This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and-true trail voices around the country, and how trails impact the lives of Americans. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.
It’s a hot summer day and I’m on my knees in the middle of the road, dripping sweat as I deliver 100 chest compressions per minute to an elderly woman who has just been struck by a car. Her husband watches over my shoulder with tears running down his face. A few years later, I give breaths to a woman while trying to comfort her 4-year-old grandson. His 2-year-old sister has just been killed by a driver who turned into them as they walked in a crosswalk. Just months after rolling out a citywide scooter-share program, a 16-year-old boy on an e-scooter is run over by a tow truck. Motorized wheelchairs users are among the most frequent casualties of our roads that I see. All these people, victims of traffic violence, were trying to navigate streets designed for automobiles.
My experience as a first responder has led me to see the world through a unique lens. Each time I ride by a place where I know someone died, I am reminded of the feelings I have when I arrived on the scene. Some 40,000 Americans die on our roads every year, and sadly, the numbers have only been going up. You may think that these fatalities are confined to high-speed interstates and toll roads, but in New Jersey, where I live, 82% of fatalities are on state, county and municipal roads. A disproportionate number of these deaths are pedestrians or cyclists, and members of vulnerable populations.
In September 2020, a friend of mine riding in a bike lane was struck and killed by a bus in Brooklyn. Paint doesn’t protect you from tons of steel. The physical, emotional, economic and environmental benefits of active transportation have transformative power. However, cars don’t mix well with bikes and pedestrians—we need more separate spaces.
Trails Offer Solutions
For as long as I can remember, I have loved trails. Always wondering what is just beyond the next bend or over the next hill, trails satisfy my craving for a life of adventure and exploration and serve as a healthy outlet from the many stresses of life.
To limit my impact on the environment, as well as to save money and unwind from my shifts as a firefighter, I began experimenting with bike commuting to work at the Elizabeth Fire Department about 10 years ago. December 2019 was the last time I drove a car for my 6.5-mile commute. Recently, I became aware of a Facebook group called Rails to Trails Union County, which is working on a project to convert an unused section of railroad that would transform my commute, so I jumped at the opportunity to be part of it.
I set out to explore unused railroads in my area and found that we had gems hidden in plain sight! More than 15 miles of railroad corridor sits unused, just waiting to be converted into trails to form a network that will connect nearly all of Union County’s 600,000 residents. The low-hanging fruit of the bunch is a 7.3-mile stretch of former Rahway Valley Railroad, as it is state-owned property. A short portion of the trail, a 0.25-mile span, has already been constructed, and a bridge is set to be installed this summer thanks to the Summit Park Line Foundation and funding from Rails-Trails Conservancy.
Through the Facebook group, we were able to get resolutions of support for rail-trail conversions passed in eight municipalities. One of the group’s founders was even elected as a councilman!
Making a Difference
On Oct. 31, 2020, I responded to U.S. Route 1 for a pedestrian who was killed by a car, one of several throughout my career. The highway is one of the deadliest stretches of road in the country, and I have been wondering for years why no one has done anything about it. My career as a firefighter affords me a position of privilege—and with that comes a responsibility to give back and do more for those I serve. Could I harness my privilege and the power of social media for good? With this thought in mind, I created an Instagram page, @thebikingfireman, last July.
Just days later, rail-trail conversions took an even more urgent personal turn. After leaving the first meeting of the Kenilworth Rail Trail Committee, I was riding to the firehouse when a car turned left in front of me. I had “taken the lane,” I was visible—even standing up on my pedals, all 6’8” of me—yet the driver didn’t see me. As I slammed the brakes and flew over the handlebars of my bike, time moved in slow motion. Landing with bone crushing force on the back of my left shoulder, my collar bone nearly stuck out through the skin. My family had been more concerned about me biking to work than they were about me fighting fires for a living—now I knew why.
The next three months were the darkest and most challenging times of my life. I was forced to sit still with my thoughts. But when you have 15 years of emergency response swirling around in your brain, those thoughts aren’t always what you want to sit with. The Biking Fireman has been both a personal coping mechanism and an avenue to effect change about things that have bothered me. By the end of the year, I had also become a founding member of Union County Connects, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization established to connect the county through a system of trails to promote outdoor recreation and safe active transportation.
There are many people who have been working on trails and safe streets for much longer than I have. My hope is to lift up the voices of advocates who have been working on these important projects. Through Union County Connects, we are also building partnerships with other local groups and figuring out ways to grow our organization and get more people involved. In the process, I will be outside doing what I love, riding my bike, exploring and having adventures.
Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.