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Guest columnist Karl Tacheron: Lovely rail trail can’t replace city bike lanes and paths


My favorite thing in the Pioneer Valley is the Norwottuck Rail Trail. I mainly use it to commute back and forth to UMass, but I also experience it as a restorative environment and sanctuary from dangerous roads.


Technically, this trail is a “linear park,” making it a place for recreation where people gather. The greatest privilege the trail gives me is an endlessly colorful stream of life along every trip: In the past month, I’ve seen a couple walking a pair of terrified-looking kittens on leashes, a crowd of children waving.


The rail trail has one fatal problem: I cannot rely on it or use it the same way that I can a real road. The Norwottuck is functional for my daily travel only during daylight hours in warm months. It is not fully plowed and cannot be salted in many places and has no lighting after dark. Long-neglected maintenance to the trail multiplies these risk factors. Faced with no safe alternative, I must revert to driving.


None of these issues have fast or easy solutions, because the trail is in actuality a patchwork with multiple owners that spans many ecologically fragile areas, limiting its ability to evolve over time. In spite of it all, I love this trail. I couldn’t live here without it.


The rail trail comes up in Gazette letters occasionally. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anyone sing its praises or propose how to solve its existing problems. Instead, writers invoke it to argue against adding bike infrastructure to our roads. These writers variably claim that the trail serves the same areas, that ridership of existing segments is low because of the on-street bike network’s fragmentation, that the trail is much safer, and it is thus pointless and wasteful to bother.


In effect, we should plan for a future where people use active transportation entirely around one unlit, unmarked, 8-footwide path*. These arguments are at best ignorant of the trail’s limitations. The trail is a priceless asset to our community, but it is not the same as real bicycle infrastructure. Aside from the reliability and It is primarily a recreational path. My experiences commuting on the trail indicate that there is serious friction between bike commuters and people who are walking (and often lost in conversation or thought). It is also a training ground for new cyclists, because riding our streets in their current condition is hugely dangerous to beginning riders, especially children.


The network’s safety issues created from lack of maintenance or lighting will be only acerbated by greater use. Increasing bicycle commuter traffic on the trail increases risks for all users, shifting the danger away from cyclists onto others using the path. For a bicycle commuter, the trail is safer than riding on the roads in the present, but less practical and safe than a complete network of well-lit, regularly plowed, and dedicated bicycle paths and lanes.


The expectation that we can expand our network and increase ridership via the trail alone is unrealistic. Recent developments show that even small extensions of the trail are no easier or faster than adding bike lanes. The alternatives we are actively building do sometimes run next to the path. The supposed redundancy of these bicycle lanes makes the network more resilient.


A long segment of trail parallel to Prospect Street in Northampton will close until August — Prospect’s bike lanes, which some might argue are less useful than the trail, will act as the route we can fall back upon.


The writers who speak out against bike paths on Main Street and elsewhere insist that we continue to use the trail as the central link in our bicycle network. When that link breaks, which it does on a daily basis, the whole network is affected.


Building rail trails takes a huge collective effort. It requires the volunteer work of a tight-knit community of advocates inside and outside of municipal government. I think many of them would be aghast to learn that their trails were being used to argue against more of the bike infrastructure we desperately need.


Treating the trail as a replacement for one is not a viable plan for the future, which is why we have elected as a community to move forward with the current strategy of adding more true bike infrastructure. Main Street will become a big piece of the puzzle of Northampton’s bicycle infrastructure, but there are countless more deserving our focus. Let’s keep at it.


Karl Tacheron is a graduate student at UMass Amherst in the Regional Planning and is writing a thesis on the history and development of the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail. He lives in Northampton.

MASS CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL is the official name with the old name described as the Norwottuck Branch.

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active transportation entirely around one unlit, unmarked, 8-footwide path. The Norwottuck was the last shared-use path built in the US to be built at the old, obsolete design width of 8 feet. In 2015, it was rebuilt to be mostly at 11 feet wide. 

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