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Beaten path

Like the Emerald Necklace before it, the Charles River bike path is a jewel. This gem, however, has its flaws.

That postcard-perfect view of the Boston skyline, the one with sailboats in the foreground and the golden dome of the State House gleaming at the crest of Beacon Hill?

You'll find it on the Cambridge side of the Charles River bike path.

A fun way to commute in and out of downtown?

On the Boston side especially, its devotees passionately believe, that's just what the bike path provides most workdays.

Want to dodge speeding traffic, or pedal for miles with nary a restroom in sight?

Well yeah, there's that, too.

As we found out during a recent ride, there's lots to love - and not love - about the area's most popular bicycle path, a 16-mile trail that lines both sides of the Charles River from Boston to Watertown.

"If you really think about what makes a world-class city, it's not the number of cars coming in and out of the city," says Jeff Rosenblum, executive director of LivableStreets, an urban transportation planning group. "It's open space, car-free zones," and lots of recreational options for residents.

But along the trail, the people who use the path frequently find a mixture of delight and distress. A push by cycling advocates has helped spur improvements in recent months, but as competing needs scramble for state funding, the changes are coming incrementally.

"People love the paths, but there really hasn't been any major work on the paths in 20 to 25 years," says Chris Porter, chairman of the Boston chapter of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. He describes maintenance as "minimal" and improvements "nonexistent."

To see just what it's like out on the trail, a Globe staffer recently cycled about 15 miles of it, from the Museum of Science on the Boston side of the river to the Daly Memorial Rink near the Brighton/Newton line, and back on the Cambridge side.

Our cyclist found some very good places to ride, particularly along the Esplanade, where the pathway is wide and smooth and divided into two lanes to help minimize collisions with joggers, skaters, and other cyclists. The path between the Harvard and Longfellow bridges on the Cam bridge side is wide and offers a spectacular, postcard-perfect view of the Boston skyline.

There is also a bucolic section of path along Soldiers Field Road in Allston, behind the Publick Theatre, which offers an especially scenic ride past Christian A. Herter Park and Community Gardens, the Northeastern University boathouse, and the Boston Food Co-op's victory garden.

But some other spots - like the stretch between the Boston University and Western Avenue bridges in Boston - are narrow, have large pavement cracks or loose boards in parts, or feel dangerous because there's little barrier protection from speeding cars along Soldiers Field Road.

A long stretch from Arsenal Street in Watertown along Greenough Boulevard past the Eliot Bridge in Cambridge is a bumpy, sandy ride.

Going over and under the many bridges between Newton and Boston is also a challenge. Most require cyclists to stop, hoist bikes over the curb, and then cross traffic on the road. There are paths under the Eliot Bridge, but they're frequently muddy and wet from large puddles. The path under the Longfellow Bridge in Cambridge becomes extremely narrow, with just enough room for one person at a time to ride.

For those seeking some creature comforts along the way, amenities - bathrooms, drinking fountains, food vendors, picnic tables, even playgrounds - are pretty hard to come by.

The Esplanade portion of the pathway, by the Hatch Shell, has both public restrooms and a seasonal stand that sells sandwiches and soft drinks to go. There are also several pay phones, plenty of benches, and at least one drinking fountain, but it wasn't working when a Globe reporter tried it two weeks ago.

The only other public restrooms in the loop are at the Artesani Park in Brighton. The park has a nice, shiny playground with slides, swings, and a climbing area; a water spray park; and a drinking fountain right off a lovely, serene section of the path. Those who like to bring their bicycles to the path by car can also find plenty of free parking in several lots along Soldiers Field Road.

There is also a playground at Magazine Beach in Cambridge, but it's tiny and rundown. The surrounding park, frequented by homeless people, feels uninviting even during the daytime.

Some of the biggest problems for cyclists, said Porter of the bicycle coalition, are sections of pathway that have crumbled away or are not wide enough for cyclists to pass each other other safely. There are also several dangerous intersection crossings between River Street in Cambridge and Watertown, he said.

MassBike, as the bicycle coalition is usually called, is a statewide advocacy group that tackles bike infrastructure and education issues, and is pushing legislators to adopt a bike "bill of rights." "The paths are a great resource and we want people to recognize that," said Porter.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation oversees the 16-mile loop from the Craigie Bridge by the Museum of Science to the Watertown Dam, as well as parkland along both sides of the river.

Dan Driscoll, the agency's director of bikeways and green infrastructure, concedes that some cyclists might feel the agency isn't doing enough. Because financing is tight, he said, the department has been doing path upgrades on a piecemeal basis in the last several years, focusing on the most severe problems or on those parts where the work doesn't require widening the pathway.

To "do everything that's in bad shape" along the entire path, and fix up riverside parklands, would cost $20 million, said Driscoll, who commutes by bike from his home in Watertown to his Causeway Street office every day.

In May, the agency repaved stretches of the bike path from the Daly Skating Rink on the Newton/Brighton line to the Newton Yacht Club and from North Beacon to Arsenal street in Watertown.

These were "two of the worst sections," said Driscoll. The $180,000 was paid for by the department with contributions from the Charles River Conservancy, a volunteer group that promotes responsible management and upkeep of the river, a grant from a local nonprofit, as well as $50,000 in matching funds from the state's Office of Environmental Affairs "Fix It First" program.

Conservation and Recreation is redoing a section of path near Watertown Square, and just got the green light last week to do a full reconstruction of the path between the Boston University Bridge and River Street on the Boston side. That work will cost about $200,000, Driscoll said.

"Fixing up the bike paths is very high on our agenda," said Renata von Tscharner, the conservancy's president, who also cycles and in-line skates the path frequently.

Last summer, the group released a comprehensive report on pathway conditions and made recommendations on how to improve them. Among the proposals: creating underpasses similar to those under the Eliot Bridge so users wouldn't have to cross busy streets, and putting in pedestrian crossing signals at intersections between Soldiers Field Road and River Street.

The conservancy is also working to promote getting Storrow Drive closed to vehicular traffic regularly on Sunday mornings, similar to the Sunday shutdowns of Memorial Drive. Two weeks from today, Storrow will be shut for only the second time, to host "Hub on Wheels," a charity bike ride, said von Tscharner.

Looking ahead, Driscoll said, "All of the remaining problem areas, many of which are in Cambridge, require design work," meaning they're also more expensive and time-consuming to redo.

Design plans have been completed to overhaul one lengthy segment of the path - from the Boston University Bridge to the Longfellow Bridge on the Cambridge side of the river - but finding the $6 million to pay for the project is still a work in progress, said Driscoll.

As part of a new strategy to the paths, Driscoll said his agency is reconsidering the types of maintenance equipment it uses on the bike path, noting that snowplows and grass mowers appear to be inadvertently damaging the asphalt.

Rosenblum of LivableStreets thinks the state's priorities are "out of balance," favoring road maintenance over recreational and nonmotorized transportation pathways. "This is not just a DCR problem."

He notes that in the last decade, Chicago has built hundreds of miles of bike lanes and paths and opened a 300-capacity bike parking/changing station downtown for cycling commuters so they can shower before heading to work.

"Boston could be a first-class bicycling community," says von Tscharner. "It's a matter of fixing them up, which is so much easier than starting from scratch."

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at cpazzanese@globe.com.

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