The Circuit Trails: 750-Mile Network Has Sparked a Greater Philly Transformation

Posted 04/12/16 by Heather Mistretta in Building Trails, America's Trails

Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, part of the 750-mile Circuit Trails network | Photo by Thom Carroll

This article was originally published as the cover story, "The Circuit Trails: Sparking a New Era of Health, Community Building and Stewardship in Greater Philly," in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Rails to Trails magazine. As RTC celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016, we are also providing our readers with a look forward to our focus of regional trail networks. 

By Heather Mistretta

Philadelphia/Camden's Growing Vision

Imagine being able to walk out your door and have the opportunity to bike to work, visit world-class cultural sites, stroll along a wooded pathway for bird watching, go for a morning jog or walk with a friend to Bartram’s Garden, the oldest living botanical garden in America—all the while in a safe environment absent of traffic.

Bartram's Garden at Schuylkill Banks in Philadelphia | Photo by Thom Carroll

That vision, shared by many, is becoming a reality, thanks to the concerted efforts of a group of like-minded individuals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey committed to connecting and revitalizing communities.

For the past five years, a web of approximately 30 multi-use pathways known as the Circuit Trails has been growing throughout the Greater Philadelphia area, with long-term plans to stretch 750 miles across nine counties (Philadelphia, Chester, Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks in Pennsylvania; Burlington, Gloucester, Camden and Mercer in New Jersey). The aim of the project is to strengthen the region by providing healthy transportation and recreation opportunities that enhance neighborhoods and increase access to jobs, community destinations and green space.

Currently at 300 miles, the Circuit Trails is like no other system in the country—connecting urban, suburban and rural communities in a 2.5-million-acre area. By the time it is complete, which is expected to be in 2040, more than 50 percent of the region’s population (about 3,199,450 people) will live within a mile of the Circuit Trails. Additionally, the system will connect to the East Coast Greenway, enveloping a 3,000-mile off-road route that spans as far north as Calais, Maine, and as far south as Key West, Florida.

Manayunk Canal Towpath in Philadelphia | Photo by Laura Pedrick-AP Images

The trails, which course along unused rail lines and old towpaths, as well as canals, rivers and streams, are already stimulating economies. According to a bicycling and pedestrian safety report published by the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in 2013, active-transportation-related infrastructure, businesses and events were estimated to have contributed more than $497 million to the New Jersey economy alone in 2011.

Individual trails in Pennsylvania counties have long proven to exert a strong economic impact; for example, a 2009 RTC study of the Schuylkill River Trail—a major component of the Circuit Trails—was found to have had a direct economic impact of $7.3 million in 2008.

As the Circuit Trails network grows, it is providing many benefits, ranging from greater access to services and waterways for underserved communities, to the creation of new businesses, to increased opportunities for healthy lifestyles.

Foundation of an Idea

Leading this massive effort is the Circuit Trails Coalition, which began as discussions among a small group of individuals with a shared vision of growth for the Philadelphia-Camden, New Jersey, region.

It was formally created in 2012 with initial funding from the William Penn Foundation. The collaboration has since ballooned to include some 65 nonprofit organizations, foundations and agencies.

For the very first time, a number of advocates and officials came together, realizing that by standing together we could do better.
Camden Greenway along the New Jersey waterfront, with the Ben Franklin Bridge in the distance | Photo by Laura Pedrick-AP Images

Those associated with the project are sensitive to the diversity of populations they are serving, from urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia, the fifth-largest U.S. metropolitan area, to rural areas of Bucks County and small waterfront neighborhoods in Camden. And their commitment has been contagious: Coalition members have raised tens of millions of dollars in funding and generated widespread support from local leaders and residents.

The effort received a big boost in 2010 when the coalition procured a $23 million TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Individuals who were part of the coalition’s early years credit the grant not only with creating a new era of regional trail development, but also with serving as a catalyst for additional funding. That funding includes a $10 million grant awarded later in 2010 by the William Penn Foundation—which to date has contributed more than $25 million to the project.

“The [TIGER] grant made trails really relevant as green transportation infrastructure,” says Sarah Clark Stuart, chair of the coalition and executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “It catapulted trails to the forefront and resulted in a cascade of trail development.”

Schuylkill Bank Boardwalk in Philadelphia | Photo by Laura Pedrick-AP Images

“For the very first time, a number of advocates and officials came together, realizing that by standing together we could do better,” says Pennsylvania Environmental Council Executive Vice President Patrick Starr, who also serves as Pennsylvania vice chair of the Circuit Trails Coalition. “Attaining that grant lit a fire under the process. This unlocked the William Penn funding.”

Just last June, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) voted unanimously to support dedication of federal and private dollars to 11 Circuit Trails segments in Pennsylvania by approving a new “line item” for the Pennsylvania Transportation Improvement Program that designates $5 million in federal transportation dollars for trails construction.

The coalition also has attracted the attention of local officials, including mayors of both of the anchoring cities within the Circuit Trails: newly elected Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Camden Mayor Dana Redd.

In his inauguration speech this January, Kenney urged his audience to “make every Philadelphia neighborhood the best it can be.” He added, “For the one in four people in this city living in poverty, an effective public transportation system can make the difference of whether or not they can afford to go to a job interview.”

Similarly, in Camden, Joseph Meyers, chief operating officer for the nonprofit Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, says, “Mayor Redd is leading the transformation in Camden, and her administration has facilitated the collaboration in our community.”

RELATED: Meet the Badger: 400-Mile Trail Network Takes Hold in Southeast Wisconsin

Making It Their Own

Residents have made the Circuit Trails their own. That includes Jonathan DeHart, a 56-year-old air quality specialist for the U.S. Navy who—for seven years—rode his bike 20 miles each way from his home in Glenside to his workplace at the former Navy base in the Pennsport section of southeast Philadelphia, taking advantage of the Schuylkill River Trail along the way. (Schuylkill is a Dutch word for “hidden or skulking creek.”)

Schuylkill River Trail in Philadelphia, a major anchor for the Circuit Trails | Photo by Laura Pedrick-AP Images

“Those rides helped me clear my head. I really looked forward to the ride to work, breathing in the fresh air and interacting with others. I also really looked forward to the ride home. Not sure driving commuters would have the same sentiment,” says DeHart, who still bikes along the trails, now mainly for recreation, and sometimes logs 60 miles or more in outings with his son.

DeHart is not unlike many trail users in the area. According to the DVRPC 2012–2013 Household Travel Survey, 3.8 percent of Philadelphians reported using a bicycle as their primary means of transportation to work—nearly double the number for bicycle commuting nationwide recorded in an American Community Survey released in 2014. Philadelphia remains the most-biked city among those with a population of at least 1 million. The DVRPC survey also revealed that 27 percent of the bicycle trips were made by those in households with incomes of less than $35,000—suggesting the potential importance of the Circuit Trails for underserved communities.

Happy Trails to You, Philadelphia … and Beyond

System Anchor: Schuylkill River Trail

Nestled amid a river, a dog park and a community garden, and flanked by a bridge and a park, is the 135-mile Schuylkill River Trail. To a transcendentalist, it is a dream. To a realist, it meets all practical needs. And to a humanitarian, it feeds the souls of others and serves as a conduit for underserved neighborhoods. Trail observers nationwide agree: In 2015 the trail was named the Best Urban Trail in America in USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice poll.

The Schuylkill River Trail | Photo courtesy Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia

“Part of what I love is that it’s so many things to so many different people,” says Danielle Gray, director of marketing and development for the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, a nonprofit that builds and maintains the trail’s tidal river section between the Fairmount Dam and the Delaware River.

A major component of the Circuit Trails network, the Schuylkill River Trail has a rich history of coal mining, transportation and even an environmental cleanup that began in the late 1940s and was funded in part by money left for that purpose in Benjamin Franklin’s will. Placards presenting the history as well as important watershed information are displayed at the Schuylkill Banks, a venue for educational tours and school trips.

The corridor is the region’s most heavily used multi-use recreation and commuter trail. It is also undergoing an expansion to extend more than 60 miles, including a 26-mile stretch from Philadelphia to Phoenixville. It ultimately will reach Reading, Pennsylvania.

The most recent addition to the Schuylkill River Trail was the Manayunk Bridge Trail, a crucial link between the Manayunk Bridge, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1902, and the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Lower Merion. The Manayunk section of Philadelphia is just three blocks (uphill) from the Manayunk Canal Towpath, near the Schuylkill River in the Roxborough-Manayunk area.

Chris Linn, DVRPC manager of environmental planning, says that most people use the trail for recreation but that the Kelly Drive leg, south of the Manayunk Bridge in the northeast part of the city, is used more for commuting. Linn estimates that this direct route into the downtown area sees an average of 500 people a day, about 75 percent of them during the morning commute.

Ed Rasbach of West Chester, Pennsylvania, with his dogs on the Merchantville Bike Path | Photo by Laura Pedrick-AP Images

“This network acts as the spine of a non-motorized transportation system. As a result, the efficacy of transportation as a whole is improved,” Linn says. Perhaps less known but no less important to the Circuit Trails system is the Merchantville Bike Path, a 0.75-mile trail in a small town that traditionally has grown in tandem with the growth in transportation. The Camden County, New Jersey, town has always been responsive to the changing needs brought by innovation, first becoming a borough in 1874 to accommodate the advent of the railroad. It saw more growth in 1914, when construction of the Ben Franklin Bridge opened the area to automobile traffic. Now Merchantville is proposing an extension of the Merchantville trail to give county residents access to the Ben Franklin Bridge and Philadelphia—and to provide Philadelphia residents with an off-road route to Camden attractions including Adventure Aquarium, the museum battleship USS New Jersey and Campbell’s Field stadium.

“When the trail is complete, it will provide a first-class recreation and non-motorized transportation corridor to access many attractions not only in Camden, but also across the river in Philadelphia,” says Elizabeth Sewell, trail development manager for RTC’s northeast region. “These trail segments to the east and west of the Merchantville Bike Path are vital to the development of the Circuit Trails through Camden and Burlington County.”

This network acts as the spine of a non-motorized transportation system. As a result, the efficacy of transportation as a whole is improved.
Camden Connections

Farther south is the Camden Greenway, a network of connected trails in Camden County anchored by a series of trails in Cooper River Park. A 4.3-mile section of the Camden Greenway opened last October. The Cooper River Trail, which now consists of 7.7 linear miles and 5.5 miles of loop trails along with three municipal and five county parks, eventually will connect Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to the Ben Franklin Bridge.

Cooper River Park on the Camden Greenway in New Jersey | Photo by Laura Pedrick-AP Images

“It serves perhaps the most diverse population, from some of the poorest areas of the nation to some of the most affluent neighborhoods,” says Camden native Olivia Glenn, who is the South Jersey metro regional manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the newly appointed New Jersey vice chair of the Circuit Trails Coalition.

Glenn says she is looking forward to the transfer this year of the 25-acre Gateway Park, in an underserved east Camden neighborhood, from the Delaware River Port Authority to the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority. The goal is for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation to manage and improve the park and to provide public access via the park to the Delaware River.

Gateway Park residents “can enjoy their open space and love of nature without the danger,” Glenn says.

Similarly, a waterfront park to be built in north Camden is “all resident driven,” says Sue Brennan, Camden native and senior project director at Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. The partnership is gearing up to begin construction this spring or summer on the park, which will enhance access to both the Circuit Trails and to waterways. The project is slated to be completed by January 2017.

RELATED: 1,450-Mile Developing Trail Network to Revitalize America’s Industrial Heartland

Youth Biking Program Isn’t Just About Two-Wheeling

Cadence Youth Cycling (CYC) is a perfect example of the multifaceted goals of the Circuit Trails. Hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, CYC engages disadvantaged urban youth through cycling. The program offers opportunities for leadership and civic engagement not readily available to the students elsewhere. Young participants are encouraged to talk to local officials about the viability of the Circuit Trails, which helps generate support for the trail network while helping the youth build community advocacy skills.

Cadence Youth Cycling program race | Photo by Cy Maramangalam

The program’s engagement of young people “goes well beyond the bicycle. Everything on the bike translates to every aspect of their lives,” says CYC Program Manager Cy Maramangalam. “It’s an avenue that connects our students to areas they’ve never been [to].” This includes an outing to the Amish farmland in Pennsylvania for a brief respite from urban living; a trip to Washington, D.C., to speak to senators; and travel to Seattle for the Youth Bike Summit.

Cadence Youth Cycling also has worked closely with RTC through several partnership programs: Cycle Squad, Circuit team and All-Star team. RTC helps CYC with its youth education and stewardship training programs on waterways.

Maramangalam says, “RTC has been pivotal in providing watershed education to our youth.” A scavenger hunt highlighting how the water interacts with the trails helps to round out their education.

Sixteen-year-old Tamia Santiago discovered her love of cycling two years ago through CYC, and she has been pedaling toward success ever since. “Every opportunity she gets, she’ll jump right into it,” says Maramangalam, adding that she became a member of the All-Star team in her first season with CYC and has embraced every other program since. 

Cadence Youth Cycle participants with (former) Mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia | Photo by Cy Maramangalam

As a result of her perseverance, Santiago was named to CYC’s Youth Advisory Committee, the voice for the group, and the Philadelphia Bicycle Advocacy Board, which seeks to advise the mayor on ways to promote and protect recreational and professional cycling in Philadelphia.

Eighteen-year-old Allen Williams is a Philadelphia native who stepped outside of the city for the first time only after joining CYC. For the past four years, he has been a pivotal participant in the Youth Advisory Committee. He’s now a senior in high school with a perfect 4.0 GPA. He plans to study biomedical engineering in college and become a doctor. Along with Santiago and others, Williams had the opportunity to meet with the former Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter, last summer to discuss the CYC program and advocate for its completion. Nutter has been an ardent supporter of the Circuit Trails since its inception.

Leading the Transformation

In addition to supporting CYC, RTC helps lead several Circuit Trails initiatives to improve health, engage youth, promote the Circuit Trails and study the network’s impact. The health initiative has made great strides within the region’s health care community and specifically through the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, which included the trail network in its recent Community Health Needs Assessment.

RTC also collaborates with several youth-based organizations to engage youth in the Circuit Trails, including Simple Cycle, a nonprofit community-powered bike shop and faith-based organization in Philadelphia. Another is Neighborhood Bike Works, which since 1996 has been using bicycling programs to provide educational, recreational and career-building opportunities for urban youth in underserved Philadelphia neighborhoods. Both implement youth cycling programs.

As the Circuit Trails network continues to grow and reach more people and places, public outreach grows in tandem. The ongoing success of the network depends on these initiatives. From Kidical Mass Philadelphia, a movement seeking to promote family-friendly bike rides, to the Women Bike PHL, a grassroots effort of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia aimed at building community and getting women out to bike, these programs combine with the Circuit Trails to enhance lives in the Greater Philadelphia area, both now and going forward.

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Celebrating Our Past and Our Future

RTC is pleased to celebrate our 30th anniversary in 2016! Check out our interactive timeline and expanding 30th anniversary blogs series for stories highlighting the evolution of RTC and the rail-trail movement.