Gender Equity is an Issue for the Transform I-66 Trail Design - Doug Barnes

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Gender Equity is an Issue for the Transform I-66 Trail Design

The main beneficiaries of the currently proposed Transform I-66 bicycle and pedestrian trail will be male bicyclists who feel comfortable riding near or in traffic. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) should build a trail that will be popular among a wider variety of bicyclists and pedestrians. This would then expand the benefits of Virginia’s investment in the trail.

I highlighted some of these issues for the proposed trail in a previous posting on the unrealized benefits of the trail.  This is based on a white paper with the title "The Missed Opportunities of the Transform I-66 Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail Design." I recently submitted written testimony on the preliminary design of the Transform I-66 Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail design to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Here is my written testimony.

(Beginning of Testimony) Thank you receiving my written testimony concerning the Transform I-66 bicycle and pedestrian trail.

I have some comments on the preliminary design of the trail. Underlying these comments is the desire, I think shared by VDOT and other supporters, that the trail should be popular among a diverse set of riders and pedestrians in the vicinity of the I-66 Corridor.

In a sense, for trails such as the proposed one along the I-66 corridor, you can say, “Build it and they will come.”

Or alternatively, you can say “Build it and they will stay away.” The result all depends on the trail design.

If the trail is perceived to be unpleasant or unsafe, then only dedicated bicyclists or pedestrians will ride or walk one it (12% of population). If it is found to be pleasant, safe, and convenient to use, then casual riders, children, commuters and others will want to use the trail (63% of population). It is quite common for local neighbors to fear trails before they are built, only to ride and walk on them after they are constructed. Properly built trails often are perceived like public parks, as a community amenity. People love them.

But all trails are not equal. People perceive trails to be pleasant or safe according to several factors: degree of separation from traffic, width of the path, adjacent car or truck speed, treatment of intersections, and connection to communities. Trails that are pleasant also will be used more and provide more community benefits in the form of walking or riding to school, shops, business or just a friend’s house. Trails that are pleasant will also draw people that want to commute, exercise and improve their health.

At present the design of the I-66 Outside of the Beltway Trail has some good points, but also suffers some problems. At 8-10 feet wide the trail does not adhere to current Federal Highway Administration guidelines of 12 feet. The trail inside the sound wall next to traffic will be unpleasant and perhaps even unsafe if a truck careens out of control. The trail still needs to make some progress in connecting neighborhoods, but surely the trail should run through Northern Virginia Community College. Spilling the trail out onto roads of unknown safety may be an issue. The trail built by several different actors and may be of significant different quality or not look like a single unified trail.

I would conclude with two last points. First, many bike lanes along major highways have no bicycles on them because they are perceived to be unpleasant or unsafe. Second, making the trail a pleasant and safe destination for local residents will be a lasting contribution to the communities along the I-66 corridor.

I am submitting both this testimony and a white paper on the benefits of trails for your consideration. The white paper also provides some examples of how the problems of bicycle and pedestrian trails along highways were successfully solved by others in the country. (End of Testimony)
So, why do I think that seasoned male bicyclists will be the main beneficiaries of the proposed trail.

The reason is based on research categorizing the distribution of bicycle riders that feel comfortable our uncomfortable in various forms of traffic (Geller 2006). A recent survey of people living in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States divide people’s attitude towards bicycling into four categories—(a) strong and fearless; (b) enthused and confident; (c) interested but concerned, and (c) no way, no how (Dill and McNeill 2012). The number of people in the first two categories—those comfortable riding in or near traffic—comprises only 12% of the population (table 1). About 51% of people are interested in bicycling, but concerned about their riding environment due to safety and other reasons. The final category--"No Way, No How"--involves those who are not interested in bicycling for personal or health reasons. They just don't see themselves riding a bike and they comprise 37% of the population. Most strong and fearless riders are in the age range of 18-34 and those in the interested but concerned category include people of a wide variety of ages, including the young and old.

Table 1. Attitude towards bicycling in Portland and Metropolitan Areas, US
(Dill and McNeil 2012)
The current trail design of the I-66 corridor would be attractive primarily to those in the categories "strong & fearless" and "enthused & confident," about 12% of the regional population. In order to be attractive to those "interested but concerned"--making up about 50% of the population--will require addressing the important issues of trail safety and aesthetics. Very few of those in the "interested but concerned" category would want to ride next to a freeway with cars traveling over 65 miles per hour or more. They also would not want to snake through complicated intersections that cross busy highways. Improving the design of the I-66 trail will attract a whole new category of bicyclists and pedestrians and raise the numbers of people that can enjoy the trail. This also will result in increase in trail benefits for the adjacent communities.

The trail as it is currently configured is really geared towards bicyclist who are at the very least confident in their abilities to make their way through traffic and are not hesitant about riding near traffic.  This group is predominately male as women make up only about 20% of riders in the “strong & fearless” and “enthused & confident” categories of riders. Most of those in the category "interested but concerned" would not want to ride on the parts of the I-66 trail that are beside the highway or diverted onto busy streets.  Women are commonly concerned about the safety of riding a bicycle.  They make up 42% of those who are in "interested but concerned" category of potential bicyclists . The conclusion is that a bicycle and pedestrian trail that is safe and pleasant to use would be more attractive for women.

Figure 1. Percent of Women by Type of Bicyclyst
(Source: Dill and McNeil 2012; Note: Sample limited to those cycling once a week for either utility such as work or for recreation)
More work is necessary on conceptualizing the design of the trail and working with local partners to assure an attractive and beautiful bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfare. The difficulties faced by other major trail projects along highways —such as creating a trail by a river in a crowded canyon—may have been even more challenging as those faced by the Transform I-66 project. The residents along the I-66 corridor will make sacrifices during the construction of the project and deserve the permanent convenience of a state of the art bicycle and pedestrian trail. To widen the appeal of the trail VDOT really needs to rethink the demographic profile of those who will benefit from the trail.


Dill, Jennifer. 2015. “Four Types of Cyclists: A National Look.” Slide presentation for NITC Webinar, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon.

Dill, Jennifer and Nathan McNeil. 2016. "Revisiting the Four Types of Cyclists: Findings from a National Survey" Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. Vol. 2587.

Dill, Jennifer and Nathan McNeil. 2012. “Four Types of Cyclists? Testing a Typology to Better Understand Bicycling Behavior and Potential.” Working Paper of Portland State University, Portland Oregon.

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