John Venditti uses the bike paths that run through the Capital Region morning, noon and night.
“Every single path I’ve gone on at 2 in the morning,” said Venditti, a member of the Albany Bicycle Coalition who leads bike tours and teaches courses on how to bike in traffic. “Who is going to camp out on a bike path and wait for someone to come along? When I go down to the bike path in the middle of the night I see deer. I see raccoons. I don’t see people.”
Venditti said that the bike paths are safe, but that some people perceive them as unsafe.
“There has probably been a handful of incidents,” he said. “But you could also be in church and get robbed on a Sunday morning. When you talk about how many people use the trails, the crime rate is very low.”
The largest bike path in the area is the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, which starts in Albany’s Corning Preserve, on the Hudson River, and runs to Cohoes, where it connects to the Mohawk River section of the path. The trail continues west along the Mohawk River, cuts through Schenectady and ends in Rotterdam. Much of the trail is a paved path, but other parts run on city streets.
On July 4, a man was accused of firing nearly 20 rounds from an assault rifle on the section of the bike path near Manhattan Street in Schenectady.
Niskayuna resident Fred Thompson, an avid cyclist who uses the bike path frequently, described the incident as “an anomaly.”
But he said he does occasionally hear concerns, particularly from women, about using the path early in the morning or late in the day, when fewer people are on it. “I’ve heard stories about women being approached on the bike path by scruffy-looking guys,” he said.
Lt. Mark McCracken, a spokesman for the Schenectady Police Department, said that the department doesn’t get a lot of calls about incidents on the bike paths. “Its statistics are no worse than any other part of the city,” he said.
When calls do come in, they tend to involve homeless people who have built temporary shelters in the woods behind Schenectady County Community College, where a section of the trail runs. Occasionally the department receives reports of people drinking, holding open containers or loitering, he said.
Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, a nonprofit organization that advocates for parks and trails, said research shows that the crime rate on bike trails tends to be the same as the crime rate in the neighborhoods where such trails are located. “There are too many crimes in general, but most of the time they’re not happening on trails,” she said.
The National Trail Training Partnership, a national group that advocates for trails throughout the country, has compiled studies on the impact trails have on property values and public safety.
According to the group, “Homeowners nationwide express the same concerns and fears about proposed trails in their neighborhoods. But studies in various parts of the United States seem to show that concerns about trails lowering property values and increasing crime are unfounded. In fact, trails have consistently been shown to increase (or have no effect on) property values, to have no measurable effect on public safety, and to have an overwhelming positive influence on the quality of life for trail neighbors as well as the larger community.”
Gillian Scott serves as president of the Friends of the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail. The group’s volunteer “ambassadors” monitor trail conditions, provide users with information and promote awareness of the trail.
In an email, Scott said that ambassadors “may encourage people to be courteous of other users. This might include a polite reminder not to walk four abreast on the trail on a busy Saturday or a request to control loose dogs, which can be particularly dangerous for cyclists. But that’s extremely rare, and not really what we’re about.”
Ambassadors are much more likely to be found helping cyclists with mechanical problems and giving out maps, she said. Another project has been distributing free cone cards for Stewart’s to reward kids for wearing helmets while cycling. One ambassador has been active in keeping spots where the trail crosses roads free of glass and other debris, and trimming back brush. This weekend, ambassadors planned to help direct riders doing the local stretch of the statewide Cycle the Erie Canal ride.
Scott said her group does not receive reports of suspicious people on the trail, largely because people who witness suspicious behavior are likely to inform the police.
Reports of violent crime on the bike paths are few and far between.
In 2003, a transient man was convicted of trying to kill a woman as she jogged along the Corning Preserve bike path. According to police, he hid in the bushes, jumped out, clubbed the woman during her lunch hour jog and tried to drag her into the woods. In 2005, a man pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman walking on the bike path near the Champlain Canal in Waterford, and in 2009 a man pleaded guilty to pulling a woman off her bike while she was riding on the path in Troy and raping her.
Cyclists such as Thompson and Venditti are more concerned about the dangers posed by road crossings than criminals.
Thompson has long been concerned about the section of the bike path that intersects with Route 5S in Rotterdam Junction. His friend Alan Fairbanks was killed there in 2006 when he collided with a car while crossing the street. Thompson would like to see a flashing light installed to warn drivers to slow down. Another problem area is the city of Schenectady, where the sections of the path that run on city streets are not particularly well marked.
Venditti said that for people who are afraid to bike in traffic, the paths provide a safe place to ride.
“Most people only ride on the paths,” he said. “Then they return to their cars and drive home.”