Greenways Great, but not the Complete Solution

Everyone knows that “real” cyclists are not afraid to ride on the road with cars. State laws regards bicycles to be just like other vehicles, and they have just as much a right to be on the road as any car or truck. But what about people who would like to cycle, to commute by bike or just to ride to the store or school, but do not feel comfortable driving a bike like they would a car? How do you begin? Some say Greenways are a the way to go.


Atlanta's Silver Comet trail is built on a abandoned railway


Greenways were main agenda at the Freshwater Land Trusts “One Mileheld at the Alagasco “Center for Energy Technology” downtown last night.  This was the crowning event of a design process that was initiated by the Land Trust to develop a Greenway master plan for the Jefferson County area. Local design firm Goodwin Mills and Caywood (GMC) has been engaged by the Trust to design this master plan taking input from user groups and the community at large. The goal is to design and ultimately to build 100 miles of greenways, linking various places in our community and making it possible to ride a bike all over town eventually.

People have been talking about Greenways since Birmingham was first founded. In 1924, the Birmingham Park Board engaged the services of the Olmsted brothers,  famous landscape and park designers whose work included projects ranging from Central Park in New York to the campus of Auburn University. This first plan envisioned a network of linear parks along the area’s ridges and waterways, and was intended to preserve what  Olmsted regarded as  unique regional resources for all future generations.  The Freshwater Land Trust has a similar goal. Unfortunately, Olmsted’s plan was never fully implemented, and we have lost much of what makes up our area’s unique physiology.

Today, greenways are conceived as linear parks open to pedestrians, cyclists and other non motorized locomotions. The one that exists along Shades Creek in Homewood and Mountain Brook is perhaps the best local example. An extension of this Greenway to West Homewood Park is including in the 2035 regional transportation plan, along with several other greenways all over the county. Presumably, the plan that GMC comes up with will be added to the regional plan so it can be eligible for federal funding as a transportation project and via recreational trail grants. Greenways are valued for their ability to enhance the area’s quality of life by providing recreational opportunities. Blueprint Birmingham has listed them as a part of its workforce strategy for attracting and retaining young professionals needed to sustain a growing Birmingham region.

Last night’s meeting was open to the public and focused on connections, the idea being that we can build a network of greenways that will allow people to safely ride to places they want to ride, like shopping, schools, and work. But is that all that is needed?

At best, a system of greenways would connect some (but not all ) public spaces, schools and commercial areas with (some but not all)  residential areas, so the only real way to get where you want to go will still be on the streets. That is because a network of greenways can never duplicate the access already existing in our street networks. So, in reality, greenways end up being recreational. They make good places for kids and  adults to learn to ride a bike and get in shape and get some exercise, and may be PART of a citywide bicycle network, but they will not allow you to give up your car for your commute or most of your trips.

In addition, while greenways are usually designed to be accessible to the handicapped, they will not help them to get to work. Linking a greenway system to an expanded transit system might help, but again, if the streets are not safe for pedestrians, they are just as immobilized. Same is true for kids and the elderly. What the elderly, kids and handicapped need are safe streets leading from their homes to a transit system that will take them to more safe streets they can use to get to their destination. Greenways can not do this. They (and all of us) will still be just as car dependent as before.

This is why a  “Complete Streets” program is still needed, even with  100 miles of greenways. Greenways are great for recreation, and will help us fight obesity, and attract active residents. I applaud the Land Trust and Blueprint Birmingham for encouraging them. I hope they succeed. But lets not be fooled into thinking a greenway system is a panacea for what ails our towns and cities.

This is my opinion. What is yours?