Roads Less Traveled
By David Butwin / Illustration by Gina Triplett
An international car-free revolution is under way, as travelers are won over to greenways, those scenic and serviceable corridors that link neighborhoods, cities, parks, and the charms of rural countryside. When Landon Hilliard goes to work in Boulder, Colorado, he props his bike on the front rack of a city bus. His job: promoting safe, healthy ways for kids to get to school—by foot, bike, skateboard, scooter—any way but car. Many days, he bikes home the seven miles. In Northampton, Massachusetts, Craig Della Penna and his wife own a Civil War–era B&B beside a popular biking and walking trail built over an abandoned railroad line. As a real-estate agent, Della Penna specializes in selling houses near such green-tinged byways. In bike-mad Portland, Oregon, an outfit called Shift runs an informal moving service not with fume-belching vans but with trailers pedaled by human beings. Once a month, volunteers serve breakfast to commuting cyclists on bridges over the Willamette River. These are not fluky samplings. In case you’ve been marooned for 10 years, more and more towns, cities, and rural areas worldwide are being won over to car-shunning modes of locomotion. In the forefront of the revolution (and it is nothing less) are bikeways and greenways—the corridors that link neighborhoods, towns, and villages to parks, parkways, and discrete trails. The beneficiaries are walkers, joggers, cyclists, cross-country skiers. And the message from frontline proponents like American Trails, a nonprofit group in Redding, California, that promotes all manner of trails, is clear: Make these paths part of your life, not just your lifestyle. Gil Penalosa, a leader in the movement and the executive director of the nonprofit Walk and Bike for Life in Toronto, sees philosophical meaning in greenways. “I love all parks, but park users are homogeneous because they are people who live close by,” he says. “Greenways are the great connectors, whether it’s from one town to the next or perhaps from a high-end to a lower-income community.” In New York and other traffic-menaced cities, the cry of the cyclist is being heard. I’ve often found myself stalled in a tie-up on New York’s West Side Highway, while cyclists roll blithely by on the West Side Greenway Path, which runs a dozen miles from Battery Park to the George Washington Bridge. The path diverts once to a brief stretch of city streets, where the eats happen to be outstanding. It’s a route I bike in saner moments. And imagine this: One day that gritty/green trail may be part of an unbroken skein from Maine to Florida called the East Coast Greenway, which is itself about 21 percent completed. It’s no pipe dream, says Chuck Flink, the chairman of the East Coast Greenway and president of Greenways Inc., a company in Raleigh, North Carolina, that works primarily with local governments to design greenways in the U.S. and as far afield as St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands (which has plans for a 70-mile bike path). “It’s amazing to see something that was a mere notion not long ago become a billion-dollar reality,” says Flink, who has helped engineer a hundred greenways in North Carolina, including the 30-mile American Tobacco Trail out of Durham, which runs along an old rail line. “It’s happening everywhere. Grand Forks, North Dakota, has a fabulous system, and Tucson is talking about expanding.” Latter-day Daniel Boones are slicing deeper and deeper into the country on trails that a few years ago were impassable or nonexistent. James Menzies, a computer whiz and cycling dervish in Washington, DC, loves to bike the popular C&O Canal Towpath, which leads out of Georgetown and up the Potomac River. He’s partial to a scenic, historical stretch between Harper’s Ferry and Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with a side trip to the Civil War battlefield at Antietam. When he’s really driven, he does the C&O’s entire 185 miles to Cumberland, Maryland, then pushes on to Pittsburgh on the Great Allegheny Passage, a trail completed in 2006 mostly over unused railroad lines. Total one-way mileage: 318. My favorite mode, the so-called rail-to-trail route, is a main component of the movement. At last count, nearly 14,000 miles of abandoned railroad tracks had been converted to some 1,450 high, wide, and handsome pathways, many slicing through otherwise unseen corners of America. These blessed trails have taken me to cranberry bogs on Cape Cod, into the heart of Wisconsin dairyland, and along a leaf-bright path in northern New Jersey. Of course, Europe long has had a special place in its heart for nonmotorized travel. I’ve hiked the high country in Switzerland, Norway, and Germany’s Black Forest on wide, sign-posted trails connecting villages, small lodges, and snacking posts. In the Netherlands, cycling rules the day, with trails leading to all corners of the country. Forget about driving a car in Amsterdam, a two-wheeler’s town. Copenhagen, too, is thick with bicycles; I’ve marveled at the forest of chained-up bikes beside the main train station, stored for the day by commuters from far and wide. Paris, following the lead of a successful program in Lyon, has installed some 20,000 bikes at 1,450 stations, ready for anyone to commandeer, at about US$5 an hour. Swipe a credit card and you’re off. Greenways have made big inroads in Spain, England, Germany, and the Danube countries. Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking is the Prague-Vienna Greenways, a 250-mile web of trails and roads that includes an unspoiled segment on the Czech-Austrian border, closed off for 40 years by the Iron Curtain. The project was launched after the fall of the Soviet bloc by a group of Czechs and Americans with preservation in their blood, knowing that the countryside and cultural monuments needed a watchdog in the face of the new free market but also seeing possibilities for green-tinged tourism. The happy result is that you can plot a trip—guided or free-wheeling, tough cycling or gentle walking—along trails that follow ancient salt, silver, and amber routes to castles, medieval churches, ancient Jewish cultural sites, Czech breweries, and Moravian wineries. England is bullish on greenways, thanks to a nonprofit outfit called Sustrans, which powers the National Cycle Network. Roughly a third of the network’s 12,000 miles of cycling and walking routes are motor-free; the rest follow “quiet or traffic-calmed country lanes and roads.” An early success, the Bristol to Bath Railway Path, runs over the old Midland Railway. Sustrans is also behind a glowing and growing Bike It project, which has inspired kids in certain districts to cycle to school at 10 times the national 1 percent average. Many cities worldwide are turning to car-free days to give the streets back to the people. Walk and Bike for Life’s Penalosa helped launch a “bicycle Sunday,” or Ciclovia, when he was the parks and recreation commissioner in Bogotá, Colombia, and the idea has spread across Latin America. Says Penalosa: “When we started in Bogotá, there were eight miles closed to traffic, and now there are 70 miles, and a million and a half people are out getting exercise, getting healthy.” Penalosa also helped set up Ciclovia in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2005. Mexico City and Leon caught the fever in 2007 before passing it across the border to El Paso, Texas, which badly needed a boost, given its paucity of parkland. The Ciclovia it staged every Sunday morning last May was such a success the event may be expanded this year. Pedal-Power Leaders / The following locales are leading the greenway ranks: Minneapolis, which is second to Portland in the number of people who ride bikes to work, looks more like a vast, sprawling park than a middle-size city. Cyclists, bladers, walkers, joggers, and cross-country skiers (in the winter) spin in delightful delirium along the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, a 55-mile linking of parks, lakes, waterways, and historical sites that was set aside by city seers in the 1880s. For a crosstown beeline, you can jump on the ever-improving Midtown Greenway, a wide 5.5-mile ribbon of macadam. Trains are writ large in Chattanooga lore (note the 1941 hit song “Chattanooga Choo Choo”), but today the city swings to a burgeoning greenway system. Everything feeds off the RiverWalk, a lively promenade that’s brought vigor back to a dying industrial section on the Tennessee River. Two of the RiverWalk’s nerve centers are the teeming RiverPark and the renovated, pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge, the scene of musical festivals, fireworks, a Christmas parade, and nonstop, spontaneous hanging out. Southwest Missouri is full-speed-ahead with the Ozark Greenways, a trail system that snakes through Springfield and out into the Ozark plateau. Users of the in-town Galloway Creek Greenway can pull up at the rocking Galloway Station, a bar and grill with an outdoor café. Or hop the 36-mile Frisco Highline Trail through quiet farmland; it’s the route Harry Truman took in his private railcar to prep for his ’48 whistle-stop presidential campaign. Davis, California, a sunny town of 65,000 near Sacramento, calls itself the Bicycle Capital of America. It put in greenbelts and bike lanes back in the 1960s, when the University of California, Davis, was already thick with bicycles. Bike backers have seen a decline in biking brought on by urban sprawl, but the 100-mile web of on-street lanes and off-street paths is still peerless. Motorists in bike-loving Portland, Oregon, are no more than second-class citizens. The 40 Mile Loop, a plan launched more than a century ago, is a green and sinuous route that connects numerous parks along the city’s rivers and creeks. A spur runs from downtown to Forest Park, the largest wooded park in the U.S., with 70 miles of hiking and mountain-bike trails. Bike-through windows are a staple of Portland coffee bars, and one of the tastiest is the Black Sheep Bakery Cawffeeshop, by the Hawthorne Bridge. In Denver, where greenway has been a household term since the 1970s, you can’t walk out of a downtown hotel or suburban home without finding a trail to hundreds of miles of freewheeling fun. Jump on the Platte River Trail downtown, ride 10 miles to Bear Creek, then follow the creek all the way to tiny Morrison (population 430), at the foot of the eye-popping Red Rocks Park. Stop for sustenance at the trailside Blue Cow café. Greensboro, North Carolina’s, 2008 bicentennial present to itself includes a 4.8-mile loop that encircles downtown and ties into a rail trail and trails to outer lakes and the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. The downtown loop is part of a 20-mile greenway that eventually will connect the city to neighboring High Point. The Rail Truth / As American passenger trains have been trimmed to a dwindling few, the stirring, grass-roots rail-to-trail movement has converted thousands of miles of abandoned tracks into handy, scenic pathways. Some of the more notable of these: A bucolic 32-mile run between Sparta and Elroy in western Wisconsin was a trailblazer when it opened in 1965. In summer, it’s a lush country lane, shadowed by aspen and birch, adorned with daisies and berry bushes. You pass through three dark, dripping tunnels and find cheese co-ops and trailside cafés such as Gina’s Pies Are Square at Wilton. Up and running post-Katrina, Louisiana’s 21-mile Tammany Trace links canopied woodlands, ancient timber bridges, horse farms, and the colorful villages of St. Tammany Parish. Covington buzzes with galleries and cafés, Abita Springs is home to the cultish Abita Brewing Co., and Old Mandeville boasts a splendid market. Near Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers, the Virginia Creeper logging railroad line runs 33 miles from Whitetop Station to historical Abingdon. The 17-mile descent from Whitetop to the Appalachian Trail town of Damascus has become such a draw that a number of outfitters vie to ferry bikers to the top. On the way down, riders favor the Creeper Trail Café in the now-bustling village of Taylors Valley. Steeped in Minnesota literary tradition, the 46-mile Lake Wobegon Trail follows an old Burlington Northern line between St. Joseph and Sauk Centre. With a wry nod to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon tales, the trail’s chairman, Dave Simpkins, points to “an above-average trail experience with our colleges, churches, and cows.” Sinclair Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, the inspiration for Gopher Prairie in his novel Main Street. An hour northwest of Montréal, Le P’tit Train du Nord begins a scenic 125-mile ramble over a rail route that once carried skiers and summer vacationers to Laurentian resort towns. A dozen of the restored, century-old train stations now are convenient cycling stops; a standout is the Café de la Gare in Ste-Adèle. In winter, it’s popular with cross-country skiers. So it goes in the ever-widening world of no-car locomotion. Biking trails by the Danube, towpaths in Georgetown, rail trails on Cape Cod—the green way looks like the right way. Details, Details, Details / For the latest and fullest in U.S. trail development, consult American Trails in Redding, California (americantrails.org). An excellent source on rail trails is the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (railtotrails.org). You’ll find descriptions of all the routes and plans for new ones. To plan a tour of the Prague-Vienna Greenways, go to the Greenways Travel Club (gtc.cz) or the Friends of Czech Greenways in New York (pragueviennagreenways.org). For a rundown on plans and progress across Europe, consult the European Greenways Association (aevv-egwa.org). David Butwin, a longtime contributor to Hemispheres and a resident of Leonia, New Jersey, has cycled or hiked in all sorts of high places and even in some low-down ones.