Cycle paths are an important part of urban planning efforts to accommodate cyclists on busy city roads. Prince William County planners have not placed a great amount of emphasis on bike paths, casting their lot instead on mixed-use paths which line most major roads.
I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do know this: using these paths forces you to contend with walkers, joggers, skateboarders, and all other manner of traveler, most of whom are completely ignorant of your presence as you approach them from behind and inevitably scare the bejeebers out of them. A cyclist is also forced to navigate “transition areas” when the path intersects with side roads. These areas include a plethora of rocks, glass, sand, and dirt. The method of merging with the side road is typically a metal ramp leading to a gutter.
All of this combines for some nasty terrain that may very well have contributed to one or more of my unfortunate flats. Finally, drivers aren’t expecting cyclists to come barreling down the pathway at speeds over 15mph. They regularly block the path when attempting to merge with traffic on the main road and (if a cyclist’s timing is especially bad) will race up to the main road at precisely the same time the cyclist is attempting to cross it on the path. Thus, the primary advantage of the path (keeping cars away from cyclists) is nullified.
So cycle paths can be helpful. They give a cyclist a clear, smooth, piece of asphalt to do his/her thing. Cars know bikes are present (in theory) and pedestrians may use sidewalks and mixed-use paths without fear of bicycles swooping down upon them.
So let me tell you about Prince William County’s one and only bicycle path.
It’s on Hoadly Road, which is an odd spot for a path. There are so many congested areas in the county such as Manassas, Lake Ridge, and the entire Route 1 corridor that are in need of a dedicated bike path. Yet the county planners chose Hoadly Road, a relatively calm (if that adjective can be used to describe ANY road in Northern Virginia) stretch of road connecting Prince William Parkway and Rte 234. Having traveled this road several times, I must conclude that the entire bike path was an afterthought, thrown together at the last-minute because the county road construction budget had a few thousand dollars lying around that nobody knew what to do with.
Consider first the location of the path, or to be more specific where the path is NOT located. Only one side of the street has a path. The other side is a traditional shoulder. Apparently, cyclists are only supposed to travel westbound on Hoadly Road. What’s the sense in that? Still, the shoulder is wide, smooth, and relatively free of debris. Frankly, I prefer it to what waits for me on the other side.
This is the view a cyclist gets when he comes off the mixed-use path on the Prince William Parkway and prepares to head west on Hoadly Road. This is a major intersection which handles tens of thousands of cars per day. And you’re sitting there right in the middle of it. Note the slight incline on the other side of the intersection. There is a shopping plaza on the right side of the road and there are two separate turning lanes which cars use to gain access to it. You will also note there is no bike path yet. Tally Ho!
Having moved through the intersection, taking care not to move into the turning lane and thus be killed by a right-turning car or puncturing a tire on the pile of rocks and glass that inevitably gathers at these points, the cyclist then charges up the small hill, all the while making sure that none of the cars bearing down on him/her want to turn into either of the two turning lanes into the shopping center. Having successfully completed these manuevers, the cyclist is greeted with this site:
A bicycle path. Well, better late than never I suppose. The path leads up to the intersection with Ridgefield Village Dr, an intersection that is not nearly as busy as the previous one. Grateful for a place to sit while waiting for the light to change, a cyclist cannot help but notice that on the far side of the intersection, the path inexplicably ends. 200 yards of bike path was nice, but what’s the point?
A half mile later, the path starts up again.
A few hundred yards after this, it once again stops in the middle of the nowhere.
As you bounce along the uneven shoulder pavement, you need to be especially observant because your next clue isn’t an obvious one. After passing a parked semi tractor trailer, the path reemerges as a mixed-use pathway on the side of the road. Quickly, I swerve over to stay on the path, going over the shoddily paved portion of what used to be a curb and grateful not to puncture my tires. See the road intersection just up ahead? The path ends at this point and the cyclist once again must merge with the traffic he/she left about 100 yards ago. An accident just waiting to happen.
Gamely, the cyclist presses westward, encouraged by the bike path that once again emerges on the side of the road. However almost as quickly as it starts, the path has another trick up its sleeve: portions of repaved shoulder that are extremely bumpy, followed by another diversion onto a mixed-use path. After a few hundred feet of this, the cyclist must merge with road traffic a second time in less than a mile as the path moves back onto the road shoulder.
Still, the path (when it exists) is nice and this one takes you up to the intersection with Dale Blvd – another busy place and I am grateful for a spot to call my own while waiting for the light to change. Immediately after crossing this intersection, the cyclist sees the path has ended. This time there is a sign to officially confirm this fact. Although wide, the shoulder is nasty. The pavement is cracked, uneven and full of debris. My wife occasionally wonders why cyclists are in the road when a “perfectly good” shoulder is available to them. This is why – it’s a virtual minefield of obstacles which at a minimum will slow you down and could very well cause you to flat.
So that is the Hoadly Road bike path: a testament to some long-forgotten road planning afterthought. Of the three-mile stretch of road, no more than a mile has a path and much of this requires a fair amount of dexterity and puncture-resistant tires. It’s enough to cause most serious cyclists to say “the hell with it” and just stay on the road. And that’s quite a sad commentary on a bike path, if you ask me. Which you didn’t.
Lest I leave you down in the dumps after such a negative report, let me share with you a more pleasant portion of tonight’s ride. This photo was taken at the ambitiously-named Lake Terrapin. I think “pond” is a more appropriate term for this body of water, but it is still quite fetching and there is a lovely dirt path which surrounds it. I went for a spin around the “lake” at the end of my ride and took this pic as the sun was setting.