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10/22/2008
Walking, bike trails sought for N. Del. - News Journal

Group touts benefits of leaving cars behind
BY JEFF MONTGOMERY • THE NEWS JOURNAL • OCTOBER 22, 2008

Northern Delaware planners have made a pitch for $50 million to expand the region's walking and biking opportunities, part of a nationwide lobbying push for billions in federal spending on alternatives to the automobile.

The Wilmington Area Planning Council proposal joined dozens already collected by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The Washington-based group sought the proposals for use next year when Congress begins a debate on renewing the nation's transportation programs.

Local pedestrian and bikeway investments could sharply increase non-car commuter travel, WILMAPCO officials argued, while also expanding recreational and shopping travel options, improving public health, saving energy and reducing emissions of pollution blamed for smog and climate change.

"Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of things under construction right now, because, like all other transportation funding, sidewalks and bikeways have taken a hit," said Heather Dunigan, a WILMAPCO principal planner.

About 90 percent of New Castle County residents commute to work by car and truck, with only 2 to 3 percent walking and fewer than 1 percent bicycling, according to the Census Bureau.

Some cautioned Tuesday that past efforts to change those figures have been disappointing. Such plans also ignore the needs of older residents and inner city neighborhoods, critics say.

"Biking and hiking to go anyplace is a vision, and it's a good vision in terms of people getting exercise," said Pike Creek Valley resident Fritz Griesinger, a civic leader and longtime member of WILMAPCO's public advisory council. "But there's still no groundswell of people leaving their cars at home and walking to anywhere for other than exercise."

A tripling or quadrupling of bicycling commuter trips, Griesinger added, is unlikely to have a noticeable effect on pollution levels.
WILMAPCO's "Active Transportation" proposal would focus much of the $50 million on priority corridors across northern Delaware, in areas within a mile of most county homes and jobs.

Projects range from recreational "greenways" and pedestrian projects to expansions of safe routes to schools, bicycle-sharing programs and sidewalk improvements for disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Some of the approaches are expected to be discussed tonight, during a WILMAPCO lecture and panel discussion titled "Transportation and Energy: Setting Sustainable Priorities for the Future." The reserved-seat session is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. at the Embassy Suites Hotel, 654 S. College Ave., Newark.

Kevin Mills, policy vice president for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 33 million tons per year if the percentage of short trips taken by bike or on foot rose from 10 percent nationwide to 13 percent.

Those figures are unlikely to be world-savers.

Nationwide, greenhouse gas emissions are around 6 billion tons, with the Conservancy's reduction estimate amounting to 0.2 percent of the total.

United Nations scientists have warned that America's total greenhouse gas output needs to fall by some 80 percent by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Results of projects unclear

Other hard facts about the effects of bicycle and walkway investments are scant. Congress agreed in 2005 to spend $25 million each on similar demonstration projects in four cities around the country, but results are still coming in.

"With any kind of transportation project, it's a change that happens over time," Mills said.

"Infrastructure investments take a while to do the planning and get it on the ground. We do know that where you build it, they come."

Portland, Ore., saw a fivefold increase in bicycle miles traveled since the mid-1980s, as a result of steady investments, Mills said.

WILMAPCO's proposal said filling gaps in northern Delaware's 1,000 miles of sidewalks and pathways and improving walkway and bike access to transit services could provide "tremendous potential" to shift people out of automobiles.

A public opinion survey commissioned by the agency in 2006 found 57 percent of county residents believed they had few transportation choices, and 36 percent said they avoided walking because of safety concerns. Some 43 percent had similar concerns about bicycling.

Rafael Castro, who represents Wilmington's Latin American Community Center on WILMAPCO's public advisory council, said that he had doubts about the evenhandedness of public investments in suburban bike and greenways.

"I'm always concerned about everyday, community people who would like to go shopping, versus the professional DuPont or Bank of America employee who's riding his bike to work and taking a shower," Castro said.

"There are all kinds of barriers obstructing transportation for the Hispanic community and the Hilltop community in particular," Castro said.

"There's data on people coming from the suburbs to the city, but I don't think there's much about movement within the city to local markets."

Impact of fuel prices

Mark Chura, who directs the Delaware Greenways organization, said residents appear eager for new walking and biking opportunities. Interest has grown statewide, from the new Blue Ball and Delaware Greenway connections in Brandywine Hundred to the new six-mile Junction & Breakwater connection between Lewes and Rehoboth Beach.

"What has been interesting for us is that we saw during the summer, all of a sudden; $4 a gallon gas changes people's minds pretty quickly about how viable alternative transportation methods are," Chura said. "You take a much more sober view of these alternatives when it hits you in the pocketbook."

Contact Jeff Montgomery at 678-4277 or jmontgomery@delawareonline.com

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