Above: A cyclist enjoys the 5.5-mile Jack Markell Trail, connecting Wilmington’s Riverfront to Historic New Castle.
By Ken Mammarella
Photos by Butch Comegys
The Wilmington Loop is a “transformational public infrastructure project” proposed for Wilmington and its nearby suburbs that could “improve public health, lift up isolated, underserved neighborhoods and spark economic renewal and expansion benefiting every citizen.”
The Loop is a trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.
“We know locally, nationally and internationally that if you make connections, then it
improves neighborhoods,” says Mary Roth, executive director of Delaware Greenways, which posted that description. “And when you improve neighborhoods, you give folks the opportunity to get outside safely and improve public health.”
The Loop is part of an increasingly popular concept with various names (multi-use or shared; trails, paths or pathways) of routes for pedestrians and bicyclists. (Jurisdictions diverge on
e-bikes and scooters.) Some are loops in parks, more for people enjoying the outdoors.
Others follow roads used by motor vehicles or create their own routes that people can use to get to jobs and other destinations.
“Shared-use paths and trails are no longer an add-on at the end of the project planning,” says Dave Gula, principal planner who’s worked at the Wilmington Area Planning Council since 2005. “They have become a driving force for some projects, and communities accept that these trails are amenities that should be included in almost every project.”
“The trend is that there are very few projects today that are planned with no bike/ped elements included, and in many cases that becomes the focus as we work with the community to plan.”
“Ten years ago, when large bike trails and pathways were proposed near established neighborhoods, we often faced resistance to them — ‘those will bring outsiders, potential troublemakers, to our community.’ I used to counter that argument by explaining that you rarely see someone steal a TV and carry it away on a bike, but concerns persisted, and we often had to keep a barrier of some kind in place between the trail and the neighborhood.
“Then, a few years would pass, and those communities would come back to us asking for a connection to the trail. This was before the pandemic, at which point our trail network saw its highest usage rate ever, and that has only declined slightly as we have come to the ‘new normal.’ Now when we begin a new study, we generally hear about the needs for connectivity to existing trails and improved safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
Aundrea Almond, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer’s chief of staff, agrees, showing a map where neighborhoods have asked the county for safer connections to the Delcastle Recreational Area.
Roth exemplifies how bike trails have transformed Atlanta, which Wilmington lawyer John L. Williams knows firsthand. “When I was in law school, I biked in Atlanta every day from my apartment to campus at Emory Law,” he says. “Biking took 10 minutes, and driving would have taken 20 minutes because of terrible rush hour traffic and parking.”
A study for the county concluded the Newport River Trail could produce the same game-changing stat: It’ll be faster for bicyclists to get between Newport and the Wilmington Riverfront than motorists.
Trail construction, maintenance and improvements are not cheap. The Markell Trail cost $26 million, and the county in 2022 received an $822,800 federal grant to improve it with art, signage explaining cultural and environmental highlights along the way and “more cool things,” Meyer says.
The county has applied for $25 million in Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity funding from the federal government for the Newport River Trail, with Meyer explaining the cost includes building on wetlands and ensuring that the trail can accommodate first responders using motorized carts that are nicknamed gators. And there are hopes for amenities like bike racks, benches and fix-it stations.
“Some of this sounds expensive,” Meyer says. “Some of these numbers are big, but in terms of health, environmental benefits and cost savings for low-income residents who are looking at $40,000 to buy a new car, it’s a no brainer that it’s a benefit for the community. You build this stuff, and it lasts for generations, and it transforms our community. It’s a great investment.”
For four months before the pandemic, MassTrails studied the benefits of four Massachusetts trails. It, not surprisingly, reported only good news: up to $9.2 million for businesses near trails, $2.8 million in healthcare savings by trail users and $2.2 million saved related to greenhouse gases.
Multi-use trails improve safety, advocates say, because they reduce or eliminates encounters between pedestrians and bicyclists and motor vehicles. That’s a particularly tough issue for Delaware. In 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015, it had the worst record for pedestrian fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And for most of the last 25 years, it was among the worst 10.
“We have a crisis on our roadways,” Gov. John Carney said when he announced his fiscal 2024 budget with a safety initiative that includes a traffic education and enforcement unit for State Police.
“We have a pedestrian safety issue on our roads,” Roth says. “The more people you can get off the road and onto a path biking for transportation, that’s huge. That’s fantastic.”
“In his free time, Meyer likes to ride his bike,” his official bio says, but he’s not yet safely commuting to county offices in Corporate Commons. He offers anecdotes of proposing to his wife, Lauren Cooksey, while biking on the Markell Trail and bicycling from downtown D.C. to Reagan National Airport in the Virginia suburbs.
“I think there’s a vision where you could do something like that here,” he adds. “I don’t know how many enthusiasts like me would do it, but a family could pack a couple of backpacks on a beautiful day like today and ride their bikes to the airport. Get an Avelo flight down to Florida or Nashville. Go away for the weekend and come back and ride a bike home.”
There’s a Trail for That
Delaware Greenways profiles 18 trails in New Castle County in the Trail Library page of DelawareGreenways.org.
All are for pedestrians and bicyclists; some accommodate in-line skaters, and one is listed for equestrians.
Auburn Valley Trail: 1.2 miles of asphalt in Auburn Valley State Park.
Battery Park Trail: 3.7 miles of asphalt along the Delaware, in and near Old New Castle.
Brandywine Trail: 2.9 miles of crushed stone, also for equestrians, in Brandywine Creek State Park.
Creekside Trail: 2.6 miles of packed earth along the Brandywine in Brandywine Creek State Park and the Beaver Valley unit of First State National Historic Park.
Delcastle Recreation Loop: 1.7 miles of asphalt in the Delcastle Recreational Park.
East Coast Greenway: 38 miles of mixed surfaces, in various sections, part of a route planned to connect Maine to Florida.
Fox Point Riverview Trail: 2.6 miles of mixed surfaces on the Delaware in Fox Point State Park.
Glasgow Park Loop Trail: 2.7 miles of asphalt in Glasgow Park.
Jack A. Markell Trail: 5.5 miles of mixed surfaces, including an elevated boardwalk, between the Wilmington Riverfront and New Castle. It includes interpretive kiosks, bike repair stations, bike racks, benches and seasonal bike rentals.
James F. Hall Trail: 1.8 miles of asphalt that never crosses a road yet connects three Newark parks.
Michael N. Castle C&D Canal Trail: 8.7 miles of paved surfaces along the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Usage is estimated at more than 200,000 a year, according to Delaware Greenways.
Mill Creek Greenway: 3.8 miles of asphalt in Pike Creek.
Northern Delaware Greenway Trail: 10.4 miles of asphalt between Bellevue State Park and Brandywine Park. The trail and Delaware Greenways itself began out of opposition to plans to turn a golf course into shops.
Oval Track: 1.2 miles of crushed stone around a pond in Bellevue State Park, with 20 exercise stations.
Oversee Farm Trail: 1.1 miles of mixed surfaces near Auburn Valley State Park.
Pomeroy Trail: 4.4 miles of asphalt along White Clay Creek and in and near the state park.
Rockwood Park Loop Trail: 1.2 miles of asphalt in Rockwood Park and Museum.
Talley Day Park Loop Trail: 1.2 miles of asphalt in Talley Day Park.
Paths to the Future
Trails envisioned, being studied, in planning and under construction
Many big projects with multi-use paths are planned or under way or being in New Castle County
• The Wilmington Loop, also called the Wilmington Life Sciences Loop for businesses on its western side, wraps around the city, following Route 141 and a mix of streets and trails elsewhere, with half of its 15.6 miles already existing. New sections would reach out to the Amazon warehouse near Newport (and all those jobs) and follow the rivers around Wilmington’s East Side, better connecting the historic Seventh Street peninsula and the beleaguered East Side to the rest of the city.
• The 1.95-mile Newport River Trail was first envisioned in 2014 to connect downtown Newport to the Wilmington Riverfront. It’s in the final design phase. Harvey Hanna, which developed Amazon’s warehouse near Newport and owns other properties nearby, is poised to make commuting convenient for cyclists. “Once a trail is in place, we would definitely add bike racks where appropriate,” says Ryan Kennedy, marketing vice president.
• The Commons Boulevard Trail Pathway connects 10,000 jobs in the Corporate Commons area to the Wilmington Riverfront. The first quarter-mile is done. If fully built, it would also link New Castle County’s main office building and its Hope Center and Christiana Hospital to Wilmington.
• The Iron Hill Park to Glasgow Park Corridor Pathways would connect several parks and the Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site, in and south of Newark.
• The Newport to Newark Pathways are being planned. The latest map for New Castle County’s Connecting Communities Initiative shows one path leaving Newport and splitting into northern and southern forks. The contractor’s final report and cost estimates are due in August.
• The reconstruction of the Route 896 interchange with Interstate 95 that just began includes multi-use paths crossing the interstate.
• The latest plan for Concord Pike nixes “major bicycle facilities” because of traffic volumes and speeds and limited right of way, but “over than 100 smaller trails, pathways and bike/ped connections are being planned,” says Dave Gula, principal planner with the Wilmington Area Planning Council.
To say a trail connects Points A and B misses the point. These projects connect to each other, embracing Glasgow, Newark, Newport, Wilmington, New Castle, Brandywine Hundred, the Northern Delaware Greenway (Delaware’s oldest and longest trail) and the popular Jack A. Markell Trail. Add Claymont to the list, if all the trails proposed for Electric Arc Park are created, according to Brett Saddler, executive director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp.
Connecting Communities, an initiative that County Executive Matt Meyer launched in 2018, goes further. A map on the initiative’s landing page shows a path between New Castle and Delaware City (preferably along the water, away from the dangers of Route 9) that links to Lums Pond State Park and the Michael N. Castle C&D Canal Trail. From the canal, trails head north to Newark and south to Middletown. Arrows point toward trails in Pennsylvania and hoped-for trails in Maryland. The 11 projects also include work on Augustine Cut-Off to improve access to Incyte and Trolley Square.
“This is really a passion project for me,” Meyer says. “Former County Councilwoman Lisa Diller defined county government as ‘public safety and dirt.’ That’s what we do. And when you think about dirt, you think about use of land, how the use of land changed in the past generation or two and where the use of land is going.” He hopes Connecting Communities will allow people to “move seamlessly and safely, walking biking, maybe e-biking. Our job working with DelDOT is to build that system.”