Friday’s Cross Triangle Greenway bike ride showed just how far the Triangle’s greenway system has come — and how far it has to go.
The ride was the first of what promises to be an annual event. The ride — a 39-mile excursion from the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh to the entertainment Mecca of downtown Durham (American Tobacco Complex, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham Performing Arts Center, the jail) was intended to show how a dream of 40 years — of being able to ride a bike on greenway from Raleigh to the heart of Durham — is ever-so-close to being reality. About 75 percent of Friday’s ride was off-road: starting on the Reedy Creek Greenway in Raleigh, winding through Umstead State Park (save for an odd “short-cut” that had us mixing it up with lunchtime traffic on Harrison Avenue and Weston Parkway) down Cary’s Black Creek and White Oak Creek greenways and on to the American Tobacco Trail for the 22-mile (plus or minus) ride into downtown Durham.
Perhaps more telling than the 75 percent of the ride on greenway was the 25 percent that wasn’t. It wasn’t long ago that riding on greenway in the Triangle was a rare privilege: There was so little greenway that each stretch of 8-foot-wide blacktop, no matter how long, was an exotic respite from riding in traffic. Friday, it was the stints riding in traffic that were rare. There was a definite sense that greenways have evolved from a recreational plaything into a viable and vital transportation alternative. And that was just one of Friday’s encouraging signs.
Chuck Flink, president and co-founder of Durham-based Greenways Inc. and board chairman of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, noted that the route, which runs through six jurisdictions — Raleigh, Umstead State Park, Cary, Wake County, Chatham County, the city and county of Durham — is the longest urban trail in North Carolina. And Sig Hutchinson, the person most responsible for the Triangle’s growing greenway network, from his early work as president of the Triangle Greenways Council to his more recent efforts promoting open space in Wake County, finally answered a question I’ve been putting to him for nearly a decade: Has the Triangle’s greenway network become an irresistible force?
“This ride shows that we have reached the tipping point for greenways in the Triangle,” Hutchinson told the riders in Raleigh, implying that momentum behind greenway development has reached the point that future development is now assured, that greenways are now viewed in the Triangle as a basic service on par with drinking water and trash collection.
He went a step further: “We now have what I believe is the best greenway system in the country.”
Most encouraging were the riders themselves. The ride’s lead organizer was the East Coast Greenway Alliance, a non-profit charged with creating a 3,000-mile greenway from Key West, Fla., to the Canadian border that will pass through the Triangle on the route taken Friday. The group was anticipating an intimate turnout: Thursday afternoon 40 people had signed up for the ride on the event’s Facebook page. By ride time Friday afternoon more than 150 cyclists were ready to roll. (“I’m not worried,” said an excited, if not worried, Flink as he surveyed the crowd shortly before noon.)
As encouraging as their numbers was the riders’ diversity. There were riders in their 20s, there were riders in their 70s. There were Category bike racers, there were folks who looked like the most they’d ridden in the past year was down there street. There were people on mountain bikes, on road bikes, on hybrids, on tandems on Bike Fridays. And it was not, as is often the case with bike events, a nearly all-white gathering. It was a good cross-section of the Triangle, underscoring the mass appeal — and support — for greenways. Along the way I rode with a fellow who does four-hour rides from his home in North Raleigh to mountain bike at Lake Crabtree, a woman who commutes from seven miles one-way from downtown to North Raleigh, a Cary tech worker who commutes via Davis Drive to RTP, a North Durham woman who won her cycling category at the senior games in Durham County, then showed up at the state senior games to find people with carbon bikes and aero helmets. (Alas, she returned home with no gold.)
Again, a variety of riders, a variety of people, all greenway supporters.
At ride’s end, the notion of greenways evolving from luxury to necessity was underscored by the person who counts most in North Carolina on transportation matters, Gene Conti, secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation. Conti, eschewing the sartorial trappings of typical of high-level officials in favor of a polo short and khakis, shared an anecdote from his first days in office. When it came time for his Official Portrait to be taken, he was taken outside for a suitable backdrop. He glanced behind him to see he was framed beneath the arch of the old Highway Department building.
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he told the photographer. “You’ll have to air brush that out. We’re not just about highways anymore. We are now a full-service transportation department.”
“The way we look at transportation has changed,” he added. “We have options, and we need to start thinking about those options.”
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Here are links to greenways that were part of Friday’s Cross Triangle Greenway ride:
Reedy Creek Greenway (Raleigh)
Umstead State Park
Black Creek Greenway, Cary
White Oak Creek Greenway, Cary
American Tobacco Trail, Wake, Chatham and Durham counties
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For a slideshow of Friday’s ride, go here.