When a bicycle trail must cross a major road

Visitor Question: Our group of cycling enthusiasts is pressuring our city government to extend a popular bicycle trail for some two miles to a popular destination. They are balking on this because the trail would have to cross a wide and busy four-lane city street, and they think it would be unsafe. What are some strategies that other places have used to get a safe crossing? Of course, they are allergic to anything that would impede or slow down cars, which are king around here. What can we do?

Editors Reply: You may have to educate your city government about ways to deal with the intersection of the trail and major street. Based on my personal experience with bicycle trails and safety concerns, I am sure it won't be the first time you have had to explain the rationale behind certain measures necessary to keep cyclists of all abilities safe.

We have seen five basic approaches to this dilemma, which is a common one once a city begins to build out a good network of off-street trails.

First, you can try arguing that bicyclists are well aware of the risks and will not attempt to cross when there is traffic. That argument usually will not work with traffic engineers, and it may not be at all satisfactory to you either. However, in some situations, this will be the best solution where traffic is light even if the road is wide.

Second, the city can install a push-button stop signal, which activates a stop light when the person on the trail pushes the appropriate button. This is not an inexpensive option when there is no existing traffic signal at that location. Earth moving and wiring can be fairly costly, in addition to the expenditure for the signal itself. However, this option is fairly acceptable to traffic engineers since motorists will not be asked to stop except upon request.

We visited a city where young teens had discovered a new way to have fun by repeatedly crossing back and forth over a street with a push-button system, but as far as we know, that is exceptional, and most cities are satisfied with it.

Third, if a trail is extremely popular, to the extent that motorists would be hard pressed to get through the intersection on a beautiful Saturday morning with a push-button stop signal, you might need a regular traffic signal. Cost factors would be almost the same as with the push-button signal system, but the light would run on a normal go-caution-stop cycle common to signalized intersections. Depending on the sophistication of the signal ordered, we can recommend that the program give more time to the bicyclists on weekends if possible.

This solution may be quite acceptable to traffic engineers, but be aware that they are sensitive to the spacing of traffic signals. So for either signalization option, you will have to consider that this will work only if there is a sufficient distance between other signals along the major road. We cannot tell you what that interval must be, as it is dependent on maximum travel speed, terrain, and visibility issues, as well as professional judgment of the traffic engineers.

Sometimes this spacing factor means that your trail will need to be moved slightly so that it can intersect with the road where a signal is more feasible.

Fourth, you can build an overpass so that the trail goes above the road. Needless to say, this is an expensive proposition, but also one that is completely safe. You will need a cooperative city government, and the maximum engagement of the cycling community and any sympathetic philanthropists, to raise the amount of money required. However, the advantages of neither bicyclists nor motorists having to stop are obvious.

Fifth, you can build a tunnel under the major road. No doubt this would be even more expensive than an overpass, but depending on topography and what other utility partnerships you might be able to forge, this could work out to be about the same in cost in a few circumstances. Again, major fundraising will likely be needed unless your city is converted from skeptic to enthusiast, and has a healthy bank account in addition.

Those are your options for addressing this objection. You need to do a bit of role-playing to try to see the city's point of view, and if you can share or empathize with their safety concerns, you should start investigating one of the latter four options.

You didn't say whether you are amateur trail-builders or whether your city, transit agency, or your private organization already is working with an engineering firm on the potential trail extension. If you are, of course they already will be familiar with these options, and we don't have any new ones to suggest.

I wish you good luck on resolving this dilemma, because linking up destinations is critical to building a good bicycle infrastructure.

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