You don’t have to talk with John Pucher for very long before realizing that he’s one of the East Coast Greenway’s biggest fans. His support for a greenway connecting Maine to Florida carries the added weight of his nearly 40 years of researching urban transportation in the United States and overseas — the last 15 years with a focus on walking and bicycling.
“The East Coast Greenway is utterly fantastic because it will connect all of these greenways along the most densely populated corridor of the United States. It’s absolutely unique, a priceless resource as a model that provides incentives for communities all along it to build up their own trails,” says Pucher, a member of the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s Advisory Board. “Greenways are crucial because they are how you’re really going to get people out there. Ninety percent of people will say they don’t bike because they don’t feel safe. So the more greenways we have, and the more connected they are, the better. If you have a well-built, well-designed facility separated from traffic, people will walk and bike — and they really enjoy it.”
Pucher served as a professor of urban planning at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University for 36 years. His most recent book is City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012). In 2015 Pucher retired from Rutgers and moved to Raleigh, NC, his childhood home. He continues to conduct research on sustainable urban transportation policies in Europe and the U.S., comparing the “whole package” of policies in European cities that encourage people to bike, walk, and use public transit. In the coming years, he plans to focus his efforts on improving bicycling and walking conditions in the Southeast United States.
“It’s a huge public health issue. There’s no question that in the Southeast, people don’t get enough physical activity, we have too much obesity,” he says.
Greenways interest Pucher because, “as a practical matter, I don’t think American cities are going to change their land-use patterns. I think they’ll remain mostly suburbanized, with decentralized office complexes and shopping centers and bigger and bigger schools that are difficult to get to — whether any of us like it or not. Things like the grocery and the doctor are scattered all over the place. And on top of that, we have lousy walking facilities.”
Unlike European cities, where most of the walking and biking is to get to work or school, 80 to 90 percent of cycling and 70 percent of walking in the U.S. is for recreation, Pucher says. “And where I see most of the cycling and walking is on the greenways and in parks.”
The issue struck Pucher while living for four decades in a fairly dense central New Jersey city. Since returning to central North Carolina, he sees plenty of suburban sprawl — but he’s also been struck by how many people ride, run, and walk on the greenways connecting Durham, Raleigh, and Cary.
“I’m out there every day, until it gets cold,” he says. “We have over 300 miles of greenways in the Triangle. Of all of the urban areas that the East Coast Greenway goes through, the Triangle metropolitan area has the longest completed, paved, off-road section. What I see, from April through October, is that it’s extremely well used. I see men and women, lots of kids, seniors, people of every ethnicity, people with disabilities. It’s utterly fantastic!”
“Crucial” regional connections: Pucher writes about East Coast Greenway
The Alliance for Biking & Walking publishes a biennial benchmark report. In its 2016 report, Bicycling & Walking in the United States, Pucher served as a data and research reviewer, as he has for the last six editions. He also contributed a two-page article, “Booming Greenways in North Carolina’s Research Triangle,” including a map of greenway trails in the area which highlights the East Coast Greenway.
Given how decentralized the Research Triangle is, Pucher writes, “it is crucial to provide regional connections between the greenway networks of individual cities. The most important of these connecting routes is the East Coast Greenway, which connects Durham to Cary and Raleigh, and which connects the Triangle Region to the rest of the East Coast via the 2,900-mile East Coast Greenway route that runs from Maine to Florida.”
“How to improve cycling safety in the Triangle,” opinion piece by John Pucher in The News & Observer, Dec. 16, 2016