Sigh... Deep breath... Long pause...
Sorry, I still haven't found a better way to control my anger when trail opponents refer to efforts to create safe places to walk and bike as "elitist." These are some of the wealthiest men and women in Newton County, but somehow they have twisted the truth so that even some elected officials say walking and biking are frivolous pursuits of the "elite." Never mind that $4-a-gallon gas and unemployment have made owning and driving a car out of reach for many, trail opponents believe any travel other than by automobile is a luxury they don't want to see funded.
Imagine the surprise when I tell Jimmy over on Thompson Avenue his biking along Floyd Street sidewalks with groceries bags in hand makes him part of Covington's upper crust! The same is true, then, for my neighbor who walks several miles each way to work since her husband lost his construction job last year.
As a board member at Washington Street Community Center (WSCC), I've seen first hand the limited transportation and recreation choices available to children and adults in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Over several years, our local cycling club donated more than 50 bikes and over 100 helmets to the children at WSCC. With the help of the Covington Police Department, we taught kids safety and encouraged them to have fun. Unfortunately, there is little safety or fun to be found biking in Washington Street traffic. The kids have no place to bike.
I tried to make that point some time back to a Covington City Councilwoman who insisted trails were of no benefit to her constituents. "My people would not be welcome there," she said. Flabbergasted, I asked her where she wanted me to send the children to walk, bike, or play? She said parents were more concerned with putting food on the table. Even though she acknowledged that transportation grants to acquire the railroad and build a trail could not be used to feed our citizens, she said "Appearance is Reality." She'd bought it hook, line, and sinker... Trails are for elitists.
While the "just say NO" crowd in Newton County continues to vilify anyone trying better poor neighborhoods, there are communities where advocates, government, business leaders, and public health officials get it. They understand place matters. And, they use walking and biking trails to connect healthier places to healthier people. Just watch this video of the Met Branch Trail in Washington, DC, and see if you can spot the "elitists"?
Study after study proves place matters. Residents of poorer neighborhoods have more health issues and shorter life expectancies than those living in areas with higher socioeconomic factors. That's the reality, appearances be damned. And, it's time for leaders who will accept that reality and confront the appearances that keep it hidden from view.
Trails break down barriers and provide greater access to healthy habits and healthier places. You don't have to travel to DC to see it. Viisit the Arabia Mountain Trail in Lithonia some weekend. Try to count the families -- red, yellow, black, and white from every economic level -- out getting healthy together. You'll quickly lose count.
"Priorities First," say the trail opponents. What, pray tell, could be a higher priority than the health, safety, and welfare of all our citizens!? Yeah, I know. That's elitist thinking again...
Sigh... Deep breath... Long pause...
I know... Don't go there... But I can't help peeking online to read comments responding to a local news story, editorial, or letter about trails. That's one way the internet has changed our media world -- now everyone is part of the story. And, the comments are telling.Of course, I most like the ones agreeing with me. I am human. But, I also enjoy sincere, thoughtful statements sharing an opposing view or a different take. It reminds me of a time when we actually gathered and talked as neighbors about things that mattered. We listened to each other, we aired our differences, and we found ways to work together.So, there's the good ("you agree with me!"), the bad ("aw, how could you not agree with me!?"), and then, there's the downright ugly. They're the statements that leave you shaking your head (as another poster said). For example, this comment to the recent Newton Citizen story about our Newton Trails Walk About series."
I WOULD LOT RATHER HAVE A TRAIN PASSING THROUGH MY BACKYARD THAN A GROUP OF THUGS BREAKING INTO MY HOUSE WHILE I'M AT WORK..NO TREES OR FENCE IS GOING TO KEEP THEM OUT..YOU BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME!!!"Setting aside the obvious logical problems with the argument that "no trees or fence is going to keep them out," but apparently steel rails and wooden ties are keeping "them" away today... I feel sad for someone who either (a) truly believes this or (b) is deliberately exploiting the fears of others.How ironic I read that same day a blog post by a young father recounting his three-day, 20-mile biking adventure with his seven-year-old daughter on the Erie Canal Trail in upstate New York. Is she the kind of thug our commenter fears? Should this father be charged with child endangerment
for putting his daughter into such a hostile environment? From all accounts, it was the trip of a lifetime and a memory father and daughter will cherish as long as they both live. It was an excursion he could never have attempted with a child that age on today's busy roads.I've blogged before about other such stories
, like the grandmothers, ages 48 to 76, who biked a large portion of the 98 miles making up the combined Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga trails.Those are the tales that shape my vision and inspire my passion for an interconnected trail system within our county and beyond. We all have the gift to imagine incredible futures and to play some small role in realizing them. Sadly, some of us can never break free from our fears of the present to dream about the future.I can refute crime claims about trails with a mountain of statistics and letters from law enforcement officials touting the benefits of trails. But, why go there in the first place? There are a myriad of possible visions for our future in Newton County. And, I know mine is only one. But, I also know this: no worthy ends are found by charting a course running from what we fear.While I can, and with the support of many, I will do all within my power to create places where children and caring parents create lasting memories and grandmothers and grandfathers find their youth once more.
It's true what they say.... You never forget your first one.... Bike, that is. Mine was candy-apple red with a sparkling red vinyl banana seat and a sissy bar. It was a thrill ride coming down off the hill where we lived on Oakcliff Rd in Doraville. It didn't matter that it was freezing outside, on Christmas morning, we were riding those new bikes. (That was after my dad finally convinced my younger brother that riding down the hallway to our bedrooms was not an option!)
We rode them everywhere... To school, to the 7-11, to the pool and the tennis courts, to football practice, and to every friends' house in our neighborhood. Several years latter, those bikes were replaced by sleek, sexy 10-speeds, and then there really was no stopping us. A bicycle was freedom.
I wonder, though, about the kids whose parents are at the bike shop or the super store today buying a two-wheeler to stash beneath the tree tonight once the little ones hit the sack. Will they ever know the freedom we did when we were young? Will they find streets safe to ride? Or will they be confined to cranking out mind-numbing circles in the driveway until finally the bike is left against a tree to rust away?
i love to ride my bike on the road. I love to pedal away the miles along Newton County's scenic rural vistas through the historic town and places that dot our landscape. But, to ride safely and confidently on the roadways, children first need a place to learn that is safe and protected. They need a trail. It wasn't so when we were kids, but that's how it is today. And, they deserve a chance to find the freedom we found at their age.
We owe them that.
In their 2010 Benchmarking Report on Bicycling and Walking in the US, the Alliance for Biking & Walking
reported Georgia as the ninth most dangerous state for pedestrians and the sixth most dangerous for bicyclists, based on reported fatalities. From 2005 to 2007, an average of 150 pedestrians and 20 bicyclists were killed each year on Georgia roadways.But, you don't need to tell middle school students at the Montessori School of Covington about the safety issues facing those who walk or bike. In the Spring of 2010, tasked with choosing an issue for their civic education program called Project Citizen, these kids decided to tackle the shortage of safe places to bike in Newton County.
They selected this issue after one student was alarmed seeing a bicyclist fall from the bike lane on Floyd Street into passing car traffic.As part of the class project, students conducted a survey of 100 Newton County residents ranging in age from 6 years to over 65. The survey found 77 percent of those surveyed rode a bike at least occasionally, but 88 percent did not feel they had enough safe places to ride. Respondents overwhelming favored building more safe places to bike, including:
- More bike lanes on existing roads (90 %)
- More biking and walking paths (97%)
- Convert the railroad into a riding and walking trail (95%)
to see the full survey results.