Blue Ridge Parkway Reality Check

One of my favorite places to go for a cycling vacation is Asheville, NC. I enjoy a number of routes that include sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway. So naturally, I was alarmed last week when I received several email alerts and calls to action with titles like “Blue Ridge Parkway Under Attack!” and “Blue Ridge Parkway: Closed to Cyclists?”

While several of the alerts indicated that the Park Service wanted to close the parkway to cyclists, the text of most published articles talked about the Park Service favoring a plan that didn’t include “accommodations” for cyclists. Well, accommodations mean different things to different people. The ones specifically referenced were mountain bike access on trails and some paved  multi-use paths. LAB’s action alert avoids discussion of banning, it’s concerned with impacts to bike-specific infrastructure:

We are asking the park planners to: 1) Halt the National Historic Landmark application process. The designation would make it harder to make future improvements for bicycling access, such as wider shoulders and trails. 2) Recognize and promote cycling in the Draft Management Plan as a viable and important aspect of Parkway visitation. 3) Work with cyclists, the surrounding communities, and the general public to meet the needs of today’s changing world.

What’s in the Plan?

Before I wrote anything or passed on any alerts, I wanted a look through the actual plan. This article, Blue Ridge Parkway Management Alternatives Draw More Than A Little Debate has a link to the Park Service Draft Management Plan (which outlines alternatives A, B & C).

Some of the language that has been quoted from the plan feels motor-centric. The language that seems most objectionable is, “traditional, self-contained, scenic recreational driving experience,” which appears in numerous places. The references to “driving” suggest motoring and understandably trigger a negative reaction from those of us who drive bicycles.

In the explanation of how the Draft Management Plan’s alternatives were developed (page 36), this is listed as one of the questions addressed:

Is the current range and mix of car/RV/bicycle/motorcycle/pedestrian use of the parkway road appropriate and sustainable, or are changes needed for visitor experience and safety or for resource protection?

That’s a valid question. In some urban areas, congestion does create problems for this mix of users. Nowhere do any of the alternative plans suggest the answer to this is to ban bicycles. In fact, all plans have this text:

Continue to allow bicycling on the main parkway road and other parkway roads, recognizing that bicyclists would be sharing the road with higher volumes of motorized traffic, especially in the more urbanized areas of the parkway.

Plan B includes a paved multi-use path in the Boone/Blowing Rock area, but in the interview linked below, the Parkway superintendent says that is a mistake and should have been deleted. They simply don’t have the funding for it. The continued prohibition of off-road bicycling appears in Plan B. That issue is also addressed in the interview linked below. Plan C calls for parallel multi-use paths in the Waynesboro, Roanoke, and Asheville urban areas. The summary table for Plan C (page 169) says the paved trails would help alleviate roadway traffic congestion and conflicts between cyclists and motorists (by removing the cyclists). That seems like a nice idea only to people who have not experienced the butt-puckering thrill of a 6% grade on a 2-way multi-use path — with climbing riders tacking all over the place and descending cyclists hitting speeds close to 30mph (never mind adding pedestrians, children and dogs to that mix).

Shoulders are another matter. While it’s sometimes nice to have some extra pavement on the uphill side of the road (I never use a shoulder when descending!!), I don’t necessarily want to see a whole lot more pavement in paradise.

The proposal to replace at-grade crossings (stop signs) with grade separation would be beneficial to cyclists. Closing off some local access to reduce commuter traffic could be good or bad for cyclists depending on the location and whether cycling access could be maintained. The worst stretch of the Parkway near Asheville is between Hwy. 74 and Hwy. 25, where local commuters create a steady stream of speeding, impatient drivers. However, since the Parkway itself has so few services, including potable water, local access is important for cyclists. According to the document, most cycling use is local day-rides, which probably originate from those same access points.

Under Visitor Use and Experience (page 243):

In addition to motor vehicles, bicycles are permitted along the entire length of the parkway. Although cyclists represent only 1% of the road’s traffic mix, the parkway is popular with cyclists due to its limited access and relatively lower traffic levels (outside of commuter zones) and vehicle speeds when compared to most community streets and highways. The parkway was not designed as a bicycle facility and has no specific paved shoulders or specific bike lanes or paths; cyclists currently ride in the road’s travel lanes. The parkway is most often used by cyclists for day rides, although some ride the entire length of the parkway and camp along the way (DEA 2005).

It goes on to discuss which areas have the highest bicycle use and some of the conflicts which have escalated as a result. Multi-use paths are the solution desired by planning departments and motorists. But none of the other users want to share paths with fast-moving cyclists.

The Park Service Speaks

After the burst of sensational alerts, clarifications are coming this week. Monday, Bicycle Retailer clarified that there is no language in the plan to ban cyclists. Yesterday they published an interview with Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent, Phil Francis, who said:

Well, it’s amazing to me that someone would read that document and come to some conclusion that is so wildly different from our intent. Our intent is to continue to welcome bicyclists as we always have. To make reference to the enabling legislation that created the park in the 1930s and to then conclude that the park is not welcoming bicycles anymore is quite amazing. Our plan is to continue to welcome bicyclists; we are not planning to change our policy at all.

He also explained the financial challenges the Park Service faces:

If you look at the level of funding we get each year, which is declining, there is no possible way financially for us to fund our backlog, much less add additional resources. The total value of the resources we have to manage is $5.2 billion. We get $16 million a year to manage 600 buildings, 100 waste water treatment plants, 469 miles of road, 77 cemeteries, 14 visitor centers, 16 million people, 3,300 law enforcement incidents. It is just not possible with this economic climate … to think about adding infrastructure.

We can all get along on the existing infrastructure. If I can be patient with the RVs slowing my (hard-earned!) descent, then they can be patient having to wait a few seconds behind me on the climb. I’m happy to use pull-outs to release traffic when that is necessary. Aside from the areas where uncivil commuter traffic uses the parkway, I’ve never had a problem sharing the road with other users.

With regard to the use of  “recreational driving experience,” Mr. Francis acknowledges:

Maybe we should have been more clear about where those statements came from. Every planning document I’ve ever seen makes reference to the reason that the park was created. If you look at the legislation that created the park, that (driving) is what they had in mind … Those words came from that time in that context. In no way do those words mean we can’t have bicycles.

Perhaps if our culture thought of bicyclists as drivers, there would be no confusion as to our equality on the existing road.

In these economic hard times, it doesn’t benefit bicyclists, or the public image of bicycling, to make a showing as a demanding special interest. Of equal importance, it would be nice if advocacy organizations obtained all the facts before pouncing into a breathless call to action. I know a lot of conscientious people who forwarded this alert under the reasonable assumption that their sources had vetted the claims. Creating a PR nightmare for an already-strapped agency doesn’t make us many friends.

7 replies
  1. Wayne Pein
    Wayne Pein says:

    Great piece.

    The Parkway doesn’t have the money to do anything, which is a good way to nix the idiotic call for shoulders or separate paths. It would be great to be able to discourage commuter traffic which is clearly not what the road is for but it is abused in that way. How ironic to be using the Blue Ridge on a bike for scenic enjoyment only to be harassed by commuters.

  2. NE2
    NE2 says:

    There is a precedent for banning commuters from a federal road, with the Dulles Airport Access Road being solely for airport access. It’d probably a little harder to enforce in the case of the BRP without closing access.

    • Keri
      Keri says:

      Yeah, I recall that when we rode the Mt Vernon trail on our tour. Not a fun trail when crowded.

      As John Allen points out above, this is a real threat if side paths are constructed along the Blue Ridge, or anywhere on NPS managed land.

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