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Bicycling on Popular W& OD Trail No Longer a Breeze

More than 2 million people a year  --  including bicyclists and other athletes, commuters and walkers  --  use the Washington &  Old Dominion Trail, making accidents more frequent.
More than 2 million people a year -- including bicyclists and other athletes, commuters and walkers -- use the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, making accidents more frequent. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Traffic on the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs from Georgetown through Bethesda to Silver Spring, increased by 16 percent between 2004 and 2005, hitting 383,000 visits last year, according to trail officials.

The W&OD, ranked among the top 10 most-popular trails in the nation by trail advocacy groups, was an instant hit when it opened in 1974, and by the early 1990s it was attracting about 1 million visitors a year. Now, more than 2 million people a year use the narrow strip of pavement, and that number is expected to increase as the region rapidly develops, W&OD trail manager Chris Pauley said.

At the same time, $3-a-gallon fuel is pushing more commuters to pump pedals instead of gas, which makes for increasingly crowded conditions on a trail that is just eight to 10 feet wide. Accident statistics are difficult to track, because many crashes go unreported, but there is anecdotal evidence that crashes are increasing on the W&OD and other major bicycle trails in the region, say trail officials, bike advocacy groups and users.

Concerns about the growing number of bike commuters and excessive speeding are so acute on the heavily used Mount Vernon Trail, for instance, that officials there also are considering installing rumble strips and cautionary signs, said Jon James, deputy superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the National Park Service division that maintains the trail.

Signs that remind riders of the 15 mph speed limit aren't enough to slow Lance Armstrong wannabes who regularly cruise at 20 mph or more, he said. "We have to get people to go the speed limit on the trail, just like we want people to go the limit on the parkway," James said.

Mount Vernon Trail officials logged at least a dozen serious crashes on July 4 alone, said Vincent Santucci, the trail's chief ranger. The hectic day capped a spate of serious crashes in recent months on the trail's 18.5-mile route, which runs through Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria, prompting managers to form a task force to address issues including etiquette, increased commuter use and speeding. Safety upgrades and a study to track crashes and general trail use by the roughly 1 million people who use it annually are some ideas being considered, James said.

"There have been several accidents lately, and it seems like there have been more and more in recent months. We know we have a problem with trail safety and also with trail etiquette, and we've got to do something about it," James said.

More than 500,000 people across the country are treated in emergency rooms for bike-related injuries each year, and 700 die from them, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children, who accounted for 59 percent of bike-related injuries reported at emergency rooms in 2001, are at particularly high risk.

"People often feel that they're in a safe, protected place when they're on these trails, but cyclists have the responsibility to look out for pedestrians, just like cars have to look out for cyclists and pedestrians on the road," said Jeff Peel of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

On the increasingly hectic W&OD, everyone seems to be jockeying for pole position. Racers on expensive tour bikes blow by soccer moms pushing high-tech three-wheel strollers. Buff skaters with iPods strapped to their arms plunge through packs of not-so-buff pedestrians. Early-morning traffic is especially heavy with day laborers and white-collar commuters riding to work.

A recent increase in the number of bike commuters also increases the danger factor, experts say. In 1990, about 6,600 people regularly biked to work in the Washington area, according to the U.S. Census. A decade later, that number had grown to slightly more than 7,500.

Since then, the number has continued to rise, particularly in areas that abut major trails. In 2001, about 1,000 people participated in the annual "Bike to Work Day" event sponsored by Peel's association. This year, 6,500 participated.

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