If you’ve ridden a bike in New York City, you’ve likely found yourself, perhaps unknowingly, on one of its designated “greenways.”
The Hudson River Greenway, the most heavily frequented bike path in the U.S., runs up and down Manhattan’s western waterfront. The nearly complete Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway is a 26-mile ride past some of the borough’s most popular destinations, like Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. Parks in Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx are also traversed by greenways.
Thanks to the persistent pandemic-era bike boom, these routes are seeing a surge in use: Bike traffic on the Hudson River Greenway often appears to match the paralleling West Side Highway. Last summer, around 150,000 cyclists a month — or about 5,000 a day — passed through Kent Avenue, in Williamsburg. This year is on track to surpass that. (Now there are calls to widen it, as a recent video captured more two-wheelers than four.)
But New York City’s greenway system is more a collection of fragments than a cohesive network. There are gaps where riders must dismount or ride in mixed traffic; some stretches lack protection from speeding cars and trucks, much less any “green.” And the five boroughs aren’t fully linked.
That story, writ large, is repeated nationwide, as the U.S. greenway network comprises a similarly haphazard collection of park-like bicycle- and pedestrian-oriented paths that thread through and between cities. True greenways are more than just bike lanes: Ideally, they’re a multi-use amenity that combines transportation and green space, uplifting the communities around them even as they provide a way to get around. Some of the most celebrated modern examples, like Atlanta’s BeltLine or Chicago’s The 606, are linear parks making use of former rail beds, drawing droves of cyclists and strollers — and juicing property values along the way.
More greenways are en route nationwide. In May, Detroit officials broke ground on the $200 million, 28-mile-long Joe Louis Greenway. In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo cemented the Empire State Trail between downtown Manhattan and the Canadian border late last year, while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed $723 million toward finally finishing a greenway around Manhattan by 2029.
“Greenways connect commercial corridors. They’re green infrastructure — not just because of the green space, but they also get people out of cars,” says Terri Carta, the executive director of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, which has pushed for the completion and stewardship of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. “They create habitats and have co-benefits for surrounding neighborhoods.”
Along with 30 other organizations, Carta is helping to lead the “Greenways 4 NYC” coalition calling on the federal government to commit $1 billion in any potential infrastructure bill to a more elaborate vision: a 400-mile protected five-borough greenway, an idea the city proposed nearly 30 years ago.
“This is infrastructure that goes through our cities,” says Jon Orcutt, the communications director of Bike New York, an advocacy group. “It’s the connective tissue. But the crux of it is really those connections.”
Nationwide, greenway boosters are thinking even bigger. A chorus of advocates believe that the time has come for a “Greenway Stimulus.” About 200 environmental and active-transportation organizations, including Carta’s, are stepping up pressure to carve $10 billion out of the Biden administration’s prospective American Jobs Plan, or corresponding infrastructure-related bills, to help complete hundreds of proposed walking and bike trail projects around the country.
The ultimate goal: a nationwide network akin to the interstate highway system — but for cyclists and walkers instead of cars and trucks.
At an estimated 50 million users last year, the East Coast Greenway (or ECG, for short) is the “most visited park in America,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, the executive director of its Alliance, the nonprofit which advocates for its development and is helping to coordinate the Greenway Stimulus push.
The ECG is the longest of its kind in the country; the route paints a 3,000-mile path from Maine to Florida, hitting 15 states and 450 communities along the way. But it’s not a seamless journey: As of last year, only a third of the route is protected and off-road. The rest of the way, users are sharing the pavement with motor vehicles on standard roads. And it took three decades to get to this point. “Just connecting all the greenways was the beginning,” Markatos-Soriano says.
There was no clear start date for America’s greenways. The term itself emerged in the urban parks movement of the 1800s, when visionary designers like Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot were concocting parks for major American cities. They were initially envisioned as belts of green connecting larger tracts of land, like Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system. The aim was less utility than aesthetic.
A more formal flurry of action came after the 1991 passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which, for the first time ever, made multi-use trail projects eligible for most federal highway funding. The East Coast Greenway Alliance formed a year later, playing a facilitator role; the first markings of the Greenway, in 1996, were an amalgam of five trails in four different states.
The projects that have come since are the result of efforts by local organizers, city and state planners, and groups like the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which focuses on transforming unused rail beds into multi-use trails. (Among their signature in-progress projects: the coast-to-coast Great American Rail Trail.) The fitful rise of the greenways mirrors the federalist-fractured approach America has historically taken to its transportation networks, which have lacked any major coordinated investment since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. The dollars that have come from Washington have mostly been through appropriations or existing programs; early segments of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, for example, were funded when a federal grant was secured by Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez.
As they tend to, cities and states stepped in to fill the void. Locally, investing in greenways pay dividends, Markatos-Soriano says, citing economic impact studies the Alliance has conducted up and down the corridor. The nearly 70 miles of greenway in North Carolina’s Triangle region, for example, generates more than $90 million in economic benefits every year, according to an Alliance report. “We have a lot to show with those investments.”
But that hasn’t stymied opposition, especially in dense urban areas. Reasons often vary: In Chicago, a proposal for a Dickens Greenway has some neighbors worried about “dangerous bike congestion,” while a pedestrian and bicycle bridge to be built along Manhattan’s still-spotty East River Greenway — the eastern counterpart to the Hudson — was accused by residents of stealing public parkland. (A court disagreed.) And then there’s the persistent concern over greenway-fueled gentrification, which has raised substantive issues around green space equity.
Still, Markatos-Soriano emphasizes that the economic boost these routes bring can help span America’s fraught political geography. He points to Jacksonville, Florida’s recent agreement to set aside $100 million over a long-term period to complete the ECG there. “We’re really seeing local leaders and governors take this on,” he says. “So now is the time for federal leaders to step up, and see that the public wants this.”
But what makes a greenway different than a regular bike path, exactly? Or, better yet, what distinguishes it from the striped bike lane down the block? Definitions can get murky: Some greenways are slices of asphalt on busy roads; others are dirt trails through bucolic woods. But for Carter Strickland, a greenway has to at least try to live up to its name. “I would say the green,” he says. “The fact that it’s going to be more than just paint.”
Strickland is the New York state director for the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit dedicated to land preservation in cities and states, which includes greenways. Strickland recently penned an op-ed in support of one on Long Island, and is a proponent of the QueensWay, a greenway proposal for a 3.5-mile abandoned rail line in Queens. He knows the routes well, as the former environmental protection commissioner under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg CityLab.)
“To me, greenway does mean some plants,” he says. “It’s cooler, it absorbs stormwater. There’s more of an environmental benefit there.”
The dual nature of the greenway — half park, half transportation — has helped builders tap a number of different funding pots over the years, Strickland says. Federal “rails to trails” dollars born out of ISTEA convert new uses out of old tracks. The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) — both under the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) — have funded state transportation projects that contribute to the Clean Air Act, like greenways. (They paid for most of the Empire State Trail, for example.)
A boon for future greenways could be the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act, which created an annual $900 million conservation fund from offshore oil and natural gas royalties. News of states and cities flush with funds from the $350 billion in local aid allocated through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan may mean new Covid relief money is on the table, too.
But the individual states and municipalities who receive these devolved federal funds might not share the same sense of urgency, says Strickland. Some may use the funds for other projects, or not spend them so fast. And in addition to those funds, you have state and city dollars being spent as well.
As a result, that national vision of a greenway system connecting cities and states in a Dutch-style skein of intercity cycle tracks is still a distant dream. The disjoint deters their potential as a highly functional transit or parks corridor. With designated money from Washington for greenways, each state DOT could create a greenway division, Strickland says, to strategically coordinate investments and build a national network.
“Those [programs] have been great,” says Strickland. “But again, because a lot of those float through the states, it’s very uneven.”
The scramble for infrastructure funds
To move a step closer to that dream, Georgia Representative Carolyn Bourdeaux recently introduced the National and Regional Greenways Act, which would create a grant program within the U.S. DOT specifically for greenways projects that pass through multiple jurisdictions, reduce traffic congestion, link users to jobs and support the cities they connect.
As an example of what’s possible, Bourdeaux puts forward the proposed 100-mile-long Chattahoochee River Greenway, which would pass through her own backyard of Suwanee, Georgia. “As we continue to have a national conversation about infrastructure, it is critical that we embrace future-forward policies that do well by doing good — the same old solutions won’t do,” she said in a statement.
The bill is just one of several infrastructure-related bills moving through Congress as talks around the American Jobs Plan continue. In the Senate, the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (or CAATS, for short), sponsored by Senators Chris Van Hollen, Edward J. Markey, and Dan Sullivan, would create a $500 million annual fund for grants to connect pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Both pieces of legislation, advocates say, present a watershed moment for greenways. But with the White House’s blueprint in mind, their future may lie in what path the administration takes these next few weeks.
Should a pared-down compromise be reached that limits the scope of traditional “infrastructure,” any greenway bill would have to be passed separately. But if Democrats decide (and are allowed) to use the budget reconciliation procedure — which was utilized to pass the American Rescue Plan in March, only requiring a simple majority — then it’s more likely that the bills would be wrapped up in one big omnibus spending bill.
Organizers tell me that they’re hopeful either way. Banned this last decade over corruption concerns, the return of federal earmarks — now called Community Project Requests, and with tighter restrictions — could bring more dollars to local greenway projects. (The East Coast Greenway Alliance secured over $150 million in House earmark requests for projects in recent weeks.)
Then there’s the surface transportation reauthorization bill, which provides baseline funding for the federal programs mentioned before. Its record-high $303.5 billion in spending would come with stricter guidelines on how states spend TAP dollars. It also added the CAATS Act to its docket. While it faces criticism from transit advocates for continuing carbon-heavy highway-focused efforts, that bill appears to be mustering bipartisan support. How the surface transportation reauthorization bill will pair with the larger infrastructure push is still somewhat unclear, although Biden officials have said the American Jobs Plan is a one-time investment on top of the surface bill’s longer-term spending.
The $10 billion infusion that Greenway Stimulus organizers are asking for would ultimately go far beyond individual tabs, Markatos-Soriano says. Out of that, $3 billion could complete the East Coast Greenway. It could also pay for projects like the 180-mile Greater Yellowstone Trail in Wyoming and Montana and the 500-mile Bay Trail in and around San Francisco. The New York City five-borough greenway, too. “It would create the trunk that networks can get built around,” he says, and connect the transit hubs that the American Jobs Plan seeks to revamp.
That $10 billion price tag might dwarf the scale of previous greenway projects, but it’s a modest investment compared to the funding that traditional highway projects consume. The expansion of Interstate 45 in Houston, which was recently halted by the Biden administration over equity concerns, came with a cost estimate of $7 billion — for just a few miles of highway in one city. If the current administration is prepared to spend $300 billion on roads, highways, bridges and EV infrastructure, he argues, then at least $10 billion should go to greenways.
“The federal government has always played a critical role in moving greenways forward, but they have not yet been visionary,” he continued. “They have not yet said, ‘This is a national priority for the health of our country, equity and climate, and we’re going to tackle this. We’re going to invest.’ That’s the opportunity in front of federal leaders right now.”
Photographer: Loren Elliott/Getty Images North America