The renowned Appalachian Trail, the world’s longest hiking-only footpath, stretches 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia, including 72 miles through northern New Jersey.
Did you know that the Appalachian Trail has an urban equivalent for pedestrians and bicyclists?
It’s called the East Coast Greenway and it extends 3,000 miles from northern Maine to the Florida Keys, including nearly 100 miles in New Jersey.
Right now, about a third of the East Coast Greenway – more than 900 miles – consists of protected traffic-free trails. Moving the other 2,000-plus miles off public streets and away from traffic is the ambitious goal of the nonprofit East Coast Greenway Alliance.
“What we want is to develop a path that’s safe and available to everyone, from little kids to their great-grandparents,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its trail-building effort.
The East Coast Greenway crosses through 450 communities in 15 states - including Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Richmond, Charleston and Miami. “The whole route is complete and people have bicycled the whole thing,” noted Markatos-Soriano.
The idea for the East Coast Greenway was hatched at a bicycle conference in 1991, and the following year a group of cyclists took a month-long tour of the proposed route from Boston to Washington. The ride drew a lot of attention and many elected officials endorsed the idea. The concept was later expanded to encompass the entire East Coast of the United States, from the Canadian border to Key West.
One of the first links in the greenway route was New Jersey’s Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath, part of the D&R Canal State Park. The 36-mile towpath route is still one of the longest off-road stretches in the greenway.
The rest of the New Jersey section – which runs between the Hudson and Delaware rivers, from Jersey City to Trenton – includes a patchwork of off-road trails, including the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, Newark Riverfront Trail, Lenape Park Path in Union County and Middlesex Greenway.
The New Jersey section also includes an alternate route along the Delaware River from Trenton to Camden, which connects to the Circuit Trails, a regional trail network in the Greater Philadelphia area.
The challenge in New Jersey, according to Bruce Donald, tri-state coordinator of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, is to build off-road connectors between existing paths. “This is the most densely-populated section of the East Coast Greenway with the exception of Manhattan,” he points out. The urban sections along the Hudson River waterfront and through the Meadowlands are especially challenging, as the area is heavily developed and industrial.
Similar infrastructure investments are needed up and down the East Coast to realize the vision of biking from Maine to Florida without traffic.
The East Coast Greenway has been described as one of the nation’s largest public infrastructure projects, requiring a total investment of $3 billion: $1 billion already spent and $2 billion in additional funding. A single mile of paved asphalt trail can cost up to a million dollars.
The result will be a traffic-free path located within five miles of 25 million people, contributing to a sense of community, culture of health and a deeper connection with nature. Most users of the greenway won’t actually bike thousands of miles, but can exercise and commute within their local communities.
“We know there are so many benefits compared to the costs,” said Markatos-Soriano, who envisions pedestrians and bicyclists using the path for recreation, traveling to work and visiting shops and restaurants that spring up along the route.
An estimated 10 million people currently use the East Coast Greenway each year, and Markatos-Soriano believes that number could grow tenfold. “Our vision is to be the most popular park in the country,” he said.
So when will the East Coast Greenway be finished? Not anytime soon. “We’ve made so much progress in the first 25 years, we’re saying why not finish in the next 25 years,” Markatos-Soriano said.
To learn more about the East Coast Greenway and its progress, visit the East Coast Greenway Alliance website at www.greenway.org. Be sure to check out the mapping tool and the 25th anniversary annual report.
As part of the 25th anniversary celebration, the alliance is sponsoring an East Coast River Relay that will pass through New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia in September. You can find the latest updates at www.greenway.org/events?month=&categories=east+coast+river+relay&search=
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