For a lot of people, 750 miles is a distance to be traversed by car, perhaps by a short flight. But in his week-long State of the State tour earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a trail of that distance for biking, walking, rollerblading, or jogging–anything but driving.
Though not expected to be completed until 2020, the Empire State Trail would radically expand sustainable transit routes across New York. Stretching from Manhattan to the northern edge of the state, passing through Albany and Buffalo on the way, the trail would be the longest state-run multi-use trail in the country. Some parts of the proposed route, like the 11-mile stretch of the Hudson River Greenway that traces along Manhattan’s west side, are already completed; the next four years will be a matter of linking pre-existing infrastructure by building and paving new sections of trail. Cuomo imagines this task unfolding in three phases: the first will knock out 72 miles of trail, followed by 82 miles, then 196, according to Curbed. Over the course of the project, the state will finally put the finishing touches on the Erie Canalway Trail, which runs intermittently between Albany and Buffalo.
With a price tag of around $220 million, the project is contingent on the state government approving the budget, but Cuomo is confident that the appeal of the trail will offset the cost. “It would change the economic activity throughout the state,” Cuomo said during the State of the State presentation. The trail, he added, would draw tourists to under-visited parts of the state, connecting natural sites like Lake George with small communities, major cities, and local attractions like breweries and museums.
As America’s romance with the automobile has faded, interest has shifted to alternative modes of transport. The Empire State Trail is by no means the only project of its nature to spring up in the country; the Chesapeake and Ohio canal towpath offers around 184 miles of biking and hiking along the Potomac, and the East Coast Greenway, though still only around 31% completed, would link northern Maine to southern Florida with 3,000 miles of car-free trail.
“Millennials especially are not interested in car ownership; the idea of trails have really caught hold among that demographic,” says Gina Ford, a principal and landscape architect at Sasaki’s Urban Studio. Ford has worked on projects like the Chicago Riverwalk and the High Line Canal Trail in Denver, the latter of which extends 71 miles through a range of diverse communities and encourages walking and biking.
While Ford acknowledges the logistical difficulties of managing projects like the High Line Canal Trail and the proposed Empire State Trail–the fact that they pass through so many different jurisdictions calls for careful coordination of funding and management–she said in an interview with Co.Exist that the positives of such undertakings “are pretty extraordinary.” Oftentimes, they give life to outmoded systems, repurposing abandoned rail lines or skirting under previously unused highway overpasses. And they also encapsulate shifting attitudes around transit in light of climate change.
“There was a period in American history when we took on these major infrastructural changes–think about the Hoover Dam or the interstate highway system,” Ford says. Projects like the Empire State Trail may be less grand in scope, but in terms of how they’re shaping the way people traverse the land around them, their impact could be equally transformative.