The COVID-19 pandemic crisis is one of the biggest challenges our nation has ever faced. It is eroding our public health and our economy at levels not seen in decades. As we work to brighten the light at the end of this tunnel, we need to act in a way that addresses both key dimensions of the crisis.
Relief through support for health workers and the millions of people who lost their jobs has been key. Now our nation needs to make the infrastructure investments that lead us to strong economic recovery and a healthy future.
Expanding highways doesn't do it. The public is already showing us a path that does. People are flooding greenways and trails across the country as they strive to maintain their mental and physical health. No doubt you’ve seen this anecdotally in your city or town. We at the East Coast Greenway Alliance see it play out in the numbers as well.
Exercising and connecting with nature on a greenway is one of the best ways to relieve stress and keep you healthy for the future in these challenging times. In fact, a recent NYU study found that obesity was the leading chronic factor to COVID-19 hospitalization.
“As a wide path that's safe for walking, running and biking while maintaining physical distance, greenways like our Maine to Florida linear park are essential to helping us maintain mental and physical health now and into the future,” says East Coast Greenway Executive Director Dennis Markatos-Soriano.
Up and down the Greenway corridor, people are taking notice. From New England to the South, recent reports show local greenway and trail usage on the rise. Understandably, some local officials are even closing these facilities due to their popularity as they worry about the potential for continued spread. But in the months and quarters ahead, we need to invest in building more greenways and trails. That is the best path to public health and a strong economy we all can enjoy.
The recent Connecticut Trail Census found that “more than half of the trails participating in this study recorded an increase of greater than 100 percent in use, compared to March 2019.” Among them were three East Coast Greenway segments each reporting an increase of more than 166 percent.
Use of the Back Cove Trail in Portland, Maine, tripled from March 2019 to March 2020. In Philadelphia, the Delaware River Trail saw a 107 percent jump and the popular Schuylkill Banks Trail witnessed a 58 percent increase in usage over the same time period. Richmond, Virginia’s WWBT-TV reports the Virginia Capital Trail experienced a 65 percent increase over March 2019.
Last month, Parade Magazine – with a readership of 54 million – highlighted the top greenways in all 50 states and featured 14 favorite segments of the East Coast Greenway route. The East Coast Greenway Alliance’s website, greenway.org, also has experienced an almost 10 percent uptick in traffic over the past month.
With this surge in trail usage and increase in interest, walkers, runners and cyclists need to utilize proper physical-distancing guidelines for exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland are among the cities creating spaces for responsible recreation by closing some streets to car and truck traffic and opening them for people to bike and walk safely.
“With gyms closed, our wide greenways are giving people equitable public space for much-needed physically distant exercise,” says Markatos-Soriano. “Before the crisis, the segments we have built together already ranked as one of the most popular parks in America – with over 30 million visits per year.” The East Coast Greenway team has the aim of their joint project becoming the most popular park in the country this decade.
There has never been a more critical moment for our nation to invest in regional trails and greenways – and the Greenway’s off-road route is one of many projects all over the country set to grow dramatically with the necessary funding.
Across the East Coast Greenway’s 15 states, $400 million in construction-ready projects covering 210 miles of both the urban and rural landscape are ready to be built. These 50 greenway and trail segments are poised to drive both the economic growth and public health improvement the nation so desperately needs. An investment in these projects would create more than 6,000 jobs, according to American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials research. A 2012 study found that each $1 million invested in greenways, bike lanes and sidewalks created 17 jobs – nearly 50 percent more than new highway construction.
With federal lawmakers preparing an infrastructure stimulus package in the near future, the East Coast Greenway staff has developed a website – greenway.org/stimulus – to highlight these projects and their profound potential impact.
At last month’s virtual Southeast Greenways & Trails Summit, Markatos-Soriano invited 300-plus industry leaders to support the inclusion of greenways and trails in the upcoming stimulus plans: “Please join the East Coast Greenway Alliance in the weeks ahead as we work with partners all over the country to lift up the return on such investment and the public support for that investment as a win-win-win stimulus solution to support jobs and the economy, to improve public health, and to address climate change. Now is the time for us to be bold in calling for billions of dollars in investment for Greenways, not just airports and highway expansions.”
Recent studies along the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway show a more than ten-fold return. A $2.5 billion investment this decade could turn into over $25 billion in benefits as we complete the route for the 450 communities we connect from Maine to Florida.
“Greenway progress and programs can bring our people together to tackle shared challenges as we rebuild – rebuilding community, rebuilding our connection with nature, and rebuilding our health,” adds Markatos-Soriano.
Federal leaders have an opportunity to invest in a healthy and strong economic recovery. The next round of stimulus needs to feature strong investment to the tune of $25 billion to develop safe, accessible routes to walk, bike and run all over our beautiful country. The people want them, our health needs them, and there is no better way to spur economic growth that everyone can enjoy.
Visit greenway.org/stimulus and sign up at the bottom of the page to be part of our #GreenwayStimulus movement. Together, we can build a healthy economic recovery for all.
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