Capital Crescent Trail Puts in Speed Limits to Slow Cyclists

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Lance Armstrong wannabes be forewarned: Starting this week, the speed limit on the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda will be 15 mph. Tour de France training? Take it elsewhere.

Park officials are installing speed limit signs along the trail in an effort to slow down riders who they say can make the popular pathway dangerous.

Preposterous -- and probably ineffective, many cyclists say.

"People will tend to ride as fast as they ride, whether there are speed limits or not," said Jack Cochrane, an avid cyclist from Bethesda.

Nevertheless, beginning tomorrow (weather permitting), officials with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) will shut down sections of the trail so they can begin posting the signs and installing other safety enhancements along the 5.5-mile portion of the trail that begins in downtown Bethesda and extends to the District line.

People caught violating the limits could face a $50 fine, park police said, although the emphasis will be on educating, not ticketing.

Few, if any trails, in the region have posted speed limits. Trails managed by the National Park Service, for example, have a 15-mph limit, but it is not posted.

The speed limits in Bethesda are just one of several measures officials are undertaking to improve safety on the trail, which attracts more than 23,000 users a week, according to a 2006 survey by the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail.

But many in the Washington region's cycling community are not pleased and think they're being unfairly singled out. What about the dogs that run without leashes? The joggers with the iPods? Cyclists say that the trail is a popular commuter route for cyclists who work in the District and that imposing speed limits might prompt more people to drive.

"It hasn't been thoroughly vetted by the bicycling community," said Eric Gilliland, director of the 7,000-member Washington Area Bicyclists Association. "They've put forward a plan that treats cyclists with a heavy hand and doesn't address other trail users, such as joggers or dog walkers. Speeding on the local trails is an issue, but I think we want to make sure we're taking the right measures to make the trail safer."

Mary Bradford, director of the Montgomery County Parks Department, said the decision to post speed limits did not require a public hearing.

"These measures are not aimed just at cyclists, they're also designed to educate the joggers and walkers," Bradford said.

For the most part, joggers, cyclists and walkers who use trails in the region coexist peacefully, but increasingly crowded trails can lead to conflict. Although no agency keeps a tally of the number of incidents, there are anecdotes. In January, for example, park police were called to mediate a dispute between a dog walker and a cyclist. Last month, they responded to a report of a jogger struck by a cyclist.

The decision to establish the Bethesda limit rose out of discussions that began last year between commission officials and members of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, a citizens advisory and advocacy group. Both groups had been getting informal reports of growing numbers of collisions on the trail.

Peter Gray, chairman of the Coalition, said his group would love to see the trail widened to accommodate the increasing number of users, but park officials and the coalition had to find other strategies because of cost and other factors. He said that although no study was done to examine the effectiveness of speed limits, coalition members hope the change will make a difference.

Park Police Lt. Karen Petrarca said that officers will use radar guns to monitor traffic but that the focus will be on educating trail users, not handing out tickets.

Some trail users applauded the decision.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Angie Burke was walking her dog, Earl, an 8-year-old golden retriever, along the trail. The pair paused for a minute, and several cyclists whizzed by.

"It's a great idea," Burke, an employee benefits consultant, said of the limit as she tugged on Earl's leash. "As you can see, bikers just haul through here."

Some cyclists say the limit might help rein in the "Lance Wannabes," referring to those who ride at top speeds, a la Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

"It's fine with me," said Levon Mkrtchyan, 19, a student. "I can't ride that fast, anyhow."

There are others who doubt that the limits will result in better trail behavior. How will cyclists without speedometers know if they're going too fast? they ask. They point out the downhill portion of the Capital Crescent Trail heading south. "People will have to ride their brakes all the way down," one rider grumbled.

Eva Huter, a 31-year-old doctor who lives in Bethesda, said speed limits were a bad idea. She said she's never had a problem while jogging the trail and thinks limits will be difficult to enforce.

Stephen Kuperberg, 38, a lawyer with the firm Hogan & Hartson who uses the trail to commute from his home in Bethesda to his office downtown, said the issue isn't necessarily how fast people are going but whether they're paying attention.

"A cyclist going 5 miles per hour who's weaving in and out is a greater safety risk than a regular bike commuter traveling at a regular speed," he said.

In addition to posting the speed limits, officials will also restripe the trail, replacing the faded green paint with a more vibrant yellow.

At two key intersections -- Little Falls Parkway and Dorset Avenue -- where traffic and trail meet, they will install rumble strips to warn cyclists that they're approaching an intersection. They'll also stencil notice of the 15-mph speed limit on the trail in eight-foot letters.

"I'm always willing to revisit anything we try that doesn't work," Bradford said. "But if it works, they'll stay. We have to do something. We'd be remiss not to try something -- to ignore [the issue] would be worse."

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