Commute Trade-Offs: Safety

Seldom does a commute not involve some kind of trade-off. Bike commuters are often dealing with compromises, and my sense of safety is often one of those.

Take yesterday, for example. I had to run an errand out in Bethesda. The first half of it had to be via car (Booooo. That’s a compromise already!). However, the second half of the errand I was able to use my bike. So bike I did.

I had two route options for my return trip back into the District of Columbia from Bethesda, Maryland.

1. TakeĀ Capital Crescent Trail to the trail by the Kennedy Center (almost ten miles car-free!) and home; or
2. Ride Massachusetts Avenue (a main road in D.C.) back to Adams Morgan and home.

At first, it seems like a no-brainer. Take the Capital Crescent Trail!

Not so fast. I began my return trip at 8:30 at night. That changes things.

While Route 1 would offer a peaceful car-free ride into the city along a beautiful trail that borders the Potomac River, the trails at that hour are dark. In addition, the trail becomes isolated as the evening wears on.

This morning, I read that a female jogger had been attacked along the Capital Crescent Trail over the weekend. That crime happened at around 7 p.m., not late by my standards, but late enough to be dark outside and to have cleared the trails of most recreational traffic. Now I know that being a cyclist is distinct to being a runner on a trail, but even so, the news was enough to give me pause about my own safety.

In contrast, the city streets option, Route 2, has a fairly constant stream of car traffic. There are people out and about until later hours in the evening. The streets are well lit.

I would have loved to choose Route 1, but as it was after rush hour (where you would find more bike commuters out on the trails) and in the interest of my own safety I chose the more car-trafficked Route 2.

While I had to watch steadily for potholes and vehicles as I zipped down Massachusetts Avenue and back through the well-traveled roads of the city, I still felt safer than the quiet dark trail.

More often than not, probably nothing would happen if I chose to take the trail home. But I did not feel like risking it. How ironic that the same aspects that make a route peaceful and appealing at one point in the day can also make it feel unsafe and isolated at another.

It sucks that people, women in particular, have to consider these kinds of trade-offs when commuting. In fact, it makes me really angry. Regardless of how I feel, though, the reality is we do have to watch out for ourselves and make compromises.

Like I said, nine times out of ten we’re probably fine. But I don’t want to risk that tenth time. So yesterday I didn’t and my trafficky commute home accompanied by the occasional pothole dodging, while not the most peaceful, worked out ok and got me home safe and sound.

12 thoughts on “Commute Trade-Offs: Safety”

  1. There was a time not long ago when the National Park Service would not publicize attacks (mostly on women) on the Mount Vernon Trail. A trail user by the name of Henley Gibble organized and protested which led to more transparency. So it’s good that you have the information to make an informed choice.

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  2. I’m on the CCT daily and now as winter approaches, I’m getting ready for more of my ride to be in the dark.

    The most recent attacks are worrisome. As I see it, part of the problem with the CCT is that, compared to some of the other regional trails, it has relatively few access points and, for a good stretch, is bound on one side by the Potomac and the neighborhoods of G-town, Palisades and Spring Valley on the other.

    This configuration creates a couple dynamics – for a would be attacker/thief, it means that, if they’re on the section of the trail closer to Georgetown, they really only have one way to go if they are fleeing the trail – East through the neighborhoods. For Police/ambulance/etc. The lack of access points means it can be difficult to reach someone in need of assistance on the trail. For the first 4 miles from Georgetown up to the Dalecarlia, there are only 5 access points and only one of those (exluding the trail head in Georgetown) is vehicle-accessible: Fletchers.

    I think that the lack of places to flee (and its location, buffered by wealthier NW neighborhoods) makes it a little less prone to crime, but the fact that there are some remote stretches has the opposite effect.

    For the past few years, despite NPS and MPD efforts, the lower end of the trail (more or less from Fletcher’s down to Georgetown) has also been home to some homeless people. Occasionally you see tents set up (esp. in warmer weather) and frequently see the same people walking/riding (many of them with bikes!) in and out of the trail. I’m not claiming that they are responsible for the attacks, just pointing out that they’re there.

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  3. Good post. I must admit I haven’t thought much about safety on the bike aside from the obvious threat from inattentive drivers.

    As a female runner, I too resent making the “safe” choice when I’d rather run through the woods. Even when I say, the hell with it, and do as I prefer, I feel anxious. The No Doubt song “Just a Girl” is my resentful anthem. At least Gwen Stefani sings with the proper degree of outrage:

    Take this pink ribbon off my eyes
    I’m exposed
    And it’s no big surprise
    Don’t you think I know
    Exactly where I stand
    This world is forcing me
    To hold your hand
    ‘Cause I’m just a girl, little ‘ol me
    Don’t let me out of your sight
    I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite
    So don’t let me have any rights

    Oh…I’ve had it up to here!
    The moment that I step outside
    So many reasons
    For me to run and hide
    I can’t do the little things I hold so dear
    ‘Cause it’s all those little things
    That I fear

    ‘Cause I’m just a girl I’d rather not be
    ‘Cause they won’t let me drive
    Late at night …

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  4. This is an issue I can relate to in greater Boston. Our so-called commuter bikeways are completely unlit, and the only alternatives in/out of town are busy roads. Last year around this time I had several incidents in a row, first when a couple of drunk men blocked my path on the Charles River trail, and later when a group of teenage boys on the Minuteman Trail stuck spokes in my wheel as I cycled past. That was the last straw for me and since then I will not ride on unlit trails alone at night. This is less of a problem now that I am comfortable enough to ride on pretty much any busy road, than it was 2-3 years ago when I was not and truly relied on the bikeways. It’s a shame that the safety of the trails is not taken more seriously.

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    1. @BlueRoses and @LovelyBicycle: I’m so sorry you have had those experiences. It is awful to think that someone would do any of those things. Like you, LovelyBicycle, many of our trails are not lit well (or at all) in this area.

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  5. Great posts and great comments from your readers. This is a subject that comes up a lot with my wife and I. It’s not just females that have to be careful after dark.

    When we first dated, she lived in a sketchy part of San Francisco and didn’t want me to ride my bike over. Initially I dismissed this with comments like, “I’m 6’1″ and nearly 200 lbs. I can take care of myself! Grunt! Snort!!”

    She pointed out that I would be a target in her neighborhood and that criminals and gang types don’t fight fair. They can get a group together, pull you off your bike, rob you, and do even worse.

    I did listen to her, even though my pride told me not to. It was tough listening to reason, and like you I resented the fact that I live in a world where I have to worry about such things. But that’s the price we pay for “safety.”

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  6. I’m feeling like a devil’s advocate. I refuse to let these local terrorists rule by fear. If they keep us from using the paths, then there aren’t enough people on the paths to keep them safe. I’ll be out there, so I’m another person looking out for you. I’ll be part of the critical mass it takes to dissuade these douche bags. I’ll carry spray, I’ve got stiff-soled bike shoes, and some skills if I need them. Most of all I’ve got an attitude and lack of fear if someone thinks they want to mess with me and mine. Some people may think I’m crazy, but this is worth it to me. Why let them win and keep us all quivering in fear and riding in traffic in the winter?

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