A Bike-Ped 'Interstate' From Maine to Florida:
Coming Soon to a Town Near You
By Alice Wells
Brandywine Valley Weekly
Biking from Maine's rocky shores, through heavily populated Southeastern
Pennsylvania and Delaware and then on through the orange groves of central
Florida, is an unlikely result of the proposed East Coast Trail. Few will
venture such a feat. In fact, that's not even the intention of the
monumental project of connected the coastal cities and towns with the
The driving force behind the project is the East Coast Greenway
Alliance. A group comprised of individuals who share a common dream: to
have a paved, off road, bicycle-pedestrian route from Maine to Florida,
connecting towns and cities on the East Coast.
The Greenway Alliance reflects a burst of grassroots Greenway
activity nationwide, spurred by public interest in cleaning up and
restoring public access to waterfronts and converting abandoned rail lines
to new uses, while making communities more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.
Delaware, even with its good bicycling, was not on the East Coast
Greenway's map when a tentative spine route was first identified seven
years ago, connecting local trails.
The original plan was to enter Pennsylvania from Trenton, NJ,
follow the Delaware River south to Philadelphia, then take advantage of a
bikeway already in place along the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia to
Valley Forge (which will eventually be extended to Reading and beyond),
then head southwest through Lancaster County where there are likely
rail-trail corridors, before dropping south along the Susquehanna River and
connecting with Maryland's beautiful North Central Trail heading toward
Baltimore. A scenic and interesting route.
"But, that's not how you go to Baltimore!" said Philadelphia
activists, when they were brought on the project's planning board, two
We go south, through Delaware. Cars do it. Trains and buses do it.
Why shouldn't bicycles do it too?
And how do you get from Philadelphia to Delaware? Not through
At first glance, there was no obvious place for a bikeway in
Delaware County. But, if you're willing to accept the possibility of a
2000 mile trail - surely Delaware County and Delaware can't be such a
Traversing the southeast corner of Pennsylvania doesn't look far on
a map, but finding a route for an off-road, touring-bicycle friendly trail
seemed to be more difficult than building a bike trail to the moon.
"We're not in the business of building or owning trails," says
Karen Votava, executive Director of the ECGA. "What we do is go to towns
along the general route and encourage them to design trails and green
spaces that link in with the larger vision of an East Coast Greenway."
The idea is often compared to the Appalachian Trail which, for
hiking, follows mountain ridges from Maine to Georgia. But while the
Appalachian Trail is challenging and remote - not for everyone - the East
coast Greenway will be accessible, easy to ride and will go into population
Where the East Coast Greenway should go between Philadelphia and
Delaware was the big topic of discussion when the Pennsylvania State
Committee of the East Coast Greenway Alliance held its first formal meeting
in Philadelphia late last year. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning
Commission, Delaware County Planning Commission, Philadelphia Department of
Streets, Bicycle Coalition of the Delaware Valley and Friends of the
Chester Creek Trail all sent representatives.
The thought put forth at the meeting was that the best route would
be to follow the 12 mile stretch along the Delaware River from Philadelphia
into Delaware, on routes 291 and 13. Although there is weekday truck
traffic on Route 291, the road is flat, with few cross streets and wide
shoulders, all of which make the road attractive to cyclists. If the route
becomes part of the East Coast Greenway, a part of the shoulder could be
striped as a bike lane, or a separate bike path could be built alongside
At first, the chance of actually having a separate bikeway seemed
remote, until the committee learned that members of the ECGA aren't the
only people interested in having a greenway along Route 291.
The Delaware County Chamber of Commerce has been promoting turning
the old Industrial Highway, from Tinicum to the entrance to Chester, into
an inviting boulevard, lined with trees and flowers, with flags flying,
representing all the nations which do business in the corridor. It would be
similar to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, which runs
between the Museum of Art and City Hall. (Philadelphia's parkway was
patterned after Paris' Champs Elysee.) Eddystone and Ridley townships have
already agreed to change the name of the highway to the International
Jack Holefelder, President of the Chamber of Commerce, says the
Pennsylvania Horticulture Society has begun working with his office to
choose appropriate plants and trees for the proposal.
He feels a bikeway would tie in well with their vision.
"Now's the time to talk about it," Holefelder says.
To that end, East coast Greenway Executive Director Karen Votava
and its Pennsylvania coordinator, will address the May meeting of the
Delaware County Coastal Zone Task Force, a group which includes
representatives from municipalities and businesses in the 291 corridor.
Making the Delaware County portion of the trail a reality will
require the joining of many forces. Support needs to be garnered from the
six plus municipalities involved, along with open space and transportation
planners, parks, local citizenry, bicycle groups, businesses and the state
DOT. All this support in Delaware County, which recently voted a resounding
"no" for funds to set aside open space, won't happen over night.
"The greatest challenge is raising money," says Holefelder.
"Everyone is working off of tight resources."
He's looking to corporate and private grants for funding. What's
the payoff for them? Attracting new business and industry to the area and
ultimately an estimated 25,000 new local jobs coming from improving the
image of the neglected Industrial Highway.
"The Eddystone Borough Council has been a driving force" in
starting the cleanup, he added. Also, several businesses have already
improved the look of their entrances.
"Foot traffic or bike traffic - it's a positive thing to see people
walking in a community," says Marcus Hook Borough Manager, Bruce Dorbian,
in support of a bike-pedway.
"If Marcus Hook is on the East Coast Greenway we'll work diligently
to make sure there is landscaping and a bikeway," added Dorbian, who has
already worked hard to build a four acre park on the Marcus Hook riverfront.
"It's the only place to see tankers up front and personal," he says
proudly. Dorbian would like the bikeway to go right along the riverfront -
and not bypass the town.
So far, people up and down the East Coast have been remarkably
receptive to including the long distance greenway in their plans.
There's the romance of having an East Coast Greenway sign on your
local bike trail that says "New York 100 miles, Disney World 1201 miles."
But the real appeal comes down to quality of life and money. There
are few sidewalks in the suburbs - walking is tough. Green corridors with
safe, attractive, human scale places to walk or bike, or just to be
outside, are important to people; property values are higher near those
spaces, whether in urban or suburban settings.
Trails add a sense of community and connection - with people and
with nature. The reality is that most of the people using the East Coast
Greenway won't be going the distance. They'll be biking to the train, or to
the movies, or to the mini-mart, or to visit a friend, or to work, or just
out for a Sunday ride.
However, being part of a larger vision can make a local bike path
and park project eligible for grants.
Federal highway dollars for alternative transportation through the
ISTEA program are a primary source of funding for bike paths that actually
go somewhere, even if just to the next town. The rational is that
developing alternatives to automobiles will cut down on traffic congestion
and improve air quality.
Other routes for the East Coast Greenway have not been ruled out.
A bikeway on Route 291 might only have to extend as far north as
Essington. The National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation
Assistance Program is looking into developing a loop trail between colonial
Fort Mifflin and Essington, that would work well for the East Coast
Fort Mifflin is located on the Delaware River, between the mouth of
the Schuylkill River and the Philadelphia International Airport. The
proposed trail would go south between the river and the airport as far as
Essington. It would cross Route 291 at Route 420, then circle north through
the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (formerly Tinicum Wildlife Refuge),
which extends to the southwestern edge of Philadelphia. The trail would be
on paved or hard-packed surface, so it would be touring bike accessible. It
would connect with a trail currently under consideration along the lower
Schuylkill River going from Fort Mifflin to Bartrams Gardens, then to
The downside to the river route in Delaware County is that
negotiating rights of way and agreements with property owners in each
community may take an unknown amount of time. PennDot has already made some
acquisitions to expand the road, but a bikeway had not been included in
An alternate to following Route 291 all the way along the river
would be to branch inland at Chester City and take advantage of a
rail-trail conversion already under consideration on the abandoned Chester
Creek Branch line.
The branch line corridor, which is now owned by SEPTA, starts in
Upland at the Caleb Pusey Plantation, outside Chester, then heads northwest
along Chester Creek for 6.7 miles to the old Wawa Train Station in Chester
County. At that point, the bikeway could switch to an old seldom used rail
line along Route 1, and then follow the Octorara Rail Line which goes south
toward Wilmington, just west of Route 100.
The Chester Creek Branch has an active 'friends' group which is
advocating to have tracks converted to a trail, so there is a good chance
that trail will be built. However, rail-to-trail or rail-with-trail
conversion of the other lines, through Chester and New Castle counties, is
purely speculative at this point.
Roads could be used in the interim, Route 52 is a prospect, which
drops into New Castle County west of the Brandywine Valley. Although not as
scenic as Route 100, Route 52 has wide shoulders and is easier to bike. The
East Coast Greenway will be for every-day cyclists - not just racers and
long-distance riders - so easy counts when choosing a route.
Further south in Delaware, parks with existing or planned bicycle
trails near the Brandywine Creek could be linked together to take riders
down into Wilmington.
Rail trails generally are less complicated and time-consuming to
develop, so the Chester Creek Branch could be a scenic, albeit lengthy,
interim loop for the ECG. However to be truly feasible, it would depend
upon use of the Octorara Line.
Even under ideal conditions, trails take time to design and build.
For example, most of the Schuylkill River Trail, from Philadelphia to
Valley Forge, was built in ten years, and that only after large chunks of
right-of-way were given by Conrail and PECO - but it took twenty years to
complete the sections through Conshohocken and Norristown.
According to Holefelder, "PECO is a big player" in Delaware County,
too. "It owns 60 percent of the undeveloped land along the river," he said.
PECO's headquarters in Philadelphia are along side the Schuylkill River
Trail currently under construction through Center City Philadelphia. PECO
has given financial and other support to that bikeway, which will also be
part of the East Coast Greenway.
The alliance expects trails to be phased in along the East Coast
Greenway, with interim street routes linking completed trail sections.
Interim or alternate trails will also be designated if they are available
sooner than the primary route.
Considering the urban nature of the route, the alliance prefers
that the trail is 80 percent off-road. On-road sections should have striped
bike lanes or, at very least, wide shoulders so bicyclers have a space on
the road that is separate from cars.
The first improvements to Route 291 will be the decades-postponed
widening of the roadway through Chester City. With the support of the
Chester City government, this year, PennDot designers have managed to add
an extra two feet to the outside lanes, to make room for bicycles sharing
the road with cars. Because construction is imminent, it's too late for
major design changes like adding a separate bike lane or bikepath.
Long distance cyclers aren't new to the area. For years, Adventure
Cycling's cross-country, on-road bicycle route has brought cyclers through
Delaware, up Route 13, and onto Chester City's hilly, narrow, congested 9th
Street - not the easiest place to cycle.
Area bicyclers and members of the East Coast Greenway Alliance hope
a separate bikepath, alongside Route 291, giving visitors and locals alike
a safe window on the industrial heritage of the area, will be added to
proposals for future enhancements to the new International Parkway.
"We've had Olympic torches and military marches and bike marathons
- it's the old route of The King's Highway in the 1800's," says Marcus
Hook's Dorbian. Why not a bikeway?
Just what route the long-distance bikeway takes from Philadelphia
to Delaware is still a matter of discussion.
But, however it goes, Representative Barrar, perhaps your
dream of cycling cross-country, or south to Florida, will be closer to your
front door than you think.
Seven years ago in Cambridge, MA, a dozen bicycle advocates attended an
East Coast Bicycle Conference workshop on building a long distance
bikepaths. Little did they know what the small meeting would eventually
"Wouldn't it be great to have a trail that went the whole length of
the East Coast?" They speculated. Yeah, sure.
It wasn't the first time the idea had been tossed around.
"What would it take to really do it?" someone asked.
Two months later, eight people met in New York City to figure out
the answer to that question. The East Coast Greenway Alliance was born.
That's when they decided
that this bike path would not skirt
population centers as other bike trails do. Instead, it will go right
through cities in its path, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia,
Baltimore and Washington D.C., celebrating urban America, rather than
avoiding it. Further, the trail will connect a network of local bikeways,
and will uniquely showcase rural, suburban and urban America.
Although the vision of the greenway was originally for bicycles,
the alliance now envisions a multi-use trail for walkers, skaters,
bicyclers and wheelchair riders, of all ages and abilities.
In 1996, five segments of off-road bike path were officially
designated as part of the 2000 mile route, for a total of 55.3 miles, on
trails that already existed in the proposed corridor. They include the
Baltimore and Annapolis Trail in Maryland and the Delaware and Raritan
Canal tow path, from Trenton to Boundbrook in Northern New Jersey. The
other segments are in Rhode Island and Connecticut. The work now is to
build the links in between - all 1944.7 miles! Rail and utility corridors
and waterways are the most likely locations.
Contacts have been made in states from Maine to Florida to
determine the best routes and encourage state and local government agencies
to include the greenway in their trail plans. Hundreds of additional trail
miles are in various stages of development. It's a long process and it has
Early on, ECGA members realized that to have resources, credibility
and the longevity to go the distance with the project, they had to be more
than a bunch of cyclists with a bold idea. They have taken time to build a
strong organization. At first, ECGA operated under the umbrella of the Open
Space Institute in New York City, and has incorporated there. Last year
ECGA opened its own office in Wakefield, RI, wrote bylaws and received its
own 501c3 federal non-profit status. Since January, 1998, the alliance has
been operating independently from OSI.
An ECGA board of governors meets four times a year. There are
representatives on the board from Maine to Maryland. Trustees are being
sought from every state along the trail.
Last year the alliance forayed south and met with folks in Florida,
Georgia and the Carolinas. The good news is that greenways and bike trails
already exist in those states, and people are enthusiastic about having
them be part of the long distance trail. Regional and state coordinators
will be found to move the project along.
The ECGA Trail Committee has developed a set of criteria for ECG
trails. Ideally, the trails should be paved, but hard packed gravel or dirt
is acceptable if touring bikes can use them. Trails that become part of the
East Coast Greenway system will have signs with the ECG logo. At least 80
percent of the route will be off-road.
The ECGA is forming a committee this year to develop and promote
the tourism aspects along the route. It has begun to print and distribute
maps of different trail segments, listing accommodations, links with public
transportation, bicycle rental and repair shops and points of interest in
the vicinity. These will actively promote public use of the trail.
ECGA depends mostly on grants and contributions for funding and,
until 1996, was run entirely by volunteers. The alliance is a membership
organization and looks to the day when there will be enough members to pay
for expenses in promoting the vision. Annual dues are $35.
The first president of ECGA was formerly an open space planner for
New York City. She is now the alliance's full-time, paid executive director.
As more segments of the greenway fall into place, the role of the
alliance and its members will change from development to being a monitoring
agency that promotes good maintenance by local trail owners and management
organizations. It will serve much the same function as the Appalachian
Although designed for the long-distance traveler, in fact, the
greenway will most often serve local users, providing recreation and
transportation links between cities, suburbs and countryside.
To learn more about the East Coast Greenway Alliance or to become a
member, write or call, ECGA, 135 Main Street, Wakefield Rhode Island,
02879, phone 401 789-1706. E-mail: Kvotava935@aol.com. Or visit the web