Friday, August 22, 2008

Riding the W&OD Trail after dark in Vienna

We've been stopped twice in Vienna in the past year while riding on the W&OD Trail after dark. The most recent time was when we were with two other FABB members returning home after our monthly meeting. While it is the official policy of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority that the park is closed after dark, many, many cyclists use the trail for commuting and other purposes, especially in the winter. (The "rule" states: "Do not use the trail after dark.")

We were told that we shouldn't be on the trail and that there are "dangerous people out there". This brings up two questions: What dangers are present, and what alternatives do cyclists have to the Trail after dark? To get an answer to the first question we called the Vienna Police. After a long wait we were told that there were no specific dangers but that trail users should be careful.

The answer to the second question, what alternatives are available, is very few. Between Herndon and Vienna, there are almost no roads that are bike-friendly, especially after dark. At the Beltway there are is one that involves riding on Idylwood Rd, not know for being very bike-friendly.

In the past we have not advocated strongly enough for alternative, parallel routes to the Trail. That will have to change for several reasons. We need a legal alternative after dark. Since so many people rely on the trail, a parallel route will help those people reach their destinations after dark and during the winter when the trail is closed due to snow and ice.

The Trail is also getting too crowded, especially during the weekends and on some of the milder spring and late summer evenings. Fast road bike riders should be on the roads ("Road bikes belong on the road"), and many walkers and runners could use the parallel unpaved trail ("We've got two trails, let's use them"). In order for road cyclists to use the roads, we need better on-road routes. We need a pro-active VDOT that knows what cyclists need and provides better facilities. We need a comprehensive Bike Plan for Fairfax County that outlines the prioritized list of roads needing improvements.

The parallel W&OD Trail needs improvements as well. Where there are no bridges crossing streams, walkers and runners need a better way to get across. They also need to be warned ahead of time that there is no bridge and the paved trail is the best route, instead of walking a long distance on the unpaved trail and discovering they need to walk on water to get across.

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The W&OD, although it has become a commuter route (and that's a great thing for all of us), is still predominantly a very long, skinny park. It's not adequately lit for many types of after dark use. Being there when it is closed is, technically, trespassing. But the park management has always been understanding of commuters. It's almost impossible not to get caught out in the dark on the trail once in awhile. They know that. I used to commute on the Mount Vernon trail a lot and got stopped once to get a five second safety talk, but I just shrugged it off as the NPS police doing their job. No one ever threatened to write me a ticket, so I saw no need to raise a fuss. I had good lighting and an obnoxious reflective jacket on, so I was being as safe as I could. But 15 minutes one way can mess you up in your commute. The police know that.

As to the parallel trail on the W&OD - what we used to call the "horse trail" - is forded in some places - for horses. I both run and bike. I mostly run on the horse trail because it is easier on the knees than asphalt; and many runners do that. That's their choice, though, because the trail is multi-use. Everyone just has to share and get along and for 99% of the people, it works. The other 1%, well, in any group of people, you've always got that other 1%, don't you?

I've seen mountain bikes on the horse trail, too - it's not like the peds tell the cyclists to go away (at least I've not heard any complaint - yet). Actually, I occasionally have taken my mountain bike on the horse trail if it has been the right kind of dry out for a few days. (That way I do not make ruts. I would never ride a mountain bike in a manner that did that. I'm responsible. I figure if everyone were responsible, we'd have fewer conflicts between users. I wouldn't want to run through someone's muddy rut and neither would you.)

Remember: the W&OD is not, and never has been, just a bike trail. It is a multi-use trail. When I'm on my bike, as I'm sure you do, I try to ride it safely. I give warning every time I pass, I don't pass too closely, and I give pedestrians a wide enough berth so they don't get startled even after I've rung my bell and shouted out my presence. The W&OD is not the place for speed training. For the most part, the serious groups of cyclists I see training are polite. So are the commuters. I often run with my friend early and the commuters are almost always polite and make their presence known. Most of the problem children among our cycling community are what I call the "angry loner cyclists." Just as you shouldn't drive mad, you shouldn't cycle mad either!

And, yes, I can certainly attest that I have seen occasional, creepy people on the trail in and around Vienna and have reported them to the police and to the park management as appropriate. One fellow in particular stands out in recent memory. After I saw him twice in a row, I called the police in Fairfax Co. to make a report (he was just outside the Town). I've also reported several instances of suspicious graffiti to the police and to the park management. The graffiti goes away quickly, because the park management simply does not permit it to stay up. They run out and get it as soon as it is reported. (Erasing graffiti promptly discourages return visits by creeps. It's amazing how well that works. You just don't let them "mark" territory. There is definitely a difference between bored kid grafitti and sinister grafitti.)

A few years back, the issue of night time commuting on the W&OD came up. It flared up in interest and then interest just waned. You might want to contact the park management directly with your concerns, if you wish to pursue the matter. The park manager and park ranger are very, very responsive to all trail users and they'd be interested in hearing what you have to say.

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