Years ago, American planners decided to divide bikeways into three types:
- Class I: Off-road paths (aka bike paths, shared use paths, or multi-use paths)
- Class II: On-road bike lanes
- Class III: Shared roadways
This categorization implied that off-road paths were superior to bike lanes, and that bike lanes were superior to roads without bike lanes. Maybe that was the thinking at the time. But it’s well accepted now that shared use paths carry risks of their own and are not suitable for all cyclists at all times. So in Montgomery County planners now use the terms “shared use path”, “bike lanes”, and “signed shared roadway” (SSR), respectively. The terms Class I, II, and III aren’t inaccurate, just out of common use.
Whatever the categories are called, the first category is obviously very broad and people need to realize that not all shared use paths are created equal. I’ve had to tell planners, engineers and elected officials many times that shared use paths can vary dramatically in terms of safety, usefulness and appeal. Some paths are spectacular uninterrupted hiker-biker trails and others are nasty sidepaths with busy side street and driveway crossings every 50 feet. Too often decision-makers accept the latter when plans call for the former.
So I came up with a sub-categorization of shared use paths, kind of as an exercise and possibly as a means to clarify the differences in quality between some paths and others. I call the path classes 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, and for good measure 1u (u as in urban). Yes, a is the best and d is the worst. Here they are:
1a: EXCELLENT QUALITY: Path is almost entirely free of at-grade crossings. If it’s a sidepath, it’s well-separated from the adjacent roadway. Includes “hiker-biker trails” through woods and stream valleys, rails-to-trails facilities, and trails along freeways. (Stream valleys, railway beds and freeways are well-suited because cross-streets usually go over or under them). The path is more than wide enough for most uses (usually 10′ or more). Examples: Capital Crescent Trail, Matthew Henson Trail, Custis Trail.
1b: GOOD QUALITY: A sidepath along a limited access arterial road with widely-spaced intersections and relatively few grade crossings. Mostly separated from the street by a grass strip or other buffer so that cyclists can’t fall into the street. Path width is adequate (8′ or more). Examples: Millennium Trail along West Gude Drive, Great Seneca Highway sidepath.
1c: FAIR QUALITY: Typical suburban sidepath that crosses streets and/or low-volume driveways on a frequent basis. Mostly buffered from the street but may have some stretches with inadequate buffer
and/or width (not both). This is the most common shared use path type in suburbia, often added to new roads when they’re built. Examples: Millennium Trail along Wootton Parkway, most of the sidepaths in Germantown, many in King Farm, and countless other sidepaths.
1d: POOR QUALITY: Sidepaths with a great number of high-volume street crossings, difficult intersections, commercial driveways and other hazaradous conflict points with motor vehicles. Category also includes narrow sidepaths with no buffer between the path and the street. Paths along commercial strips lined with shopping centers and gas stations fall into this category, as do sidepaths on major roads lined with one residential driveway after another. Sometimes the trails are interim trails, especially those that seem indistinguishable from sidewalks. Examples: Millennium Trail along East Gude Drive, Bethesda Trolley Trail along Woodglen Drive.
This scheme didn’t seem to capture the special nature of sidepaths along urban streets which otherwise would fall into class 1d, so I created a class 1u:
1u: URBAN TRAILS: These have a high number of street/driveway crossings, just like most class 1d trails, but they serve a useful role in urban contexts by essentially letting cyclists ride on the sidewalk. Various streetscape elements can be provided to mitigate conflicts with cars (painted crosswalks, signs) and pedestrians (sidewalk layout, dividers, pavement treatments, signs, markings, etc). Compared to typical suburban sidepaths, user expectations are different and cyclists tend to keep their speed down. Drivers are traveling more slowly and hopefully are more attentive to what’s happening on the sidewalk as they execute turns. Urban sidepaths tend to look a lot like two-way cycletracks at sidewalk level, except the latter are only for bicycles. Examples: Silver Spring Green Trail, parts of the Metropolitan Branch Trail.