Are trails viable commuter options?

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County> At this point, the answer is ‘no,’ but there may be options

By Arin McKenna

When the Environmental Sustainability Plan came before Los Alamos County Council last fall, several councilors scoffed at the concept of trails being an element of sustainability. They could not see trails as anything other than recreational.
A study by Shreya Dave, a graduate student at MIT, disputes that assumption. Dave’s study concluded that an ordinary sedan’s carbon footprint is more than 10 times greater than a conventional bicycle on a mile-for-mile basis, assuming each survives 15 years and you ride the bike 2,000 miles per year (or slightly under eight miles per weekday).
Granted, the majority of those commuting to work by bicycle use the roadways, and would prefer improved access on the streets. But other segments of the population would gladly utilize trails if a the county offered a better designed system.
The Los Alamos Monitor’s questions sparked comment around the issue on the Los Alamos Bikes blog (labikes.blogspot.com/2013/11/commuter-trails.html).
Khalil Spencer (who also sits on the Transportation Board) initiated the debate.
Spencer pointed out that Los Alamos’ location on several distinct mesas limits the number of easy ways to move between them. Currently, major roads offer the only feasible options.
Spencer calls roads the “backbone of surface transportation,” and points out that the county’s Complete Streets and 2005 bike plan set standards for multimodal transportation.
“These two plans rely on published, tested, engineering standards designed around transportation,” Spencer wrote.
Trails can provide more direct routes for hikers or mountain bikes but, as Spencer points out, “they are often not easy to ride, become snowbound and muddy, and may involve technical ascents and descents…Trails run steeply down into the canyons and up again and are primitive and often quite challenging.
“Others, like the Perimeter Trail, go pretty far out of the way and ain’t always easy to ride unless you are a very adept mountain biker. As we all know, transportation is best when it provides the option to be direct and swift and can be navigated by mere mortals.”
The Canyon Rim Trail offers a fairly direct, flat route but, according to Spencer, was poorly designed for commuters.
“As far as a ‘trail as transportation,’ it has some serious drawbacks in the form of a low design speed, several very sharp, limited sight curves where a cyclist could hit or at minimum, scare the crap out of walkers or have to dive into the weeds to avoid a crash.” Crossing NM502 without even a marked crosswalk presents another hazard.
“If the county is designing trails as transportation or overtly encouraging their use as transportation, I think one has to strongly consider adopting standards set down for transportation when designing and building,” Spencer said. “That’s for both safety and to avoid litigation when someone gets hurt.”
All those who commented on the issue of separate commuter trails agreed that changes were necessary to make them feasible.
“I think if we want to officially identify trails as foot or bicycle transportation rather than as recreational resources, we need to pick them carefully and decide on the basis of terrain, funds, intended uses, compatibility with other intended uses, political feasibility, and whether they connect sources that need connecting in an efficient manner,” Spencer wrote.
Spencer added that trails such as Canyon Rim should be vetted by transportation professionals and have published rules and limits.
Two bloggers who use the trails also noted the obstacles for commuters.
Little Jimmy wrote, “I have been commuting regularly to work for about the past five years using our existing trail system. I always count each commute as among the best moments of the workweek. Riding a bike to work on trails has some pluses and minuses.”
Jimmy counted the quiet, clean fresh air and no motor vehicles to worry about as pluses. But his commute takes five to six times longer than it would on the road. He is also isolated if something goes wrong and must ride home in the dark.
“I occasionally run commute on the trails (Perimeter to Quemazon to Longmire),” Jon wrote. “Direct run on the roads takes 20-25 minutes; trails 45-60 depending on target heart rate.
“That route, of course, involves crossing both Pueblo and Los Alamos Canyons…I’d avoid ‘designated commuting trails’ and just target ‘improving connectivity of the off-road system.’”
Improving the connectivity of the trail system is one of Los Alamos County’s Open Space Specialist Craig Martin’s chief goals, especially connectivity between the flattest, most direct routes. For more on Martin’s efforts to create a viable commuter trail system, read Tuesday’s Los Alamos Monitor.