The evolution of a bike trail network
Around Pittsburgh we have been lucky enough to have many organizations working on their respective trails in order to create a more coherent network.
I’ve started to notice a new “age” for lack of a better term in the evolution of this network, how it is used and by whom, and how our region is moving into the future.
These are just my random random thoughts and observations, but some have complained about a lack of life on this board, so hopefully it can spur some discussion.
Ok so we start out with some “trunk lines”, (currently) mostly coherent stretches of 10, 20 miles or more.
Around here we have the Montour (the “trailblazer” for the local rails to trails movement, the GAP, essentially complete except for some minor improvements in a few areas and and improved Point State Park connection, and the North shore Allegheny trail, known by various names along its current route. The Westmoreland Heritage Trail is quickly becoming another core stretch of trail, and the Panhandle is also in this category especially with its connection to the Montour.
We have some gaps to fill in these trails, but for the most part, including current planning and development, we are pretty far along in this “first age” of trail building. So far along that we’ve actually entered a new age as I see it.
First we are seeing trail-oriented businesses pop up, or existing businesses that have capitalized on their proximity to the trail. Think Tandem Connection in Cecil, Trailside restaurant in West Newton, etc. This was the beginning of the microeconomy generated by the trails. Now, especially on the Montour; we are starting to see the first true trailside communities pop up. From McConnell Trails in Cecil to the new trail and development being added near the Library T stop.
More and more people are using the trails; as any regular user can attest. My parents have trailside property along the Panhandle in Washington County and after the asphalt was put down a few years ago there is a steady stream of walkers/riders that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. A perfect example of “if you build it they will come”
We are also seeing nearby communities, parks, etc create their own connections to these core lines. Settler’s Cabin is working on a connector to the Panhandle, South Park and Peterswood Park have connections to the Montour, the Montour has a Westland Branch and an Airport Branch and eventually will have a Muse Branch. Bethel Park is talking about connecting Millennium Park to the Montour, a Southpointe Connector has been rumored for years, a Chartiers Creek Trail similarity rumored for years. A Kiwani’s Park to North Shore Trail connection is being discussed in Shaler, and we all continue to dream of one day cycling the Brilliant Branch, the West End trestle, and the Carrie Hot Metal Bridge. As we progress through this second age of trail building in our region; the remaining connections will be made (the Montour is also working on their Coraopolis terminus right now) and these pie in the sky connections will be picked off one by one (think Smithfield switchback, final GAP connection at Sandcastle, Hot Metal Bridge trail, Hazelwood trail)
So what’s left after that? Probably when we are all old and gray and watching our grandkids pedal around and most obvious connections have been made (and yes BikePGH members I expect the WHT-to-GAP connection to have been made by that point too). Well that would be the third age where hopefully this great coherent and connected network is used by more and more people and is continually improved upon until all road crossings are safe and it’s well integrated into the urban network in Pittsburgh and its satellite cities and towns.
I haven’t talked much about the city itself, rather the regional network, but all of the same principals apply. Connect, attract development, and upgrade the trail over time, and eventually become a part of the lifestyle of as many residents as possible for car-free recreation, commutes and errands.
Lastly, as we progress through the second age and into the third age of building these trails, we should eventually exploit every single public right-of-way or abandoned railroad for this type of connection. Lots of abandoned rail lines in this region still that are just sitting there rotting away. Also lots of utility right-of-ways that would appeal to hikers, nature watchers, and off-road cyclists as they go up and down the myriad of hills around here.
Even the existing railroads, keep in mind many used to be double; triple, or even quadruple tracked. So the space is often there and the bridge capacity is there but we all know the railroads are hesitant to cooperate with the bike community. Hopefully there is an evolution there as well and in the third age we can exploit this space as well.
The potential is there and we have come a long way in the last 20 years but there is so much more to do.
Yes, the trail network has come a long way in the past two decades. But I wish all the towns and cities through which the trails travel gave the trails the recognition they deserve.
Some of the smaller towns along the GAP seem to appreciate the trail well, such as Rockwood, Ohiopyle, Connellsville, or West Newton (the “Trail Town” marketing effort helped with this). These towns encourage businesses catering to cyclists. Along the Butler-Freeport Trail, you have the Derailleur Cafe. And the Allegheny River trail seems to be appreciated by the town of Franklin. The presence of a bike trail makes a big difference to these towns.
At the other extreme, there are communities closer to Pittsburgh that have not done enough to encourage or help the trails. McKeesport, for example, did not want the GAP trail running through its business district (“why would you want tourists patronizing your business, right?”) so the trail was shunted around parking lots, through the marina, down a narrow alley between the police station and the railroad tracks, and through a brownfield. Consequently, a cyclist traveling the GAP would encounter a hostel plus only one retail business, the Marina Cafe, which is only open half the year! Cyclists get almost nothing from McKeesport, and consequently McKeesport gets almost nothing from the cyclists.
From the perspective of a trail rider, Duquesne is another brownfield. West Mifflin and West Homestead have amusement parks (Kennywood and Sandcastle) but there’s no direct access to either from the trail!
The city of Pittsburgh, also, often seems to take the GAP trail for granted. Go to the Point with a first time visitor, for example, and challenge them to find the Great Allegheny Passage! There are almost no trail signs!
Some of this may change: there are certainly some trail-friendly people in McKeesport. Maybe in another decade, its city government will actually value the GAP? Sandcastle is starting to talk about a walkway to their front gate… And West Homestead has been more attentive. But compared to the way that many in Pittsburgh appeared to be ready to spread their legs for Amazon HQ2, say, it’s sad that bike trails are so often met with indifference.
Also, in a few cases, we’ve had bike trail regression: Five years ago, we had a Strip District Trail, while today most of it is closed due to Buncher. A year ago, we had a 1.5-mile-long Duck Hollow Trail, but this year that trail is half as long. So it’s two steps forward and one step back, in some cases.
Good point about McKeesport and Duquesne. I think most of this has to do with local governments not being creative enough to notice that they’ve been handed a gift. Also my guess is that they sometimes struggle to offer basic services so anything extra like, say, catering to a trail would optically seem like a distraction to serving the population.
Rail trails are great but I think the next phase of “trails” will be urban cycling routes, hopefully made up of protected bike lanes. Part of the appeal of rail trails is that they are long, safe, continuous routes. That’s much harder to achieve in cities where cycling infrastructure competes with parking and travel lanes.
Also consider that ebikes are becoming quite popular. I’m not that interested in them but they are already almost the norm in Europe and will likely become ubiquitous here as well. That makes hilly routes less intimidating for casual riders. Thus the easy grade of rail trails will no longer be as big of a selling point. Combine this with safe urban routes and we’ll see a huge uptick in urban cycling in hilly cities like Pittsburgh. With ebikes and protected bike lanes, people will find hilly urban riding to be as easy and appealing as rail trails are today.
Totally agree with dfiler.I was one of those people who said I would never get an E-assist bike, but as I am now getting older and still cycling a lot in Pittsburgh city hills,I caved in and bought an E-assist bike and love it!! With our aging population,I have seen more E-bikes this year than ever before and now that I’m older struggle with a regular gear bike to get up many of our steep hills.With an E-assist bike I still get my exercise, only using E-assist on steep hills, and don’t have to give up my city riding.
@dfiler – -good point about long distance trails vs. protected city bike lanes. I think we could serve a larger part of the population, grabbing a lot of disadvantaged populations, with more money put into urban cycling. it probably has a lot more bang for the buck government wise than pouring more money into more rural longer distance trails. I bet, though, that there’s actually money to do both. So it may be a false dichotomy brought about by our current politicians as well as groups that feel that any government spending is too much.
@cycleguy — nearing the big 5-0 I’m beginning to think of an e-assist bike.. not sure if that’s sad or if I should just get over it. I’d probably use the bike a lot more on errands, since going anywhere useful where I live involves several hills, and I can justify dialing up and down the e-assist based on my sweat level vs. how presentable I need to be at the location i’m going to.
The suburbs will be the tough nut to crack. There are no old railbeds to co-opt, and slim to none in alternative paths to where cars go. I’ve been envisioning a web of bike paths around McCandless for maybe 15 years, and all of them are some combination of low-speed streets or buying narrow strips of land between adjoining houses. In the latter case, neighborhood kids have already established an unofficial path. But have fun getting an easement or outright purchase for a public trail 20 feet from the side windows of two houses, so that 12-year-old kids can walk or bike a half mile to school instead of a five-mile bus ride.
Case in point, there’s a running trail in the woods south of Carson Middle School, which actually terminates on a public street, at the dead end of Ridgemont, but several paths splinter off onto Casa Grande, Glenbrooke, and Haugh. The east end of the north loop of Haugh is about 100 vertical feet above the western, horseshoe end, so kids don’t climb Haugh, they cut through a yard. That’s where a trail would go. But short of buying and demolishing a house to have comfortable space, there just isn’t any way to get through here. The trip by car or bus takes you out onto Perrymont, then either Perry or McKnight to Cumberland then up the school’s half-mile access road.
Now multiply that by 20 such spots in this one township, and 75 more in each municipality around here, and you start to understand how tough a nut this really will be.
Near 279-201 Haugh Dr, Pittsburgh, PA 15237
Plus the wonderfulness of a million local governments in Western PA. Each with the power to shut down a whole project if they don’t want to play along.
Ok Stu I’ll bite.
The suburbs are indeed inherently a tough nut to crack, but in some cases there ARE abandoned rail lines that still sit there with no discussion in many of our suburbs.
Moreso than a completely abandoned rail line. There is abandoned rail capacity. These are lines that were originally double tracked but are now down to a single line. The interesting thing about lines like these is often the bridges are still there to this day, all that’s needed is refurbishing and the biggest requirement: cooperation with the railroads.
Two perfect examples for you. One tantalizingly short connection and one that’s much longer but similarly tantalizing, if only there was a communal will and cooperation from the railroads.
1-Walkers Mill to Carnegie. I believe this crosses the Chartiers creek twice, and if you look at the satellite view the bridges are still there! Why couldn’t a parallel trail be built alongside the railroad (a la the Westland Branch of Montour)? This short connection would connect the West Busway to Weirton WV by a trail! Carnegie is full of abandoned railroad bridges and extra capacity alongside its main line actually, and then there is empty floodplain down the Chartiers Creek all the way to the Ohio.
2-the line that runs north out of Etna along the Pine Creek Valley. After that tunnel near the Undercliff area EVERY SINGLE CREEK CROSSING up to Evans City has another adjacent abandoned bridge, just waiting to be turned into a bike trail!! Honestly I got bored and didnt continue scanning up past Evans City, god only knows how far that potential “spine” could reach.
Bethel Park is in talks to extend its branch of the Montour from its current terminus to Millennium Park, mostly along the abandoned rail line that runs through that suburban community. Anyone who has sat on the back patio and enjoyed a beer at Spoonwood Brewing and stared at that giant wall and wondered what it was, it was the old wing wall from the Montour bridge that carried the railway over route 88 and to the junction with the nearby railroad.
Not exactly suburban but there’s an abandoned trolley line running from the West End up into Crafton, part of it is the clearview trail but much of it remains undeveloped.
Much of the westmoreland heritage trail runs through the epitome of suburbia. There’s an abandoned rail line through the middle of Washington PA.
There’s an old line from Houston PA to Westland that would connect Canonsburg and Houston directly to the Montour Trail system with most parcels still owned by the railroad even though it’s been abandoned since the 80s.
There’s an abandoned line Burgettstown that heads down towards Cross Creek that I believe is still owned by the old railroad.
The Turtle Creek connection to the GAP would also fit into this discussion.
Plenty to choose from, it’ll never be a completely coherent network through the suburbs but I just listed a ton of potential that’s not only untapped but much That’s outside the immediate city limits gets very little discussion outside of a few ambitious municipalities and the wonderful trail groups where they exist.
edit: Stu, I see an abandoned rail line (it was it a road?) that runs from the Babcock Blvd/3 degree road intersection near Knuckleheads that’s runs north into McCandless. If they could somehow tie this into an east-west connection between Potter Park and North Park you’d have a great starting point for biking in your suburban community!
Speeking of the suburbs, The Brilliant Branch would make a great connection between the East End and the suburbs on the north bank of the Allegheny River. It could provide a nearly direct connection from Bakery Square to the future riverfront trail in Aspinwall This could potentially bring more business to Aspinwall, Sharpsburg, Blawnox, and The Waterworks and Fox Chapel Plaza shopping centers as long as they are willing to install ample bike parking.
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