I stood near the shore of the Lafayette River on a lovely Saturday last weekend, manning a table at the yearly river festival, listening to people talk about how befuddled they are by the Elizabeth River Trail.
What is it? Where does it go? Why isn’t it marked? Why does the City of Norfolk promote it, only to ignore it? When will the construction end? Why are they using the Trail for equipment storage? Can’t they move it and open the Trail again?
Newcomers to the area read about the Elizabeth River Trail in Norfolk’s marketing literature. Jazzed about gorgeous sight-seeing along the river’s edge, they end up traveling a blighted urban path: a mostly unmarked route that is, these days, challenged by construction, pot holes, honking huge lakes… errrr… mud puddles, and totally confusing street crossings.
Even natives and long-time residents who’ve used the Trail for years and are used to the neglect are often irate, especially after construction on the Mid-town Tunnel began. For them, the Trail is one of the only places to ride without the complications of congested intersection traffic. Having mastered the challenges of the winding route itself, now they must navigate from downtown Norfolk to West Ghent on a route that is, to many, unnecessarily severed by a pile of construction debris marring a once lovely urban path.
Whatever the reasons for the Trail’s condition – and perhaps they are understandable — it’s clear that most people haven’t heard a good explanation for the lack of signage, the dark and claustrophobic underpass at 21st St., the construction closures, and the alternative route that actually encourages a dangerous intersection cross at Colley Ave. The Trail’s condition is just another example of its contradictory status. The Elizabeth River Trail has long felt like an abandoned project Norfolk promotes to out-of-towners as if it’s our Crown Jewel, but seems to ignore when it comes to making sure people can actually use it.
An unfortunate example of this happened last year when my husband and I rode the Trail regularly, taking what we call “the long way” on our daily commute home for our jobs downtown. We often found ourselves riding along with tourists exploring the trail. For three months, as we exited the Brambleton Street Bridge headed toward Ghent, we’d watch as tourists stopped to gape at a twisted guard rail blocking the path. A clean up crew had dragged the crumpled metal from the street, after a car crushed it, and unceremoniously dumped it directly on the Elizabeth River Trail.
Tattered yellow caution tape festooned the craggy hulk, flapping in the wind as we all trod around it, sinking into muddy grass. When you see this kind of thing on the Trail, you get the feeling that City leadership forgets that people actually use the trail to move around the City, that it’s not just the money shot for a tourist brochure.
Prompted by questions about the Trail from bicyclists at Bike Norfolk events and meetups, I decided to host a “Meet the Elizabeth River Trail Ride.” The ride is for anyone — new to the Trail or not. The idea is for the seasoned Trail users among us to guide those new to the Trail — and to have a great time doing it. While we’re exploring the trail, we can do a fact-finding, documenting the good, the bad, and the ugly so City leadership can better understand our frustrations.
We can sit around and complain about what the City of Norfolk or the State of Virginia will or won’t do about the Trail. We can get frustrated with Norfolk Southern, which too often impedes reasonable solutions for improving the Trail. Or, we can do something about it.
This ride — which takes place May 9? This is me, doing something. It’s not the best solution; it’s not even a just and righteous one. But it’s a start.
I figure if I introduce 10 people to the Trail and just 2 of those people introduce it to 5 more people and of those 5, each one shows someone else how to ride the trail…. Well, that’s a start. It’s a start for you, if you’ve always wanted to ride the Trail but find it confusing. Once you’ve ridden it a couple of times, you will, like the rest of us, fall in love with this twisty, turny, crooked urban trail. It takes you through almost every aspect of this multi-faceted city: working port, wetlands, cobblestoned 18th century byways, shipyard, a century-old streetcar suburb, a community garden, and neighborhoods with names that evoke Norfolk’s heritage, Freemason District and Bowden’s Ferry.
Think of it is as a kind of grass roots “Voice of the User” program to tell area leadership what we need, as bicycling citizens, residents who use ALL our travelways to get around the city for all kinds of reasons.
So, join me this weekend, Saturday May 9th. The ride starts promptly at 10 AM, taking off near The Bakehouse at Chelsea, where, if you arrive early, you can have a fantastic breakfast. We’ll ride the North loop first, going from The Bakehouse to the Larchmont Public Library and back. Once back in the Chelsea Business District, we’ll do the South Loop, which will take us to the Harbor Park Stadium and back. Each loop is about 10 miles. If you have any questions, write me, Kelley Howell, at email@example.com
Good news if you love food, beer, and music. The ride is prelude to a fantastic street party in Chelsea where Smartmouth Beer is celebrating Bike Month with the release of a limited edition of Maibock Beer. There’ll be beer, live music, and plenty to eat at local eateries and food trucks: Bro’s Fish Tacos LLC,Pizza Bella Vista – Catering Authentic Neapolitan Pizza,Pendulum Fine Meats,The Bakehouse at Chelsea,Just Cupcakes,Karnage Asada. Musicians at the party will be The Kings of Ukulele and Family Tree.
Notes of Thanks: Thanks to Alex Palmer of the blog, Alex Palmer’s Natural History Notes and Thoughts, for the photos of the Elizabeth River Trail. If you want a great critique of what’s wrong with the trail, from the perspective of a professional who understands urban planning, check out Palmer’s article, Norfolk’a Elizabeth River Trail, while off to a good start, needs revisions.
Also, thanks to Cindy Lewis for, not only helping Bruce Drees and Tidewater Bicycling Association with signing the trail as you can see them doing in the photo below, but for also taking photos of the group rides she regularly takes along the Trail’s path. If you like a leisurely paced ride with a fun group, check out Cindy’s Coffee Shop Rides.
For more information on the Elizabeth River Trail, click here.