Trails, the hassle and hope of where we need to go
The hassle of Interstate 4 reconstruction and the hope of SunRail have raised talk about transportation to a crescendo.
As the din rose, I was in Athens, Ga., and Boston learning about how the lengthening network of multiuse trails in Florida might help address transportation policy. In Volusia County, reconstruction of I-4 after five years will add thousands of cars to the road. By the end, climate change will have stepped on the gas.
Trails as part of complete streets and multimodal systems supply agile transportation solutions, but their benefits first require a weaning away from car culture.
At the first Georgia Trail Summit in 15 years, I learned that Atlanta’s trail program works to get people out of cars by providing first- and last-mile bike and ped connections to MARTA commuter rail, as well as access to the city’s large network of parks. Three trail organizations — the public sector Atlanta BeltLine, and the nonprofit PATH Foundation and MillionMile Greenway — have built more than 200 miles of trail mostly around Atlanta. Nonprofit board members variously represent the Coca-Cola Company, Georgia-Pacific Foundation, ING North America, James M Cox Foundation, and Turner Broadcasting System.
In Athens, I walked a downtown portion of the three-mile North Oconee River Greenway. The trail along a former warehouse district has attracted off-campus housing for students at the University of Georgia. A 33-mile extension will connect with an adjacent multimodal center and convention center. Students, residents and visitors all have easy greenway access.
Boston shone differently. I was there attending the annual meeting of the 15-state East Coast Greenway Alliance. Cyclists rode everywhere. Many biked from close-in suburbs along the 17-mile Charles River Greenway before turning onto city streets, where they moved faster than rush-hour cars. Drivers worked with them and with people on foot. Cyclists gave hand signals and obeyed traffic lights. Boston has absorbed a culture that gets people around in different ways.
When others at the meeting learned I was from Florida, several asked what Florida was doing about sea-level rise. They knew Florida. All had family here. Across scores of years, Floridians had made their place America’s favorite beach. We introduced visitors to salsa and Speedway. We showed them how to enjoy trails. In 2008, the nonprofit American Trails named Florida its first Best Trail State.
Home again, I can easier see that Florida views cycling and trails chiefly for recreation. While we’ve talked about transportation, cyclists and walkers on their own will have to become more proactive about our transportation role. That will help narrow the cultural divide so long accepted between cars and bikes — between “them” and “us.”
Consider bike-trail resources already in hand.
Volusia is headquarters of the Florida Bicycle Association. SunRail is ready to pull cyclists from Orlando to ride Volusia trails (cyclists ride the trains free). ECHO funds annually back trails with $1 million. County Councilwoman Pat Northey has made once-laggard Volusia a state trails leader.
This year’s Legislature has approved $15.5 million for advancing a select group of trails that includes a new Coast-to-Coast Florida Connector across south and east Volusia that encompasses Volusia sections of the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop and the East Coast Greenway. Volusia-Flagler’s River of Lakes Transportation Planning Organization already publishes suitability maps for cyclists.
Although the two counties can’t match Atlanta’s corporate clout, leaders will have to step out front about climate change in ways that political leadership is often unwilling.
Like Atlanta, Volusia has to broaden its culture of bikes on car racks, bikes on bus, bikes on trains, bikes on trails; of police on bikes, of municipal policy that lowers developer requirements for car parking in return for secure bike parking and showers.
Like Athens, Volusia would surely benefit from re-establishing the annual Florida bike-ped-trail conference that lapsed during the pre-recession suburban bubble. SUVs ruled. Obesity soared.
Today, bikes and feet on the ground anticipate answers that all Floridians need.
Hiller coordinates development of the Florida East Coast Greenway. He is a resident of DeLand who writes frequently about trails and locally resourceful tourism.
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