Saturday on Durham’s greenways: A ride half full

Organized greenway rides such as Saturday’s 28-miler in Durham celebrating the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s relocation to Durham showcase these valuable community assets — and underscore how we need more of them.

If that sounds familiar, I wrote essentially the same thing after last year’s Cross Triangle Greenway ride recognizing the region’s growing greenway network.

Saturday’s ride was intended as the official open house for the East Coast Greenway Alliance and as a way to showcase Durham’s growing greenway system. The Alliance relocated its offices from Rhode Island to Durham in February, in large part to beef up development of its reason for being, a 3,000-mile greenway that, hopefully, will some day run from Key West, Fla., to the Canadian border. About half of the trail is complete in the Northeast; development is well behind that in the South (in North Carolina, just 14 percent of the 390 miles envisioned for the state are finished). Hence, the ECGA’s move south.

About 100 riders started Saturday’s ride, which began on a grassy knoll in the midst of the American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Durham Performing Arts Center. The location itself was symbolic, starting in the heart of Durham’s downtown renaissance. A few words kicked off the ride: Rep. David Price, a longtime friend of cyclists, noted that in the current budget-cutting climate “Advocacy has never been more important.” Dale McKeel, coordinator of Durham’s bicycle and pedestrian program, noted the escape greenways offer by citing David Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries.” And Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, didn’t miss a beat when a passing train drowned him out: “Let’s hear it for intermodal transportation!” (Durham’s new transit center was two blocks from the start.)

But it was the ride itself that spoke loudest about greenways and their significance. It started on Durham’s Downtown Connector, what I’ve come to think of as asterisk greenway: trail designated greenway that’s actually extra-wide sidewalk. Before the ride I had hoped to corner Chuck Flink, president and founder of Durham-based Greenways Inc., and ask if there’s an industry-accepted definition for what constitutes a greenway. Sometimes, a brief detour onto sidewalk is inevitable to make a vital connection. But I’ve become increasingly irked by greenways that advertise themselves as such when in fact they’re mostly sidewalk. My complaint was fresh after spending Thursday in Greensboro exploring a Bicentennial Greenway advertised at 3.9 miles when in fact a good three miles of that was sidewalk.

In the Durham Connector Trail’s defense, it was devised to make a difficult connection between the American Tobacco Trail on the south side of downtown and the South Ellerbee Creek Greenway to the north. That connection made, South Ellerbee proved the quintessential Triangle greenway, a meandering passage through forest and wetland providing cozy escape from the neighborhoods sometimes just 50 feet away.

Alas, South Ellerbee too quickly gave way to more sidewalk, more than a mile of it along Stadium Drive. The problem with sidewalk “greenways” isn’t just aesthetic, cozying up as they do to streets. It’s also a safety issue. Sidewalks generally cross driveways, driveways where cars typically most poke past in order to check out oncoming traffic. Rare is the driver who checks oncoming sidewalk traffic before advancing to check out oncoming car traffic. It’s one of the most dangerous situations cyclists face. (It’s also a danger to pedestrians.)

So dangerous that when Saturday’s route hung a left on four-lane Horton Road it proved a relief. Greenways (including the sidewalk variety) made up 57 percent of Saturday’s ride, roadways the remaining 43 percent. Most of those roadways included bike lanes. Some, such as busy Hillandale Road, did not. While Durham, which was awarded Bike Friendly Community status last year, has made good progress adding bike lanes and extra-wide roadways, passages on roads such as Hillandale are still required to make key connections in some places.

It’s worth it when the pay-off is a greenway on the order of Durham’s new Third Fork Creek Trail. Just opened, this nearly 3-mile path passes through a scenic wetland between Southern Boundaries Park near Martin Luther King Jr. Road and Garrett Road Park. It’s ideal as a recreation trail (we passed other cyclists, runners and strollers), it’s well-suited as a commuter connector. It’s the image I get of when I think of the perfect greenway.

Saturday’s ride spent its last 6.8 miles on the northernmost section of the American Tobacco Trail. This section opened in the 1990s and based on my observation is the most used greenway in the Triangle. Despite nine road crossings, it’s a pleasure to be on.

Due in part to my inability to follow directions, by the time I got back to the start, the registration tent was folded and gone, my fellow cyclists had dispensed after hanging around to share ride tales: there was no sign that a ride had taken place. Or so I thought until I heard a voice yell, “Joe! Joe! Over here!” Under a tree sat Dennis Markatos-Soriano with his wife and son.

He wanted to know how I’d liked the ride, if I’d had a good time. I shared my thoughts about the ride being good, both from the standpoint of showcasing Durham’s greenways but underscoring, from some of the dicey passages on roadways, the need to build more. I wondered if he might interpret this as criticism.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Markatos-Soriano said.

Rather than criticism, he’d interpreted it as a challenge. A good sign for the future of the East Coast Greenway.

Photo: Rider Carl Patterson eats a banana while contemplating why he can’t keep air in his back tire.

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