Early ‘#Opt Outsiders’: East Coast Greenway launched on Black Friday 25 years ago

Twenty-five years ago, on November 29, 1991 — the Friday after Thanksgiving — a small group of bicycling advocates and urban planners sat down at a conference table at the Amsterdam Avenue youth hostel in New York City. The eight men and women had met earlier that fall at a bicycle conference at MIT and recognized their shared interest in a novel concept: creating a long-distance, protected trail that would link states up and down the East Coast, running through major cities. By 5 p.m. that day, the group had mapped out a vision for their organization, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, and the beginnings of its earliest segment from Boston to Washington, DC.

“Everyone knew that what we were attempting was ambitious, but you take it a bite at a time,” remembers Pat King, an environmental advocate from Newton, MA. She went on to establish the group’s first bylaws, obtain its 501(c)3 status, and serve as the first chair of the East Coast Greenway Alliance Board of Trustees.

The first meeting of the East Coast Greenway, at a conference table in a New York City hostel on November 29, 1991.

The first meeting of the East Coast Greenway, at a conference table in a New York City hostel on November 29, 1991.

That 1991 meeting also made the Greenway founders some of the earliest adopters of the “opt outside” Black Friday message, as championed by REI. The outdoor retailer is celebrating its second year of the campaign in which it closes it stores nationwide on Black Friday, historically the biggest shopping day of the year, and pays its employees to enjoy the day outdoors. For 2016, the East Coast Greenway Alliance joins more than 275 national and local organizations and a handful of other companies championing the #OptOutside message.

“The early vision of the Greenway founders is so inspiring, and we love how it resonates with the ethos of the #OptOutside movement,” says Jason Lane, outdoor programs manager at REI and East Coast Greenway board member. “Their monumental work in planning and supporting the creation of 3,000 miles of greenway has allowed millions of people to enjoy the outdoors together — and those numbers will only grow as more sections of the greenway come online.”

Advocating for bicycle routes for transportation and recreation in the early 1990s “was a huge struggle,” remembers ECGA cofounder Karen Votava, then an open-space planner for New York City. She went on to serve as ECGA’s first executive director.  Transportation officials at the time were “very negative toward bicycles,” she remembers, and most of the bicycling organizations pushing for cycling rights tended to focus on sharing the road with cars and trucks, not on creating protected trails.

“We worked really hard to demonstrate that greenways aren’t an either/or proposition,” says King. “Both trails and the road serve a purpose. With greenways, we can get more people biking.”


This story originally appeared in our November 2016 On the Greenway newsletter. Read more from the newsletter.