On Nov. 9, Daniel Duane, a triathlete (we have our share of these), wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times saying that he had given up street cycling, other than when competing, due to the number of maimed or killed cyclists he has known in and around cycle-friendly San Francisco. Some will say, "Well, that's a city, not our tranquil countryside," but I and many others can attest that our area is very unsafe for bikers.
I have come close to death several times, and my local riding is only into Saranac Lake to the post office, or on a 17-mile loop from where I live, most of which has low vehicular traffic. I gave up riding to Lake Placid after one hair-raising trip. Accidents are all too common. Less than a month ago, a 74-year-old woman was killed by a pickup truck driven by a distracted driver in a rural community near Utica.
These accidents are not always the vehicle driver's fault. Bikes can be hard to see or obscured by another vehicle. Trucks do not realize that in their "wakes" are air currents that can suck a biker into traffic or blow the cycle into a razor-sharp guardrail. Debris that seems benign to an auto can upend a bike or force it off the road or into high-speed traffic. I still take those risks at 72, as do thousands of our neighbors, but I would never let my grandkids ride on our highways.
This is a shame. As Duane points out, cycling is the second-most popular outdoor activity (after running), supporting a $6.1 billion industry that sold 18.7 million bikes last year. Eight hundred and fifty thousand Americans commute to work on bicycles, a healthy and environment-friendly way to improve our lives - if we still have them at the other end of our commute.
A safe, level rail trail connecting the Tri-Lakes would serve recreational bikers and commuters alike. People who live along the trail could commute to jobs at places like Adirondack Health, the American Management Association and North Country Community College in Saranac Lake; to the Adirondack Park Agency, Department of Environmental Conservation and State Police headquarters in Ray Brook; and to retail and support jobs in all three communities. The 200,000 visitors each year to our campsites at Fish Creek and Rollins Pond could safely commute to all three villages, and even children could safely ride the 9 miles to the Wild Center. With numerous places to picnic and swim along the corridor, the trail would invite family outings, whether on foot or on bikes.
And speaking of walking or running, as noted earlier, these are our most popular outdoor activities, even ahead of biking. Walking or running on our roads is also not the safest pursuit. Both occasional joggers and our Olympic athletes in training are regularly seen running along our highways, sharing what is not infrequently a 3-foot-wide bike lane with other walkers, runners and bikes, making that lane unsafe for all. A 34-mile long, 8-to-10-foot-wide bike path will allow a safe mixture of walkers, joggers, bikers and even wheelchairs - with no vehicular traffic.
While I am writing in favor of a bike path and have never even been on a snowmobile, I have helped untangle the skis of a snowmobile from those unused tracks while snowshoeing between Lake Clear and Floodwood. It was obvious to me that the winter use of the trail would be far greater and safer if it were a smoothly surfaced path. Snowmobile advocates point out that these visitors spend an average of $138 a day, making them our most free-spending tourists. The summer and winter impact of building the trail has been estimated at over $27 million, creating 387 new jobs in the area. (Supporting data are on the ARTA website at www.thearta.com.)
Finally, some critics of bike trails that traverse wild areas say that in the case of illness or accident, it is far easier and safer if the victim is on a highway. While accidents on our highways are much more likely, as I have noted, this rescue issue is a red herring. For starters, the DEC routinely conducts much more complicated and hazardous rescues in situations where hikers are lost, injured or stranded in some of the remotest and most inaccessible regions of the High Peaks. By comparison, reaching someone in need will be quicker than trying to reach someone with a train or "high railer" along the tracks today. In the winter, this is even truer. There are months now when snowmobile access is impossible due to the interference of all those unused switches and rails. Once those are removed and the trail is graded and surfaced, rescuing a snowshoer, skier, hiker or other snowmobiler will be part of our normal emergency procedures, not the Chinese fire drill it is today.
We desperately need a bike path connecting our villages. The North Elba, Lake Placid, Harrietstown, Tupper Lake and Piercefield boards have all said they want one. Let's all call our elected Assembly and Senate representatives and ask them to press the state to make one happen, and soon.
Lee Keet lives outside Saranac Lake in the town of Harrietstown and is a member of the Adirondack Rail Trail Advocates Board of Directors.