Escape the Urban Travelogue: Virginia’s Paths and Parkways

24 Jan

I didn’t discover the running trail along the canal until my third day in Fredericksburg. The previous two afternoons I had explored historic “Old Town” on foot at a 7:30 min/mile pace, my favorite way to get to know a dense urban scene. Its slow enough to see every site and read signs, but fast enough to cover a decent amount of ground in a reasonable timeframe. Caroline and Princess Anne Streets, parallel corridors of nauseatingly charming pre-Civil War cottages and storefronts, provided ample opportunities to discover restaurants and history alike as I dodged tourists and dog-walkers. But once I have gauged the lay of the land, streetlights and traffic transition from a simple annoyance to a serious impediment to my workout (I have a triathlon to train for, after all). Which is why I was happy to discover the running trail on the old towpath along the Rappahannock Canal.

A tad greener than when I ran it in January . . .

The canal connects the most inland navigable end of the Rappahannock River to towns and ports west of Fredericksburg. Long since closed, the old mule towpath (sound familiar?) has been converted into a running and biking trail, connecting old downtown Fredericksburg to newer neighborhoods and development. I ran nearly its entire length, from river start to new suburbia. I passed only a few other walkers and runners, this being a sunny but cold winter day. I passed a dog park filled to capacity. I crossed new pedestrian bridges and interpretive signage. What I did not pass was an economic renaissance brought about by a new path alone.

In Western New York, we expect too much from our simple walking and bike paths. Blame an ever shrinking population and governmental budget. Blame previous over-hyped projects that failed to deliver. Blame a public bureaucratic requirement to justify each dime by quantifying and monetizing every action. Blame non-profits and lobbyists for over-selling and under-delivering. Whatever the source of the problem, a bike path is no longer just a bike path. Its is a way to draw people to the water and create spin-off development. It is a way to lower county Medicaid bills by increasing the overall health of the community. It is a way to raise our ranking on “Livable Cities” indices, to entice young people to move here. Under no circumstances is a nice path along the water just a nice path.

Bike and running paths certainly have economic, public health, tourism, and demographic effects. But by selling those end-states first, by over-promising a future dependent on far more factors than a thin ribbon of asphalt, we as a community lose sight of any intrinsic value trail systems have on their own. The un-monetizable quality of life value in creating community recreation spaces, opportunities to explore an area by foot or bike and maintain a healthy lifestyle, is of primary importance, and that is lost in the unrealistic promises.

Fortunately, but perhaps counter-intuitively, northern Virginia is pressing ahead with projects to add to its already impressive system of dedicated bike and running paths. Hilly and long settled, the Old Dominion is full of winding parkways, less-than-direct routes used by Native Americans and colonists and now widened into highways. But each parkway and semi-major road has a bike path next to it, not on the dangerous shoulder, but winding through the trees twenty feet away. The traffic noise doesn’t seem to discourage use, and the parkways are direct enough one could reasonably bike for functional, and not just recreational, reasons. Each town itself is crisscrossed in dedicated paths as well, as this map of Fredericksburg shows (my towpath trail being just one small black line running east to west in the middle of the map):

And low-tax, anti-government Virginia is doubling down by planning even more paths in the future. Spotsylvania has a plan for 93 more miles of trails in the next 25 years, on government land (in many cases) and with government approval, but with volunteer labor and private dollars (donations and grants). Perhaps most telling, and of most relevance to WNY: 15 people spoke at the first hearing on the issue, 14 in favor, one (literal) NIMBY against. Yes, tourism and positive health effects were cited in arguments to support the trail construction. But the failure of spin-off development along the very pleasant Rappahannock Canal Path seems to hardly have been considered at all.

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