If you’ve ever ridden a bike on the pavement at Arches National Park or Yellowstone, you know how liberating it can be. Cars are often jammed on roads that weren’t designed for the freeway-like crush that hits parks every summer, but on a bike you can cruise at a comfortable pace. And just like riding anywhere else, you’re more a part of the scenery, not walled off from it. But the current transportation reauthorization bill worming its way through Congress could make it illegal to ride a bike on any federal road that has a pathway running parallel to it, not just those within national parks.
If no parallel, alternative pathway exists, cyclists would have a right to the road. Reassured? Don’t be.
For one thing, as the League of American Bicyclists points out, this sets a pretty rotten precedent: “Why stop at federal land highways? And if roads with higher than 30 mph speed limits are so unsafe for bicyclists to share with motorists, bicyclists shouldn’t be using them, period.”
Says Darren Flusche, a policy analyst with the league, “If you write into federal legislation that bicyclists are somehow unfit — the clause is called ‘bicycle safety’ — it’s a really, really bad message to send that sharing the road with bicyclists is dangerous.” The bipartisan bill is just the latest attempt
by GOP congressional members to strip out anything that benefits cyclists and pedestrians.
And while cycling has been permitted on roadways within national parks (there are races up the access roads to Mount Hood and Rainier, both Grand Teton and Yellowstone offer early openings of roads that cyclists can ply before cars, and Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road is on a lot of roadie’s bucket lists), off-road offerings can be summed up in a single word: lame. Or another word: illegal.
Sure, at Cape Cod there’s a great trail network that ties into bike paths in surrounding communities, and Grand Teton recently built a multi-use path to offer cyclists some protection from ponderous RVs and other vehicles.
But that isn’t singletrack. And “multi-use” is just code for a screaming headline, “Mountain Biker Takes out Iowa Mom on Grand Teton Walking Path.” That’s why it was such huge news when Mammoth Caves actually opened up land for singletrack earlier this year.
But that’s the massive exception to the otherwise anti-bike ethos of the NPS. A vibe that will only get worse if this law goes into effect, especially since no matter what kind of bike you ride you might be a scofflaw without even knowing it, since actually knowing which roads on federal lands have paths running parallel to them is rarely easy. There’s no central database, and even park websites often lack this level of granularity.
One ally could come from a place you might not expect: park managers. Quietly, they seem to see this ban of bikes on roads as adding complication and misery to their lives — especially at a time when the feds may slash their budgets to unprecedented levels. Deirdre Gibson, Valley Forge’s chief of planning and resource management, said forcing bikes onto paths could result in a cluster. She said the paved paths in the park are open to bikes now, but because the paths are “multi-use” they tend not to see bike traffic.
Meanwhile, the league has created a petition page on its website to fight the clause in the legislation, which, by the way, saw House Republicans try to cram in another head-scratcher this past Friday: The “American Energy Initiative,” which would lift the ban on new offshore drilling areas, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Additional reporting by National Parks Traveler.