The Circuit Trails: Greater Philadelphia’s Burgeoning Trail Network

Posted 01/14/16 by Anya Saretzky in Building Trails, America's Trails

Ben Franklin Bridge between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Camden, New Jersey, part of the Circuit Trails network | Photo courtesy Mark Willard | CC by 2.0

In the northeast part of the U.S., a bi-state project called the Circuit Trails is making waves in the walking and biking world. This network, when complete, will include 750 miles of trails in the Greater Philadelphia region covering nine counties in southeast Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Today, 300 miles are complete, with 50 currently in development and 400 yet to be built. Completion is slated for 2040. It’s an ambitious plan, no doubt, but it’s one that captures a vision the region has embraced and will see to completion.

The Partners

Passionate people and lots of coordination are key ingredients to any trail development project, and with an initiative as large as the Circuit Trails, the coordination is of near-epic proportions. Since 2012, a steadfast group of community organizers, public agencies and nonprofits have been advocating for and building trail segments across the nine-county region.

Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, Stockton, New Jersey | Photo by Katie Harris

There are three elements that make the Circuit Trails a strong and thriving project:

  1. Strong leadership from trails, walking and biking organizations. National groups, including Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), sit side by side with regional organizations like the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, with all parties combining their expertise to move individual components of the project forward.
  2. Incredible leadership from the region’s municipal planning organization, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC).
  3. The William Penn Foundation, who has supported the project since the very beginning and over time has been an integral partner in the Circuit Trails in nearly every facet of the initiative.

No other regional trail effort has this trifecta of leadership, planning knowledge and funding. And through the collaborative efforts of the Circuit Coalition, trail development is progressing, diverse stakeholders are being engaged, and—arguably most important—more of the region’s citizens are getting out on trails.

The Trails

Some of the Philadelphia region’s most iconic trails are part of this network—for example, the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT), voted USA Today’s best urban U.S. trail in 2015! The SRT winds along its namesake river, past the Philadelphia Art Museum (home to the “Rocky Steps” from the Oscar-winning film) and Boathouse Row, where rowing shells dot the waterway.

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

The Schuylkill is not just a valued recreation amenity, but a valued transportation corridor as well. “I commute to West Philly every day (weather permitting) on the SRT,” says Elinor Willis, who lives in Roxborough in the northwest part of the city. “It means I can live where I do and still bike to work. If I had to drive or take the bus every day, I would lose my mind, and I can't afford the train.”

The Circuit Trails are both urban and rural, and one of the biggest benefits they provide for city dwellers is a connection to nature. That’s the case for Philadelphia resident Marni Duffy, who uses the Circuit Trails for exercise and to get a mental break from the intensity of city living. “Trails allow me to get away from cars and be in the woods, to see and hear and smell water dripping and flowing, and to see green," says Duffy.

Other routes within the network include the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, Pennypack Trail, Chester Valley Trail, Forbidden DriveCooper River Trail and Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail. Each completed trail project is another step forward to connecting urban populations to rural landscapes, residential neighborhoods, commercial corridors, recreation sites and cultural venues.

RTC serves on the Circuit Trails Steering Committee and heads up four major initiatives: trail surveys, youth programming, health partnerships and communications. Through these initiatives, we provide leadership above and beyond traditional trail building expertise.

The Future

Last summer, RTC worked with more than 500 youth in the Philadelphia region, engaging them in trailside watershed education. Many of the teens participating were urban youth involved in Cadence Youth Cycling, a program of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. In the program, participants are encouraged to develop a love of cycling along with healthy habits and greater independence. And through the watershed lessons taught by RTC, they are also encouraged to get to know and respect their local rivers and streams.

2015 RTC Youth Sojourn on the Circuit Trails | Photo by Cy Maramangalam

“The diversity of the Circuit makes outdoor education easy and fun,” says Tom McKeon, RTC’s youth engagement coordinator, who led the watershed sessions. “The kids became experts on how the health of our local watershed impacts public health and our region’s ecology.”

The teens’ unforgettable summer concluded with a three-day, 128-mile Youth Sojourn by bike on the Circuit Trails, orchestrated by RTC. By summer’s end, the young people had not only become fans of the Circuit Trails, but advocates for the project’s future.

“Over the course of the summer, I’ve seen our teen participants develop a sense of responsibility and ownership for the trails. I can’t think of better stewards,” says McKeon.

The Circuit Trails is making Greater Philadelphia one of the most livable regions in the nation, and with further completion of the network, the area continues to blossom with active-transportation and recreation options. RTC is honored to be a part of a project which will impact millions of people in the future.

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