Waterfront: Cyclists Troubled By Delaware Trails

When the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation installed the Penn Street Bike Trail off of Columbus Boulevard, it showcased the potential success of a fluid bike trail separated from traffic along the Delaware River. Central in the DRWC’s master plan for the Delaware, which was released in the fall of 2011 and began to be implemented in March of 2012, was a series of connected trails easily and safely navigable by bicycle or foot.

While the DRWC is responsible for about six miles of waterfront real estate, the overall trail will eventually connect much farther into neighboring districts like Tacony and Pennsport. Various municipalities are separately constructing their small sections of trail, hoping to show residents the project’s potential.

Despite the apparent beauty and serenity of many of these sections, their practicality for cyclists is difficult to see at this point. The stretch of trail behind Walmart at Pier 70, on Pier 70 and Columbus Boulevard, and the Pennsport trail, along with a few more completed stretches, run for no longer than half a mile each. Still nice destinations to fish, relax or walk the dog, these stretches are too small to attract cyclists in a way the more established Schuylkill River Trail has done for decades.

The Delaware River Trail connecting to Pier 70, behind the Walmart, ends abruptly and discourages cyclists.
The Delaware River Trail connecting to Pier 70, behind the Walmart, ends abruptly and discourages cyclists.

Connection is the key, and while the Schuylkill River Trail now runs uninterrupted for over 40 miles, the Delaware River Trail is currently disconnected and difficult to navigate.

“Overall, they keep the paths pretty clean, no gravel or trash but in the winter it was hit or miss with the snow,” Adam Trageser, a Fishtown resident and avid cyclist, said of the Delaware trail. “A lot of times it was covered in patchy ice. The streets on Columbus Boulevard here are actually kind of terrible. It’s like the street sweepers go by and just sweep all the gravel and glass into the bike lane. Once a year, I’ll find they’ve actually cleaned the bike lanes but mostly here it’s just sharp objects all over the path.”

Some people, like Trageser, can also see the trail’s potential. It will, after all, eventually be a key piece of the Circuit: a system of pedestrian and cyclist-friendly trails that will connect the entire city on the waterfront. Additionally, the Delaware River Trail is an integral link connecting Philadelphia and Pennsylvania as a whole to the East Coast Greenway: a 23-year-long project that plans on connecting the entire East Coast from Maine to Florida through a network of bike trails. Plenty of people find it hard to picture these tiny stretches of trail merging into the big picture, but Mayor Nutter’s office, the DRWC, the Delaware River City Corporation and local community players are working to ensure the Delaware will continue to play a crucial role in achieving this vision.

Joggers rest at the end of Race Street Pier. The pier was the DRWC's first major project in connecting the trails and parks to the Circuit.
Joggers rest at the end of Race Street Pier. The pier was the DRWC’s first major project in connecting the trails and parks to the Circuit.

Andy Hamilton, Mid-Atlantic Trail Coordinator for the East Coast Greenway Alliance, understands the importance and feasibility of a connected trail along the Delaware. His organization has worked since 1991 to help connect East Coast cities into one continuous trail, so the connection of the Delaware River by bike trail does not seem like an unrealistic goal in comparison.

“There will be a continuous trail south of Pier 70 all the way to the Bucks County boundary, that whole section will be finished as a trail,” said Hamilton. “When the trail is completed there it will bring livability and awareness of the waterfront that just hasn’t been there to date.”

Hamilton says the end product will see developers working together to open up opportunities along the Delaware River because of the easy reach the trail has from Center City.

“You could ride your bike from another location in Old City or even Camden onto the Delaware River Trail,” he said. “That, obviously, is a massive opening of the waterfront that’s gonna happen as a result.”

“On the Schuylkill-side trails,” said Charles Carmalt, Pedestrian and Bicycle Coordinator for the mayor’s office, “we’ve learned when your trying to push everyone together [pedestrians and bicyclists] and you have a lot of people, it can be problematic.”

This information makes the DRWC’s plan for a trail separated from traffic with additional separations between bike and pedestrian lanes even more attractive.

Though the Penn Street Trail was the first time this separate bike/pedestrian trail has been implemented in Philadelphia, separated trail systems have already seen great success in New York on the Hudson River Trails and DRWC hopes to replicate those results.

Carmalt has also seen parallels between the Delaware River Trail and the trail-system in Jersey City.

“In Jersey City, it was nothing but a working waterfront in 1980,” Carmalt said. “The corps of engineers did a project to get rid of the old piers. After that was finished, the developers suddenly arrived and built infrastructure. There was a plan for the trail, so as developers came along they began to build and piece that trail together.”

While the DRWC funded and built the section of trail at Pier 70, private investors and land owners can be expected to facilitate building sections of the trail themselves. Sugar House Casino has committed to implementing a segment of trail connecting to Penn Street and farther north toward Penn Treaty Park as part of their own renovation project to extend its facilities.

Past the Sugar House Casino, the remaining work will be a combination of securing public funds to continue building while coaxing private developers. St. Louis, for example, was successful in implementing a regional tax on citizens that helped launch their shore side endeavors.

Often, however, this process runs into problems—especially where private ownership is involved. For instance, development of the Wissahickon Connection to the Circuit has been nearly paralyzed by land-ownership issues between the city, PECO and private owners.

“As a result of all this negotiations are ongoing,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, Deputy Director of the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition. “Trust me, there are a lot of people willing to solve it but it’s very difficult.”

AAA wants to put a repair facility on Columbus Boulevard that interrupts the trails, and since it’s their property, we have to find a solution.” Stuart said. “They also want to put a parking lot on Tasker [Street]. There is tension there on how to accommodate pedestrians when it’s already such a highly commercial area.”

Stuart, like most involved in these projects, is ultimately optimistic about these projects and sees them reaching completion, albeit it far in the future.

“When Mayor Nutter came in and revamped what was formerly called the Penn’s Landing Board in 2008 and 2009, they prioritized these projects and waterfront expansions so that now we’ve been able to get sufficient funding.” Stuart added. “Other cities have made more progress connecting their on-road bike networks but we’re on the leading edge as far as creativity, sustainability and character go and I’m proud of that.”

With continued efforts by dedicated individuals, advocacy groups and city officials, there is hope that Philadelphia might one day be a premiere destination for recreational enthusiasts that want nothing more than a safe, attractive trail to bike, rollerblade and jog on to their heart’s content.

– Text, video and images by Drew Russin, Jennifer Robnett and Mike Kitay.

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