Bicycling on Popular W& OD Trail No Longer a Breeze
Friday, August 18, 2006
The traffic is unbelievable -- stop and go for 45 miles. Commuters stream in a line toward a busy intersection pulsing with people changing lanes. One or two swerve into oncoming traffic, then pour on the speed and cut ahead. One frustrated man shouts, "Watch out, buddy!"
It's like any day on any Washington area highway -- except that this is the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.
Once a quiet getaway for lazy afternoon bicyclists and early-morning strollers, the trail has turned into a crowded commuter alley on weekdays and an overcrowded recreational destination on weekends, a place where sometimes speeding cyclists, in-line skaters, walkers, joggers and others fight for a narrow slice of pavement, with increasingly dangerous results.
More bicyclists have died on the trail -- three -- in the past year than in its first 31 years. In June, a biker died after he was thrown when he tried to pass a pedestrian on a busy section of the trail near Reston. Last summer, two cyclists were killed within days of each other in crashes that involved cars.
Last month, traffic was so thick at an intersection in Ashburn that two cyclists riding in opposite directions collided and were critically injured, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office said.
"It's like a microcosm of the Beltway out on the trail," Jim DeGoey of Reston said. "You've got your road rage guys. You've got your speeders who all think they're Mario Andretti. It's a mess."
DeGoey should know. An avid bicyclist, the information technology specialist broke a tooth, several ribs and a shoulder blade after he and another cyclist locked wheels on the W&OD in November. DeGoey, 57, said the crash put him out of work for three months and cost him thousands in medical bills.
"That's the dark side of the trail," he said. "If you go out there, you're at your own risk."
The Washington & Old Dominion Trail, managed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, traces Northern Virginia from old, urban neighborhoods in Arlington County, through new job and residential centers in Reston, Herndon and Ashburn and into fast-growing communities on the rural western edge of Loudoun. On any given day, thousands clog the trail's steep bends and wide-open expanses, sometimes piling three deep at stop signs posted at the more than 60 roadway intersections along the way.
The intersections have become so dangerous that this fall, trail managers plan to install such traffic-calming measures as rumble strips and warnings painted on the trail -- things normally reserved for roads.
Although the W&OD has earned a reputation for being among the most treacherous in a vast regional network of trails that link parts of Northern Virginia with the District and Maryland, use is up across the region, and accidents elsewhere are not uncommon.
Last year, officials on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, the rugged 184.5-mile trail from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md., logged 34 accidents. The towpath attracts 3 million visitors a year, but there have been no fatalities since 1961, when it was made part of the National Park Service, said Bill Justice, a spokesman for the towpath.