I was in Indianapolis on business the last few days.  I drove the minivan across from Iowa so that I could bring my bike and get some miles in.  I rode from the hotel to the office and back each day and I also had the opportunity to do a little tourist cycling.

Along the White River Trail west of downtown Indianapolis.

White River Trail.

One place I rode was the White River Wapahani Trail.  This trail runs along the White River just west of downtown from 30th Street on the north to Raymond Street on the south.  I’m very familiar with it, having lived here for several years.  The section from downtown to the north has been in place for as long as I can remember, but the trail was recently completed south of downtown where it joins a side path at Raymond and eventually connects to the Eagle Creek Trail on the west side of town.  This was my first opportunity to really explore it as it was flooded the last time I was here.

I want to frame today’s post in terms of trails because a lot of cyclists I speak with, particularly those with less experience, tell me they favor trails over streets.  In some cases I get the feeling that this “trails good, streets bad” mindset ignores the fact that trails pose their own set of risks. Maybe these risks don’t seem as big as those posed by cars but sometimes they are.  Sometimes they conflate.  I once saw a car leave the roadway and go flying across a side path.  Luckily, no cyclists were there at the time.  Mixed use trails have other general risks including those posed by pedestrians, parents with children and dogs off leash. Nobody wants to hit a child or dog with their bike.

But there are also trail-specific risks and that leads me back to the White River Wahapani Trail.  Generally speaking, this trail is a nice addition to the local landscape.  It provides a degree of connectivity for cyclists that wasn’t there previously. It turns a long neglected river bottom into a potential transportation corridor.  This is all good.  That said, it has its own quirks.

These curbs sure look nice but they block the natural “collision avoidance” escape route. The only way to leave the trail here is over the handlebars.

Quirks?  Yeah…like adding curbs to the trail.  I’ve never seen this on a bike trail before and I’m not sure I understand why it was necessary, particularly since they’re expensive and trail budgets are always limited.   On a practical level, they cut off the obvious escape route for cyclists attempting to avoid a collision.   Going over the handlebars is a very real threat here.  Have you ever done gone over the handlebars?  I have.  I don’t want to do it again, thus, situational awareness.  I asked around both in Indy and among my planner/engineer friends nationwide and I couldn’t get an answer as to why these were added other than “it looks nice.”  That’s not a good reason to create a needless risk.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure this out. I never did.

The second quirk along the White River was this stop sign in the middle of nowhere.  The first time I approached it I thought that perhaps there was some sort of risk they were trying to protect me from, but I never could figure out what it might be.  Signage like this that is confusing is another one of those things that requires the cyclist to exercise extra care.  Signage matters.  Rule number one should be “don’t confuse.”  Sadly, when it comes to bicycle infrastructure, signage is often not very well thought out.

Since it was December and quite chilly, I didn’t encounter much traffic along the White River Wahapani Trail.  In fact, with the exception of a couple of fishermen, I had it pretty much to myself and so I found myself thinking about all of this situational awareness stuff as I rode along.   The moral of the story?  We cyclists must always be aware of where we’re riding and what’s going on around us.  Trails aren’t necessarily safer than roads…they just pose a different set of risks.  When we think about these risks and factor them in based on our riding style, it may impact where we choose to ride.  Either way, it requires situational awareness on our part.  Cycle on!


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