As a skilled and experienced cyclist I am capable of riding on pretty much any road. I’ve got video of riding in high speed traffic and the motorists doing just what we teach, waiting or moving to the other lane. But sometimes I like to get out of traffic and ride the trails particularly when they shortcut the trip.
Austin has both Trails (partially paved and primarily designed for recreation) and also Urban Trails (10-12 feet wide concrete and designed to connect other facilities like roads). I am living downtown and find myself using my cargo bike for most trips. With 20 inch by 38 tires, this bike is comfortable on most surfaces. It works a lot better than a skinny tired road bike on trails where water creates gullies and piles of loose gravel.
Two good examples of “useful” trails have saved me miles in traffic recently.
Pleasant Valley Road theoretically provides a great north – south route across the East side of Austin Unfortunately, it has a few discontinuities where a section deadens into a green space or the road changes its name. For motorists, the dead end can be a problem but the City has pushed an urban trail through as a connector as can be seen below. Other urban trails in Austin are beginning to make a significant difference in the commuting habits of people coming into town from the eastern and western suburbs. The final connections are not complete but we’re working on them as well.
During a social ride for Bike Austin we finished at a real Texas honky tonk bar (Buzzkill, and after a few beers and a big plate of BBQ chicken I was feeling pretty good. Had my cargo bike and it was getting dark but I had some decent lights. Decided not to take the arterial which has lots of traffic and some of those drivers may have been drinking too so I jumped on the trail leading to the boardwalk in Lady Bird Lake. As you can see by the Google Maps rendering, the trail was the shortest in both time and distance and crossed under every bridge that crossed the lake. The boardwalk at night is beautiful and presented a great view of Austin and took me out over the water for a good portion of the trip. Good surface. The rest of the trail is primarily decomposed granite and after the recent rains was a little carved up but passable. Had to stop and walk as I went under the Congress Avenue bridge where people were congregating to watch the famous Austin bats come out. As you can see, in 3 miles I had a 36 foot elevation gain. Most of that was climbing out of the river to get back on the streets.
So the answer is, as in most things having to do with traffic and bicycles, it depends. Urban Trails and even natural surface trails can be an important part of the urban transportation grid. It depends on how they connect and how a person riding a bike uses them.