Some people are really afraid of being robbed or assaulted on the Metropolitan Branch Trail. But cars scare me way more, and I'll take the trail over city streets any day.
A neighbor of mine was once riding on the MBT when they saw some young people in ski masks. This prompted fear that they were about to get mugged, so they turned around and got off the trail as quickly as possible, warning other cyclists about the potential danger ahead. My neighbor later emailed our list serve vowing never to ride the trail alone again. Others replied with claims that the MBT is “not safe and never will be.”
It frustrates me that these incidents mean that many see the MBT as categorically “not safe,” and as a daily user of the MBT I feel compelled to tell another side of the story. This is not meant to diminish the fear that anyone feels if they believe they are about to become a target. But I do want to counter the idea that a robbery (or even a handful of robberies) means that no part of the trail is safe, ever.
So here's my perspective: I use the MBT at least five days a week, during both morning and evening rush hours. I do this on the sunny days when the MBT is full of people, and I do it on the cold and/or rainy days when I often only see one or two other people on the trail. I also do this at night if I am coming home from a friend's house or bar.
Sometimes I am lucky enough to ride with one or maybe two other people, but often I am riding alone.
To me, city streets feel far more dangerous than the MBT
When I ride my bike, I feel most unsafe riding on Michigan Avenue during rush hour, especially with potholes that sometimes mean I have to swerve at the last second not to hit a large bump. I feel afraid that a busy driver who is checking their texts or talking on their phone will hit me as they come around the turn near South Dakota Ave.
I feel unsafe crossing the Franklin Avenue bridge, where drivers seem convinced that they fit in the lane with me. They probably don't know that the right half of the lane is filled with broken glass and grates that threaten to catch a bike tire.
I feel afraid that I will get side-swiped by someone who sees me and, instead of slowing down, decides to change lanes at the last minute, only managing to get partially into the next lane before pulling up next to me. That gets my heart racing, and I see visions of the hospital bed I will occupy if I get side-swiped.
The end of my commute means getting off the Met Branch Trail and riding on Florida for one block. It means taking one hand off my handlebars to signal my intention to turn left, which means I have half as much control over my bike. It means that I hear the cars whizzing up behind me, and I pray that what I hear is in the right lane and is not in my lane. Because if they are in my lane they are surely going to hit me and I will die. That block is the scariest part of my commute.
I see the MBT as a safe haven
To me, the Met Branch Trail is a sanctuary. It means that for 15 minutes I can stop being afraid of being hit by a driver. It means that when it's snowy or a little bit icy, I can ride my bike anyway — if I wipe out, I'll get scraped up, but I won't get run over by a driver passing me by at 30 MPH.
This is what I tell my friends who are afraid to ride on the MBT: I feel a much more real and present danger of a collision with a car when I ride on the streets than I do of getting mugged by some punk kid on the Met Branch Trail.
A version of this post first ran in 2015.