get to and from school than we need to. As a story on CNN highlighted, for a lot of kids taking bikeshare to school is illegal, because the age limit is 16 years old. 

The age minimums for U.S. bikeshare systems are generally 16 or 18 years of age, restricting most highschoolers from riding. How to best set these age minimums is an afterthought. A Boston department of transportation spokeswoman told CNN the department wasn't even sure why its bikeshare's age minimum had been set at 16. Many defer to the company that operates their bikeshare system. These companies are inclined to set high age minimums rather than pay additional insurance costs.

The insurance costs is a reason I have not heard before. I thought they set it at 16 so they could avoid the helmet requirement - kids under 16 are required to wear a helmet. I wasn't even aware CaBi had insurance, but I suppose they do. 

Research shows that children who exercise in the morning concentrate better in school. When more people rides bikes, air quality improves, aiding everyone's health. Having a bicycle also teaches responsibility and confidence.

So one thing we could do is lower the age limit to 15 or 14. We could do it only for DC residents if we're worried about a bunch of 14 year old tourists tearing the roads up. We could also lower the required helmet age, but that wouldn't be necessary, just easier and it would encourage more riding. I'm not sure what the science is on helmet benefits as it relates to age. 

"We should absolutely be giving these kids memberships or reduced-fee memberships because it lowers our costs," said Gabe Klein, co-founder of the transportation consultancy CityFi and former transportation commissioner in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The second thing we can do is give high school kids free bikeshare memberships. We could make them free only during the times when the Kids Ride free program operates (which, admittedly is "all day, every day (including weekends)"), but it wouldn't save us much money over just making it free all the time. It will still be cheaper then letting them ride transit for free.

In addition to all the other benefits of biking for transportation, it could help reduce truancy.

Even though students in the District can ride public transportation for free, some said their commutes are long and public transit isn’t always reliable.

“I have to catch two buses to get to school,” said Lloyd Hardy, a rising senior at a local charter school.

“Sometimes the bus is not there on time or there’s a delay. And during winter and daylight saving it’s dark in the morning. Georgia Ave. is a nice place but sometimes there’s some shady things going on so it’s hard to get to school on time,” Hardy shared. If you’re late, Hardy says his school gives you detention. “So If you miss the bus, just don’t even go.”

CaBi's not always available either. But if transportation problems are a reason for skipping school, then we should give them as many options as we can. 

We don't have to do all of these things. We could give free CaBi memberships to kids 16 and over and not lower the CaBi age. Or we could lower the CaBi age but not change the helmet age. But the more of these things we do, the more we can give students more choices. Choices that will save them time, help them learn and make it easier for them to get to school in the first place.

NACTO webinar on cycling equity

Cities across the U.S. are building more, and higher-quality bike lane networks - resulting in more riders, and increased safety for those taking to two wheels on our cities' streets. However, this increasingly-popular mode for getting around is not equally accessible to all communities, with Black and Hispanic populations facing both social and infrastructural barriers to cycling.

Join Senior Researcher Charles Brown for an overview of his recent study, focused on understanding and identifying barriers to Black and Hispanic bicycle access and use in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the U.S. Brown's study indicates that while Black and Hispanic communities have a strong interest in bicycling, infrastructure investments such as bike share and dedicated bicycle facilities are more likely to be directed to non-minority neighborhoods and communities.

Tue, Aug 15, 2017 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM EDT

Greenbelt (Almost) Gets a Great New Bike Trail

By Jeff Lemieux

Greenbelt is putting the finishing touches on a great new bike trail that connects Cherrywood Lane, a key bike route that goes past the Greenbelt Metro station, with Branchville Ave, which is the main access road to Lake Artemesia and and an entry point to the extensive Anacostia tributary trail system. The new connector trail allows cyclist to avoid a congested shopping mall entrance and the hairy intersection at Cherrywood Lane and Greenbelt Road. The new segment is marked by the box in this map:

Screenshot 2017-08-09 at 12.48.35 AM

The good news is that the trail is quite lovely, and passes a pond with lots of wildlife. Here is a picture:

Screenshot 2017-08-09 at 12.52.15 AM

What’s the bad news? Well, apparently the county, which controls Branchville Ave., has decided that it would be too dangerous to allow the trail to connect to the street. So Prince George's County has mandated a full curb where the trail meets the street.

Screenshot 2017-08-09 at 12.54.26 AM

Note that the sidewalk is also not connected to the street – it just ends a at either end of the lot. If you look closely you can even see a utility pole blocking where the sidewalk would go!

Screenshot 2017-08-09 at 12.57.35 AM

So now this trail entrance requires bike commuters and disabled people to cross the grass and climb the curb, or else just give up and go back to riding through the congested (and truly dangerous!) shopping zone. No wheelchairs allowed.

Greenbelt city planner Jessica Bellah reports that the City is trying to get the county to relent, if for no other reason than that now our City maintenance vehicles can’t get to the site they’re supposed to maintain.

I presume the county planner who made this decision is the same person who has decided to keep the newly completed College Park/Riverdale Park trolley trail closed at the new Whole Foods development for so long, also for our safety. Because in that case, it’s so much safer to ride a bike or push a stroller out on Route 1 (which has no sidewalks on the east side toward College Park).

We’re making lots of great progress on trails and pedestrian infrastructure in many places in Prince George’s county, but there are still some real impediments in our county government.

We can, and should, share the trails with e-bike cyclists

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Paul Basken's Washington Post article (and his follow up here) calling for a ban on e-bikes on multi-use trails continues a conversation that cyclists have been having for some time now about what is and isn't a bike and who should and should not be allowed on trails and other facilities. Much of the bicycle advocacy world is coalescing around the position that low-speed electric assist bikes should be treated like purely human-powered bicycles, but there are those, like Mr. Basken, who are concerned that this will bring along changes too unpleasant to be lived with. I don't think that position is very strong or well-reasoned, and such a policy stands in the way of better bicycling and better transportation policy. 

Our transportation policy should be built around the goal of creating a system that moves people easily, equitably and with the least amount of damage. This is why bicycles are so great in the first place. Bicycles can move people quickly, cheaply, safely and cleanly and are especially useful in urban environments where travel distances are short, congestion is high and parking is at a premium. And on top of that, cycling has public health benefits. All of these benefits can be found with e-bikes, even if they're less pronounced.  

From a purely selfish standpoint, more trail users and cyclists (e or otherwise) means there is a larger constituency for trails and more bikes on the road, bringing greater political influence and safety in numbers.

E-bikes result in positive mode shifts, making transportation cleaner, healthier, safer and more efficient

In most ways e-bikes are like regular bikes. E-bikes cause no more congestion than regular bicycles - which means they cause far less than cars - and require no more public space for parking. And "e-bike riders exhibit nearly identical safety behavior as regular bike riders" meaning that like an e-bike will cause fewer injuries and deaths than an automobile will. 

The key difference, that they make biking easier via a battery-powered motor, means that they compare somewhat poorly to traditional bikes for health or environmental benefits but significantly better than automobiles and transit. Where e-bikes have been used they have led to mode shifting away from automobiles and transit, with people who have access to an e-bike biking more, for longer distances and as a larger percentage of their trips. Surveys show they could increase bike trips in the Netherlands by between 4-9%. Even at this early stage, e-bikes represent the largest adoption of an alternative fuel vehicle in history. Despite the fact that they're motorized, the low-power and human-power assistance means that they're significantly more energy efficient than others modes. When people move from automobiles - or even transit - to e-bikes it means they're making the total transportation system cleaner. 

Energy intensity

With public health, again, the benefits of e-biking are less than cycling, but because the rider is still pedaling they're still significantly better than more sedentary modes

From a transportation standpoint, they also bring transportation diversity and equity because they're able to make biking available to people who otherwise would not ride. Studies in Europe have shown that the earliest adopters of e-bikes in Europe have been the elderly, and that women are much more likely to buy e-bikes than men. And once women have e-bikes they will also use them more.  E-bikes serve people with longer commutes, people with cargo bikes and those who don't want to or can't shower at work.

So, making it easier for people to switch to e-bikes for their transportation is something we should pursue, just as we strive to make it easier for people to switch to traditional bikes. And one way to make it easier is to improve their utility. Allowing e-bikes onto trails will, by definition, improve their utility, which will result in more mode shift; bringing all the environmental, health, congestion-relief and land use benefits such a shift would create.

The concerns are based exclusively on unfounded fear

While Basken seems to accept that this mode shift would have environmental and health benefits, he nonetheless opposes allowing them on trails and states three reasons for doing so. He fears that allowing e-bikes on trails will scare ordinary cyclists away, thus offsetting the benefits described above. He claims that many bicyclists and pedestrians believe there should be a place for people who want some kind of pavement without any motorized vehicles. And he at least implies that allowing e-bikes on trails will have negative impacts on safety.

Basken's concern that e-bikes will scare away traditional cyclists isn't particularly developed and is only hinted at once, but suffice it to say, he offers no proof that this is true. The evidence we do have indicates otherwise. Minnesota has allowed e-bikes on trails since 2012, and yet bike counts at 7 trail locations in Minneapolis are up 15% from 2012 to 2016. Most of Europe allows e-bikes on trails and has for several years and yet there has been no backlash or movement to ban them, nor has there been any drop in biking. If traditional cyclists are being driven away, it is a very small number. 

His second claim about the attitudes of bicyclists and pedestrians is more clearly stated, but like his earlier claim bereft of any evidence. The only survey of attitudes he cites shows that most think that e-bikes should be allowed on trails and is immediately denounced by him. But that survey shows more than he indicates. While it's true that 25% of the respondents owned an e-bike, they broke respondents into two groups, league members and non-league members. Though the ownership rate in the 2nd group was more than 50% higher, the opinions of the two groups was nearly the same - indicating that ownership isn't the main driver of opinion. Furthermore, the Canadian run Electric Bike 2000 Project found that 95% of cyclists, when given exposure to an e-bike, felt that e-bikes should be allowed on shared-use paths. And in Minnesota, where they've been legal on trails, Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota said "There are certainly some purists out there who don't think they should be on the Greenway, but I think they're in the minority."  While it may be true that many would like to keep e-bikes off of trails, the evidence shows that most would not. 

His third claim is that we don't really know if adding bikes onto trails is safe, and he strongly implies that it is not, again without evidence. But here again, a study of comparative safety shows that e-bike cyclists "exhibit nearly identical safety behavior as regular bike riders" and that on shared use paths "speeds of e-bike riders (11.0kph) were lower than regular bicyclists (12.6kph)." And this was not a one-off as other studies also show that e-bike speeds do not differ much from bicycle speeds and when they do, it is primarily because they don't spend as much time at slower speeds, not because they go a faster top speed. Basken tries to argue that the 20mph top speed of a legal e-bike is far outside the norm and does show by showing Strava data from the Capital Crescent Trail. But he chose an uphill segment on a trail with a 15mph speed limit. Naturally the speed will be slower there. On a flatter section of a trail with no speed limit, around half of all cyclists top 20mph. If weight is a concern, there is already no weight limit on trails and the e-bike shown above weighs ~20% less than a Capital Bikeshare does. 

If the concern is that e-bike riders will go too fast or ride too recklessly, well we already have rules against that. As WABA said ", the best way to keep our trails as pleasant places is not by excluding different kinds of riders, it’s by practicing courtesy and common sense." Basken says these rules don't work because they are widely ignored by riders and never enforced by police. This is an odd position for someone to take when they're arguing in favor of a rule. Rules are what we're relying on to keep dangerous behavior off the trail, let's focus on making them work.

Allowing e-bikes on trails will increase their utility. This should result in more mode switching from cars to e-bikes, bringing with it a host of benefits. Most people are fine with e-bikes on trails and e-bike riders don't behave any differently than regular cyclists do. So why let unsubstantiated fear of "motors" keep them off? After all, we already allow motors on the Capital Crescent Trail in the form of Electronic Personal Assistive Mobility Devices (EPAMD). If tax-paying, freedom-cherishing bicyclists and pedestrians are looking for a place with some kind of pavement without motors on it, they're already going to have to look for some place else. Meanwhile there are a lot of parents buying bikes like this:

image from

Do we really need to ban this family from the Capital Crescent Trail?

This is not the face of e-biking that Basken wants you to see, but it is far closer to the truth. He showed 4 scary images of the what e-bikes could look like. Of them, one is a bicycle that you can already ride on the trail. The other three have motors and speeds that exceed the limits to be considered a class I or class II e-bike. Throughout the articles he conflates the e-bikes I've shown above with automobiles by calling their users "motorists"; the trail a "respite from motoring", and writing about the "clear dangers" a letter-to-the-editor writer who wrote about not wanting to ride next to cars "properly associates with motors." But it's ridiculous to claim that people are afraid of motors. It's like saying someone who doesn't want a tiger living with them is scared of cats. 

We can safely allow low-speed e-bikes on our trails, and doing so will make us all better off. That's something we should advocate for.

Don’t Be Exclusive: Leave Some Pavement For Non-Motored Bikes

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Signs along the Capital Crescent Trail make clear both that "motorized vehicles" are not allowed, and that the trail is is backed by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

By Paul Basken

In the days since writing an article for the Post on the subject of motorized vehicles on bike-and-pedestrian trails, I've gotten a pretty good taste of a couple things.

One, as we know, emotions are easily aroused in both motor users and bicyclists when discussing their points of intersection. Motor users tend to embrace concepts such as freedom, speed and convenience. Bicyclists also prize freedom, but tend to put safety ahead of the other two.

Second, as is also now well-recognized by Americans, our national tone of public discussion on many topics has grown chronically inattentive to both facts and irony, too often impatient and un-neighborly, and prone to settlement by sheer force rather than data.

And yet, given the stakes, it seemed worth attempting. The article grew from the almost daily experience of watching motorized bikes speed along the Capitol Crescent Trail, even though that rare respite from motoring is lined with signs saying they are simply not permitted.

When asked, some users plead ignorance. Many others are defiant, insisting that anyone questioning them is merely mistaken, and that the phrase "No Motorized Vehicles" just does not apply to the particular motorized vehicle they have chosen to use.

A search to better understand what's going on led to surprise after surprise. Yes, all types of motorized vehicles are clearly banned on the Capitol Crescent and other trails, but local authorities often weren't sure of that. In that environment, local bike sellers can be found promoting their multi-thousand-dollar motorized models for trail use, and similarly cite indifference to or unawareness of the law. Police enforcement is virtually non-existent.

Even stranger: The Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the region's main bicyclist advocacy group, has not only declined to protest motorized trail incursions, but has been lobbying local leaders to make them legal. And it's been doing that without even asking its members if they agree. Furthermore, the head of the Rails To Trails Conservancy, the nation's leading force for building such trails, sometimes has taken his own motorized vehicle on the Capitol Crescent.

How to make sense of all these things?

An obvious first suspect, certainly in Washington, is the ever-present mix of finances and politics. Naturally bike groups such as WABA get some money from bike sellers, which in turn see motorized versions as key market opportunity. WABA, however, flatly denies the possibility of any influence there.

WABA instead explains itself by saying that bicyclists actually want motor users alongside them on the trails. Asked how it knows that, WABA's leader cited a 2015 survey by yet another "bicyclist" group that claimed that clear majorities of bicyclists want motorized vehicles both in bike lanes and on bike trails. Asked how such a strange notion could be true, the survey's author admitted it was "entirely possible" that his chosen participants -- a full quarter of whom admit they already use motorized bikes -- "vastly over-represented people who own e-bikes."

It's not surprising, of course, that lots of people think they'd like to ride a motorized vehicle down a bike trail. Without legal access to bike trails, complained Richard Cowden of Takoma Park in a Letter to the Editor of the Post, users of low-powered motorized vehicles would be left to the "tender mercies" of regular motor users on regular roads.

The irony is astounding. The most cogent rebuttal of all the article's findings -- about WABA, Rails-to-Trails, illegal trail users, uninformed government officials and non-existent enforcement -- that the Post could find worthy of publishing came from a person pleading to take his motorized vehicle on our bike-pedestrian trails so he could be spared from having to ride that motorized vehicle among -- of all things -- motorists!

Mr. Cowden's argument, basically, is: Please stop giving tax-paying bicyclists and pedestrians their own small protected space, because my version of a motorized vehicle is less powerful than some other guy's motorized vehicle. OK, fair enough. Bicyclists certainly know that feeling. Intimately. After all, bicyclist tax dollars help finance some 4 million miles of car-first roads in this country, but only about 10,000 miles of paved trails for bikes and pedestrians.

But where does Cowden-type logic get us? When it comes to personal safety, who doesn't want to be the bigger dude? Drivers of compact cars worry about SUVs. Drivers of small SUVs eye bigger SUVs. Drivers of all types of cars fear trucks.

The headline of Mr. Cowden's letter says, "Don’t be exclusive. Share the trails with e-bikes." Online commenters on the Post article argued that all taxpayers should have the right to use publicly funded trails. Some resorted to the familiar blame-bicyclists-first populism, accusing leg-powered (or arm-powered) travelers of just being jealous of their faster motor-powered companions.

Those are all good solid emotional appeals. But obviously the answer isn't that simple. Taxpayers also funded the runways at Dulles, but nobody seriously suggests that we should all be free to race our cars down them. Taxpayers also funded the Beltway, but bikes and pedestrians, for good reason, aren't allowed there.

So the real question is: Why have motors traditionally been excluded from bike-pedestrian trails, and is there now any data to suggest that our longstanding community approach -- which allows everyone from small children to seniors with canes feel safe on trails -- has somehow been mistaken? And as Mr. Cowden himself recognizes, a key element of that question is: Given the clear dangers he properly associates with motors, should there be any place left for those taxpaying bicyclists wanting the freedom of some kind of pavement without motors right alongside them?

For many tax-paying freedom-cherishing bicyclists and pedestrians, the answer to that second question is a loud and clear "Yes." But even for those who insist otherwise, consider what the scientific experts and the motorized bike manufacturers themselves are telling us.

First, they agree there is no clear data -- either direction -- about the safety, environmental or health effects of putting motorized vehicles on trails. There is some data about motorized bikes on motor roads, and even that's not considered terribly conclusive about whether they represent a safety upgrade over regular bikes.

It does seem true that a person trading a regular car for a motorized bike traveling along car roads almost certainly gives society an environmental benefit and some health benefit, since -- unlike the case with trails -- they are not likely to scare away many existing road users.

Still, some motorized bike advocates argue that the absence of data about motors on trails is good enough reason to change decades of policy and start adding the motors. They either deny that adding motor to trails would represent a major policy shift, or feel that such a major shift just doesn't need much factual underpinning. After all, such advocates contend, if the decision proves bad, it can simply be reversed later.

But before even tentatively accepting the law now making its way across the country, look at what it actually says and means. It's the law that the motorized bike manufacturers have written, have already been getting states to adopt, and that WABA wants to see adopted by local governments around here.

Its Class 1 and Class 2 categories are designed to allow any vehicle on bike trails that can go up to 20 mph, with any motor up to 750 watts (the only difference between the two classes is a weakly defined notion that Class 1 envisions at least a token amount of pedal contribution, whereas Class 2 can have an overt hand throttle). The law would allow any size or shape with as many as three wheels, just as long as it meets that motor-size requirement.

In the eyes of WABA, the 20 mph limit means "the maximum assisted speed of these devices is closely aligned with speeds traveled by traditional bicycles." But what data suggests that an average bicyclist travels 20 mph on the Capital Crescent Trail? None. It's absurd. Even among the super-fast bicyclists who speed along the trail without using motors, someone going 20 mph up the Capital Crescent would be in the 97th percentile.

It's even more absurd considering the target audience that the industry contends that it has in mind for these motorized vehicles: Not just average trail riders, but the elderly and others who cannot or do not want to pedal for whatever reason. As explained by industry lobbyist Larry Pizzi, it "sort of levels the playing field" for older Americans wanting to share a bike ride with their families.

It's a warm and loving notion, to be genuinely applauded. But if that's really the target audience, then why wouldn't the law being proposed by the industry, promoted by WABA and being enacted by states limit such motorized vehicles to the real average speed of an average trail user -- perhaps 10 or 12 mph -- instead of something well in excess of even the posted limit on the Capital Crescent? Does Grandma, unable to pedal a bike, really want to rush ahead of her family at 20 mph?

And some motorized advocates, to their credit, do agree that 20 mph motors with no size limit is a bit much for our trails. But they have faith that our policymakers would give us something more realistic and reasonable here in the DC area.

That's where the factual misunderstanding in this entire debate is so huge. Not only is WABA endorsing 20 mph with no size limits, but Mr. Pizzi has made clear the entire reason the manufacturers want to get a lot of states to accept that definition is that their definition will then define the models that the industry offers nationwide. Trying to enact any local variations, once a critical number of states adopts the industry's definitions, will become politically and financially challenging, because the major product lines will already be set. After years of being told that Washington should not impose one-size-fits-all solutions on America, the reverse is in the process of happening to our local bike trails.

And that's still not enough to make some motor advocates question the path they're being led down. Another favored rhetorical defense of motors on trails is the fact that some experienced human-powered bicyclists already exceed the speed limit on trails. For motor advocates, those violations somehow mean that it would be safe to now give everyone else -- regardless of any acquired riding ability and vehicle control skills -- a motor to go out and do the same thing. Still others suggest that speed-limit enforcement, not a ban on motors, is the solution -- apparently unaware that the motorized vehicles themselves are currently fully illegal and yet completely ignored by overburdened police.

Despite all that and more, some motor advocates insist it's all just concocted fears in the minds of an entitled club of existing trail users. The idea that allowing even modest motors on trails would be the start of a slippery slope of ever-larger machines on trails is wholly unwarranted, several have said. As Marchant Wentworth wrote in a brief accompaniment to Mr. Cowden's letter, the Post article "failed to convey a parade of horribles that would result from" putting motors on trails and giving travelers an option from their "steel cocoons."

It was an interesting analogy. After all, it was only a few months earlier that a prominent technology expert predicted the "inevitable triumph" of bikes over cars. As that expert looked to the future, he saw biking's "triumph" as the time when "bikes" acquire both motors and protective "cocoons." On motorized roads, that seems fine. On trails, even Mr. Pizzi admitted such vehicles would be ridiculous. And yet his own looming law, endorsed locally by WABA, would allow that.

[Note from Washcycle: My response will run tomorrow] 

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