A Tale of Two Cities
By Laura Stark
There's no doubt about it: Pennsylvanians love their rail-trails. The Keystone State has more Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) members than any other by far. In 1999, Pennsylvania opened its 100th rail-trail—the first in the nation to reach that milestone—and continues to be in the top echelon of states for open rail-trails. It's no surprise then that its two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, have expansive trail systems that are shining models for others to follow.
The City of Bikey Love
Just last summer, in an impressive show of collaboration and vision, a number of agencies in the Greater Philadelphia region came together to launch a unified regional network of interconnected multi-use trails called The Circuit. "This is the most progressive, far-reaching and promising build-out of a trail network in the U.S.," says Tom Sexton, regional director for RTC's Northeast Office, who has been involved with the project. "It's more than 200 miles of trail across nine counties."
Eventually, The Circuit will encompass 750 miles of trail in the Delaware Valley from southern New Jersey to central Pennsylvania to facilitate transportation, spur economic growth and promote healthy lifestyles.
Before the Grays Ferry Crescent opened (top photo), the community was cut off from the waterfront.
The new trail (bottom photo) offers South Philadelphia residents the chance to enjoy nature along the river.
"It's an important platform for getting people outside," says Andy Johnson, program officer for the William Penn Foundation, one of the leading strategy and funding organizations for The Circuit. "You have urban trails that will go to our region's most significant natural resources."
With such an ambitious system that touches so many communities, the Circuit Coalition was formed to spearhead the effort, involving more than a dozen organizations, such as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.
"The Circuit is collaboration between a lot of regional partners that had been working on different sections in their own way in the Greater Philadelphia region," says Nicholas Mirra, communications coordinator for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the group that manages The Circuit website, a key communications vehicle for the initiative. "The Circuit brings us all together."
One of the jewels in The Circuit's crown—the Schuylkill River Trail, a planned 130-mile trail in southeastern Pennsylvania—recently received a new addition. Although only a third of a mile, this new section, called the Grays Ferry Crescent, will be the first to enter South Philadelphia. What's more, the project has turned a former brown field into a beautiful recreational amenity.
"Schuylkill is a Dutch word meaning 'hidden river,'" says Joseph Syrnick, president and chief executive officer of the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, which unveiled the new section. "The industries that were located here closed off the riverfront for 150 years, so it really was the hidden river. By opening up this trail, the local communities can rediscover the river."
The new waterfront trail is wooded on both sides and offers ample opportunities to see wildlife. According to Syrnick, this was a welcome opportunity for the urban, blue-collar neighborhoods of Forgotten Bottom, Grays Ferry and Point Breeze that it reaches. "People in the community are using it like crazy. They couldn't wait to get on it. They were right behind the bulldozers during construction."
With 50 more miles of trail currently in progress, more positive examples like this one are sure to unfold.
Steel City to Wheel City
Although considerably smaller than Philadelphia, Pittsburgh is making its own big splash in non-motorized transportation. The city is ranked fifth in the country for car-free commuting (beating Philly) and was chosen to host the ProWalk/ProBike conference in 2014 over New York or Boston.
"Pittsburgh, because of the geography there, is a small 'big city,'" says Sexton. "It's tightly packed because of the rivers and the mountains around it, so the rail lines are all close to each other, which has created the opportunity for a dense concentration of rail-trails."
RTC provided two mini-grants to the Friends of the Riverfront;
the funds were used for interpretive and wayfinding signage
along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail.
Hugging the banks of the city's great rivers—the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio—is an impressive collection of bicycle and pedestrian pathways called the Three Rivers Heritage Trail System. Spiraling outward from downtown Pittsburgh, the network offers 25 miles of trail, including a small section of the Great Allegheny Passage, which spans more than 140 miles and two states.
"I really enjoyed being so close to the city life and the buildings," says Kelly Pack, RTC's director of trail development, of her trip on the trail. "We visited Point Park, which is really beautiful and a nice place to see the confluence of the rivers."
For a city ranked among the country's 10 worst biking cities by Bicycling Magazine in the 1990s, Pittsburgh has come a long way. Part of this revival is most certainly due to the three local groups known as the three-legged stool—Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Friends of the Riverfront—that have worked together to develop the city's now must-see waterfront trail system.
"For many years people couldn't get to the riverfront," says Thomas Baxter, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront. "We began redeveloping brown fields to give it back to the people."
More than 20 years ago, the Friends of the Riverfront was galvanized by State Representative Tom Murphy, an avid runner and cyclist who later became a three-term mayor of Pittsburgh. "Tom Murphy wanted to reclaim Pittsburgh's rivers for the public's use," says Hannah Hardy, former Pennsylvania Environmental Council director of recreational infrastructure. "As mayor, he was very vocal and insistent that redevelopment plans include space for riverfront trail."
City views along Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Heritage Trail.
The concept for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail was unveiled in 1990 and its first groundbreaking took place in 1991. More than two decades later, work still continues on the trail. "We're working to fill in the gaps," says Baxter. "And continuing the development of the trail system outward."
One of these outward extensions will be along the Allegheny River, moving northeast from Pittsburgh for 26 miles through 17 municipalities to end in Freeport in Armstrong County.
"People are clamoring for it," says Darla Cravotta, special projects coordinator for Allegheny County. "You can't build it fast enough."
A proposed northwest extension along the Ohio River would also make a connection to the 55-mile Montour Trail in Coraopolis, but, with no dedicated right-of-way, it may largely be made of on-road routes.
Building on this momentum, trail developers surrounding the Pittsburgh area recently came together at the Forks of the Ohio Regional Trails Symposium to discuss the growing trail network that is coming together to connect Pittsburgh, Erie, Morgantown, Cleveland and all the many towns in between.
"It's not just about reusing the riverfront and it's not just the city of Pittsburgh," says Cravotta. "We have 70 communities that touch the riverfront. What I think is unique is all these municipalities that we work with, they have to want this. Those grassroots folks, elected officials and organizations that want this to happen in their communities: we're bringing them together to create alignments that allow people to move within their communities."