Ranked No. 3 among bicycle-friendly states, Delaware vies for No. 1 with the completion of major trails, a bicycle bridge and the testing of ‘cycle tracks’

Bicycle on the Michael Castle Trail on a summer evening, just before sunset, when the scent of honeysuckle fills the air, the sky is swathed in orange and blue, and the Kalmar Nyckel may have just sailed out of sight down the C&D Canal. You’ll return, guaranteed.

For Delawareans seeking cycle-friendly trails such as this one, there are several to choose from. Dedicated nonprofits like Bike Delaware and Delaware Greenways and movements such as Gov. Jack Markell’s First State Trails and Pathways Initiative have brought Delaware from the 10th most bicycle-friendly state in 2012 to third as of this past May, according to a report by the League of American Bicyclists (Washington state has been ranked first for the past eight years, followed by Minnesota).

Nationally, cycling has gained more momentum than ever: 60 million people hop on a bike annually, and some 1,500 Delawareans bike to work each day.

James Wilson, executive director of Bike Delaware, a nonprofit that seeks to make bicycling a safe and fun Delaware transportation option, says: “It’s one of those things where the only complaints are everyone saying, ‘Why didn’t we have these [good cycling trails and opportunities] 10 years ago?’”

In 2011, Markell—a cyclist himself—challenged the state to increase biking opportunities, and launched a partnership between DelDOT and DNREC for the planning and construction of new bicycling and pedestrian facilities. The goal: connecting and enhancing existing trails and pathways and constructing new ones.

As the initiative continues to be implemented throughout the state, here are a few updates on major undertakings:

Michael Castle Trail

The Michael Castle Trail is a paved walking and cycling path along the north shore of the C&D Canal. Currently under development, it extends 10.2 miles alongside the water and arcs through picturesque woodland.

The Michael Castle Trail winds from the C&D Canal through scenic forests. (Photo by Krista Connor)

The Michael Castle Trail winds from the C&D Canal through scenic forests. (Photo by Krista Connor)

Begun in 2013, the trail had 100,000 visitors within its first year, says Jeff Niezgoda, planning supervisor at DelDOT, who is managing the Delaware portion of trail construction.

The full trail will be complete this December, Niezgoda says, and will span 14.2 non-stop miles bookended by Delaware City and Chesapeake City, Md.

The trail, which starts in Delaware at the eastern end just south of Delaware City, is named after former Governor and U.S. Representative Michael Castle, who helped initiate the project. About a mile of trail construction is left for the east side, and that should be finished in October.

The trail runs through Lums Pond State Park at the Summit North Marina, parallel to Aqua Sol restaurant, also located at the marina. By autumn, a new trailhead will be added at Lums Pond. From the marina, the trail snakes toward Chesapeake City, and upon completion will lead directly into town.

The Castle Trail, when finished, will be the longest, straightest paved trail in the state, and the only Delaware trail on which people can cross the state. Total cost will be $9 million.

“I definitely think it’s long enough to attract people from out of state, and while it’s very attractive to serious cyclists, it’s designed to appeal to every type of cycler,” says Wilson.

“You can toddle along with your 10-year-old, or if you want to be the next Lance Armstrong, it’s the only opportunity in the state to go almost 15 miles without stopping.”

Plans are also under development to pave the service roads leading to the two current trailheads, one under the St. Georges Bridge off Rt. 13, and the other at Biddle Point off Cox Neck Road, says Niezgoda.

The Delaware City section, once complete, will be home to a trailhead at the Delaware City Community Center on 5th Street, says City Manager Richard Cathcart.

“It’s going to be phenomenal, probably one of the most spectacular trails in the state,” he says. “You’re walking or biking next to water almost the entire trail.”

Cathcart sees the trail as a definite “game changer” for Delaware City, which has been undergoing extensive revitalization to promote ecotourism and its historical sites. With The Ice Cream Parlor and boutique shops, Delaware City offers a perfect location for browsing or a quick snack or lunch before getting back on the trail.

Wilson, who has biked the trail multiple times, says that one major factor in boosting ridership on national trails is, surprisingly, ice cream. He says trails with ice cream stands, or ice cream shops in adjacent trailhead towns, are some of the most successful around the country. What’s more, the trail connects two charming waterfront communities, further enhancing ridership possibilities. Cathcart says he is ready for the influx.

Another special factor on the trail is Aqua Sol, says Wilson. The marina eatery, overlooking the C&D Canal, is a break point for dining or drinks. The restaurant has seen a 30-40 percent increase in business since last year for Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch, says owner Curtis Busz.

“You can pull up to our parking lot at noon on any given Saturday and see a dozen or so bicycles sitting out there,” he says, not to mention the walking groups of 20 or more people who visit regularly.

“I’m so excited to see [the trail] when it’s finished,” says Busz. “Not just for the business aspect, which I can only assume will continue to grow exponentially, but my kids love taking daddy for long walks along the canal, so I’m getting my exercise, too.”

Scenic Trail & Bicycle Bridge from Wilmington to New Castle

With an anticipated finish by 2018, the seven-mile Wilmington-New Castle Greenway commences at a trailhead at the DuPont Environmental and Education Center at the end of the Riverwalk on Wilmington’s Riverfront and rolls south toward Battery Park in Old New Castle. The trail, which winds through Russell Peterson Wildlife Refuge, will be home to the longest bicycle bridge in the state. Spanning the Christina River, the bridge will lead directly into downtown New Castle. The finish date of the bridge is TBA.

A rendering of the bridge that will span the Christina River and lead to downtown New Castle. (Photo courtesy of Bike Delaware)

A rendering of the bridge that will span the Christina River and lead to downtown New Castle. (Photo courtesy of Bike Delaware)

The completion of this trail, led by Delaware Greenways, would create direct access to the Riverfront and Market Street for commuters and visitors from suburban communities south of the city. All amenities of downtown Wilmington—businesses, restaurants, residences, the train station, movie theater, stadium, music venues—will be safely and easily accessible. Likewise, Old New Castle’s historic downtown would be a draw.

The Greenway and Castle trails wouldn’t be connected, but for serious cyclers the completion of both would provide more than 20 miles of scenic riding, with only a portion of the journey via Rt. 9.

Eventually, the Wilmington-New Castle Greenway will be part of the East Coast Greenway—a 2,500-mile traffic-free path linking East Coast cities from Maine to Florida—with a route that goes through Delaware.

Innovation: Downtown Newark Cycle Tracks

But Delaware needs more than picturesque trails in order to become the most bicycle-friendly state. More important, explains Wilson, cyclists need connected routes enabling them to bicycle to a particular trail, rather than having to drive to the destination with a bike rack slung on the car.

“We couldn’t be the most bicycle-friendly state in the country if 90 percent of the people who use trails have to drive to them. That’s not a formula for number one. You need more than trails—you need more infrastructure,” says Wilson.

He explains that if a teen wants to bike to school or someone wants to cycle to work, and 90 percent of the journey is bicycle-friendly, but 10 percent of the trip is on major roads like Kirkwood Highway, Concord Pike or DuPont Highway, the state may as well be rated at 50th.

One solution could be implementing divided bike lanes, or cycle tracks, a concept that was tested on July 14 on Delaware Avenue in downtown Newark with positive results, according to City of Newark reports. More than 100 volunteers came out for practice rides on two 4-ft. wide bicycle lanes traveling in opposite directions, protected by vertical separations from the two lanes of car traffic traveling west to east. If officially implemented, this will be the first cycle track in Delaware. In this case, the lane would span the entire stretch of Delaware Avenue, from South Main Street to the Newark Library on Rt. 72. Having two lanes is a plus, Wilson says, since bicycle traffic in one lane moving in both directions is often an issue.

“This is the first of its kind, the kind of innovation that we need,” he says. “We hope it’s an enormous and incredible success, so Newark says, ‘Oh, we want another one over here,’ and Dover and Wilmington say, ‘We want one!’”

If the cycle track is a hit, Wilson says Newark may even start seeing bicycle traffic signals.

“There’s momentum,” he says. “We look into Delaware’s future over the next 10 years, and if this momentum is sustained, then we can maintain our number three ranking, and even compete with numbers two and one.”

Krista Connor
When Krista's not at the O&A office, you can find her with a cup of tea, a book or donning a backpack for an adventure.