Bike Trail Down East Coast Takes a Spin Along the Mall

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

On the map, it's a long, squiggling line running along the East Coast. It starts in the Maine backcountry and meanders until it hits the Florida Keys.

For bicyclists, it represents a 2,930-mile journey on trails, urban streets and genteel country thoroughfares that they hope will become as famous as the Appalachian Trail: the East Coast Greenway.

Members of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, the organization that mapped the trail, have been working on the project since 1991. The alliance doesn't construct bike paths; it maps existing ones, a time-consuming process that includes field-testing. It's still in the early stages of putting up signs to guide bicyclists along the way, and members gathered in Washington yesterday to mark their paths along the Mall.

The signs may have been small, about four by 12 inches, but getting them in place was a big step for the alliance. To put them up in Washington, the trail's boosters went through a long process to gain federal and local approval.

Advocates said the signs do more than provide directions. They promote the trail and help generate interest in it.

"D.C. is a great place to put up signs," said Michael Oliva, who oversaw the route's design between New York and Washington. The symbolism of the capital and the variety of people who visit the Mall give the signs more impact than they would have, say, in New Castle, Del.

Although the group's dream is to have the entire route go off-road, only 20 percent of the current path is car-free. In the District, bicyclists on the Mall need only contend with wandering tourists. Farther north, however, they contend with D.C. traffic, including one fearsome zigzag across New York and Florida avenues NE.

"That's always been not a pleasant riding area," said Robert Patten, a volunteer with the organization who did much of the mapping in the District. He biked yesterday behind the cherry picker that was being used to put the signs on 50 or so lamp poles.

"A year from now, we'll have a trail up from Union Station" following train tracks and sidewalks north to Maryland, where the path will connect with the Capital Crescent Trail, Patten said.

The East Coast Greenway Alliance put the final touches on the trail map at the end of last year. Members are still fine-tuning routes. The Greenway includes eight miles in the District, 163 in Maryland and 276 in Virginia. Signs mark about 27 miles in Maryland, none in Virginia.

Every year, even without a complete route, cyclists from the organization have ridden from Maine to Florida. Although the project emulates the famed Appalachian Trail, it focuses on cities rather than avoiding them.

"We aim to go through the major cities of the East Coast," Oliva said. And indeed the trail's literature promotes it as "Linking Cities from Maine to Florida." It passes through Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond and other cities, all the way past Miami. "The Greenway is a little bit of everything, especially at this stage," Oliva said.

Reaction to the signs was positive yesterday. Some bicyclists hadn't heard of the project but were intrigued.

"It's a very good idea," said Casey Klein of Winchester, Va., who was cycling with his two sons near the Washington Monument.

The East Coast Greenway isn't unique, although it is at the forefront of a growing network of long-distance bike trails crisscrossing the continent. One planned in Canada stretches from Newfoundland to the Northwest Territories. Another pushes up from the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi River to Minnesota.

"One of the problems is that everybody wants the trail to go through their area because they see the economic benefit," said Karen Votava, executive director of the Greenway Alliance. It's not so different from the fights between towns that vied for the route of the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road that was paved in the first decades of the 20th century.

This tussle is just a lot better for your quads.

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