By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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.
The national panic over widening waistlines is partly responsible for the increase, but higher gas prices and traffic congestion are also factors, Peel said.
"For a lot of commuters, cycling to work is not only the healthiest way to get to work, but in an area where the population is growing and in a place where there's so much traffic, it's also the fastest way to get to work," he added.
Scott Binde wouldn't trade his commute on the Mount Vernon Trail from his Alexandria home to his office at the Department of Agriculture in the District for anything, even though he has firsthand experience with the dangers.
Binde, 47, took a spill on the W&OD last year during a ride with friends. The crash threw him over his handlebars, knocked him unconscious and landed him in the hospital, where doctors monitored a brain injury overnight. Still, he prefers biking over driving.
"I have some friends who won't bicycle on the Mount Vernon Trail because they think it's too dangerous," Binde said. "But I'd rather be on my bike than on the Beltway."
Still, the dangers give some W&OD trail users pause. Lorrie Madigan of Ashburn took a break from negotiating traffic on the trail with her three children one recent weekday morning near the 23.5-mile marker in Sterling.
Madigan, 37, felt a little nervous. There was too much congestion and speeding on the trail to let her kids ride unsupervised, she said. "I think it's safer on the street," Madigan added, as a cyclist in sleek wraparound sunglasses and a Ben & Jerry's racing jersey whipped by.
Cindy Cluck, a substitute teacher who lives in Reston, is one of about 35 volunteers who routinely patrol the trail to issue warnings to speeders. Recently on patrol, Cluck, 56, stopped to catch her breath at a makeshift lemonade stand a little west of the 7.5-mile marker in Falls Church. She shook her head as a teenage boy without a helmet whizzed by on his bike.
"Half the people out here aren't wearing helmets," Cluck said. "It just frosts me."
Cluck thinks the patrols are effective but said she wouldn't mind seeing a speed limit imposed. Not long after Cluck moved on, a line of cyclists in yellow race jerseys streaked by, startling a young girl who lurched along unsteadily on her training wheels.
They were long gone before anyone could stop them.