Cars have Interstate 95. Hikers have the Appalachian Trail. And soon cyclists will have the East Coast Greenway.
A kind of cyclists' version of an interstate highway, the planned 2,600-mile paved pathway will extend along the US Eastern Seaboard from Key West, Fla., to the Maine-Canada border.
It is a project that, when complete, will represent the joint efforts of scores of local, state, and national organizations with a common goal - to expand alternative ways for Americans to see their country through nonmotorized modes of travel.
"This is really the first long-distance trail that connects major cities along the coast," says David Burwell, founder and president of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a group that advocates turning unused railroad beds into paved pathways.
"I like to call the East Coast Greenway the Appalachian Trail for the rest of us."
Although the project holds perhaps greatest appeal for long-distance cyclists, Eric Weis of the East Coast Greenway Alliance says it is designed for an array of users, including hikers, in-line skaters, equestrians, folks in wheel chairs, even cross-country skiers.
"Like the Appalachian Trail, they are both long-distance paths in the East of our country," Mr. Weis says. "The principal difference is that we are a firm surface pathway while the Appalachian Trail is strictly for those on foot."
One other major difference is that the Appalachian Trail extends mostly through remote, wooded regions, while the Greenway connects many of the major cities of the East, including Washington, New York, and Boston.
The project already has many cyclists excited.
"We think it is great. This is just a terrific achievement," says Patrick McCormick of the League of American Bicyclists, a group that represents the nation's 42 million cyclists.
"This helps establish cycling as a legitimate means of transportation," Mr. McCormick says. "You don't need to drive. You can bike all the way from Florida to Canada."
Plans are that by 2010 some 80 percent of the Greenway will be off-road pathways, well away from car and truck traffic.
The remaining 20 percent will involve travel on the shoulder of roads and highways.
Planners are making extensive use of abandoned railroad beds as well as tow paths along old canals.
Mr. Burwell says one major addition to the East Coast Greenway currently under discussion is a disused rail bed that runs parallel to I-95 from Florida to Virginia.
Paved paths on reclaimed rail and canal corridors offer the prospect of miles of uninterrupted and relatively flat travel through woods, small towns, farms, swamps, and even through major cities. For example, the northern route into Washington runs along the Amtrak rail line to Union Station.
The East Coast Greenway isn't the only major cross-country pathway system under development.
Today there are roughly 12,500 miles of multiple-use paths throughout the country built on old railroad beds or disused canal tow paths.
For example, the Great Divide, the country's longest mountain bike route, runs 2,465 miles through the Rockies from Canada to Mexico.
Burwell says his group wants to establish 50,000 miles of such trails. "This would be the backbone of an interconnected coast-to-coast network of canalways and greenways," he says.
Although much work remains to be done on the East Coast Greenway, the basic concept was demonstrated earlier this year when scores of participants helped relay a bottle of Gulf of Mexico water from Key West to Canada via the Greenway route.
In some places, canoes and kayaks were used to ferry bikers across rivers where future foot and bike bridges are planned. In other places, participants traveled along roads crowded with cars, in lieu of the dedicated paths yet to be completed. But the arrival of the bottle of water in New Brunswick, Canada, in June marked an important milestone in the project's development.
Unlike development of the Interstate highway system by the federal government, the East Coast Greenway exemplifies a triumph of grass-roots organizations that are reaching out to neighboring groups to link up trail networks. It is happening all the way up the East Coast, community by community.
One such local champion of the greenway concept is Ty Symroski, the Key West city planner.
"I'm not excited about creating an opportunity to walk or cycle, I am excited about creating an opportunity to dream," Mr. Symroski says of his plans to establish a pathway system over the old Flagler railway bridges and link the Keys to major US cities and Canada via the Greenway.
"Probably very few people have hiked the Appalachian Trail, but I venture to say millions of people have dreamed about it," he says.
"With the East Coast Greenway going through cities, I can see some kid in the middle of a city seeing a person who is biking or roller blading or hiking the East Coast Greenway, and that kid will have a dream."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society