Orange County has had a love affair with the bicycle since the early 1970s, when many of the more than 350 miles of bike trails within the county were either constructed or marked.
"At the same time the gas crunch was hitting in 1973, air pollution was more of an issue," said Mike Wellborn, a transportation planner for the Orange County Environmental Management Agency. "Also, people were looking around for alternative ways to commute and for different types of recreation. I think the powers that be were motivated for those reasons."
That motivation prompted both city and county planners to incorporate bicycle trails into new and existing developments throughout the county, Wellborn said. During the early '70s, a skeletal bike trail plan was incorporated into the county's general plan and today there are provisions for even more trails that will eventually connect with existing ones to form an interlocking grid that can carry cyclists from one end of the county to the other.
The trails that compose what is officially known as the Orange County Arterial Bikeway System are separated into three classes:
Class 1--trails that are off-road--that is, separated entirely from streets and auto traffic.
Class 2--trails that consist of striped lanes at the edge of streets.
Class 3--trails that are also on streets but are marked only with periodic signs near the curb.
There are more Class 2 routes than any other and the greatest concentration of them can be found in the Irvine and Huntington Beach-Westminster-Fountain Valley areas. Those areas, Wellborn said, have a large cycling population, but those cities have also found that the inclusion of bicycle trails into their transportation planning "scores points with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the (state) Transportation Commission and improves the chances of getting state money" for transportation planning.
But the trails are more than a funding ploy, said Dan Gilchrist, the rides, programs and events coordinator for Two-Wheel Transit Authority, the county's largest bicycle dealer.
"If you've ever been out on a weekend, for instance, you can see how much they're used," Gilchrist said. "Often, they're just packed, particularly the off-road trails. On the Santa Ana River trail, it's absolutely amazing how many cyclists you see--more than on the roadway."
The Santa Ana River trail is perhaps the most spectacular example of the Orange County bike route. It's a nearly continuous 22-mile paved trail along the edge of the river that extends from the beach at Huntington Beach to Featherly Park near the San Bernardino and Riverside County lines. And, Wellborn said, an average of 42,000 riders travel on the 8-foot wide paved ribbon each month.
Several of Orange County's cycling clubs make use of the trail network, although on-road trail rides are more common, said Bev Plass, president of the Bicycle Club of Irvine.
"We'll use the trails every Saturday and Sunday," she said. "They're very valuable to us. The striped lanes on the streets are our favorites, but the very safest rides are probably along the off-road paths."
Mike Wolk, president of the Orange County Wheelmen, the county's largest cycling club, said that "there are some really nice trails that we use, although sometimes they're not as convenient as they might seem if you really want to cover ground. On the off-road trails, you often find pedestrians and people walking dogs. But we use the Santa Ana River trail fairly frequently and if there are striped lanes on the street, we always try to use those."
While Plass and Wolk said the trails can be a boon to novice cyclists--enabling them to ride mostly out of the crush of auto traffic--Wolk added that experienced cyclists generally are comfortable riding with cars and exercise their right to share the road with them as a bona fide vehicle.
"It's strange," said Wolk, "but oftentimes we have irate motorists shouting at us to get back on the sidewalk where we belong. They don't realize that that would be totally illegal in most cases."
Misconceptions such as that may become fewer as the trail network grows. It is almost inevitable, Wellborn said, that when new development occurs in the county, bike trails will be part of the plan. Developers, he said, are not required to include any certain amount of trails but rather are expected to "meet the requirements of the general plan, just like putting in sewers or schools. It's more of a logical thing, to try to get the best connections" with other existing trails nearby.
Some small developers, Wellborn said, "who haven't checked out the plans and find out they have to have a 20-foot easement for a bike trail--they can get a rude awakening."