With sunny days comes the traditional rise in pedestrian, bike, and other traffic to the Schuylkill River Trail. The trail is a paved recreational path that runs from an access point at Locust Street and extends out of the city in Manayunk. The trail offers scenic views of the city skyline, Art Museum, and Schuylkill River. On other blogs and sites such as Reddit, you don’t have to search long to find various debates about what groups use the trailer properly and which don’t. Those with small children chaste cyclists for speeding through the heavily trafficked Art Museum and Boat House Row portions of the trail at speeds of 20mph and more. The bikers are quick to rant about the inability of parents to keep their children from running unpredictably across the path. Runners mostly get a pass because they stick to a predictable path and don’t typically block the trail by traveling in large groups.
Last year, surreys (sometimes called quadricycles) became available for rental thanks to a partnership between the Philly parks department and Wheels Fun, a national franchise that leases the surreys. I think the introduction of the surreys to the trail raised serious safety questions from day one. It’s not unusual to see children, too young to understand right of ways or the dangers inherent in cutting off a rapidly approaching cyclist, swerve unpredictably after a parent lets them take over the driving privileges. I’ve also seen adults operate the “vehicles” with little regard for those around them. The surreys are large, as they are capable of seating four across two rows, and weigh anywhere from five to ten times the average weight of a bicycle when operated. While they only travel at slow speeds, a cyclist colliding with a surrey or a child who is struck by one could be seriously injured. Fortunately, I haven’t seen a serious accident during my time out on the trail.
Last week, the city opened a new skate park just east of the Art Museum that is accessed in part from the trail. The park brings hundreds of skateboarders to an area already heavily utilized by the aforementioned bikers, runners, roller skaters, and surrey renters. Because the skate park is situated at the top of a hill, skaters can frequently achieve moderate speeds as they exit the park.
Surveying the scene while running this weekend I witnessed several cluster-eff moments. One sticks out more than the others. A twenty-something male with his presumed girlfriend or spouse was driving a surrey west along the boathouses. As he traveled, he began to stand up on to the pedals so as to exert a greater force and achieve more speed. Losing his balance, he grabbed on to the wheel to gain support. This caused him to turn the wheel sharply to the right, veering off the path and on to the dirt that ran along the path. In order to correct himself, he veered to the other direction sending the surrey across his natural lane of travel on the path, and in to opposing traffic. A cyclist traveling at an otherwise safe speed from the opposite direction was forced to rapidly shift off the trail, and on to the grass running parallel to the lane he was traveling in. The cyclist was able to reenter the paved portion of the trail, once the surrey passed him. Just imagine if the cyclist didn’t have the free patch of grass, to avoid the out of control surrey. If there were kids standing in the grassy area that he was able to avoid the surrey in, the situation could have ended in tears.
I think this summer we’ll see a breaking point where park officials wise up to the fact that the trail, in many portions only fifteen feet wide, is unsuited for the numbers of people utilizing it for the array of activities that they are.
A quick fix would be to relocate the station that leases the surreys to West River Drive on the other side of the river, and limit the surrey rentals to use on the Sundays that West River Drive is closed from April to October. The surreys are a novelty. I doubt there’s anyone who uses the Schuylkill Trail to ride a surrey, as they do to run, bike, or skate. Confining their use to a closed off city street so that the other groups can navigate a less chaotic path on the other side of the river makes sense. Besides, I doubt “surrey money” is going to keep an otherwise closing school open.