John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign. For more info visit www.facebook.com/SaveOurRailsToTrailsSavannah
In November a delegation of civic leaders from Augusta visited Savannah to investigate initiatives aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles, which could be used as models for similar programs in their city. They boarded a tour bus near Lake Mayer and headed north, stopping at points of interest around town, including the Forsyth Farmers Market and the vegetable garden at the West Broad Street YMCA.
I was invited along to explain efforts to promote bicycling as a healthy form of recreation and transportation. While the group nodded approvingly, my narration was largely unnecessary. They could see with their own eyes what I was describing.
One delegate turned to another and said, "There are bikes everywhere!"
The surprise and delight expressed by this visitor was a timely reminder that what we've become accustomed to here is not the norm in other cities. Many other communities in Georgia and across the nation aspire to be places where people of all ages and abilities can safely and conveniently travel by bike.
And they are spending millions of dollars to achieve that goal.
We have in place an advantage so elusive, yet important, that conferences have been held to define and quantify it. Yes, Savannah, we have a bicycle culture.
The excitement preceding the launch of Chatham Area Transit's CAT Bike program is indicative of bicycling's growing role in our community's identity. The cooperation between CAT and the city's Department of Mobility and Parking Services is a refreshing development as well and will, I hope, bring more partners to the table so the bike sharing program can be expanded.
Of course, the success of government initiatives is contingent on demand. The good news is we have no shortage here, especially when it comes to bicycling. What develops next is the affection people feel for community assets, once they are developed. Citizens become evangelists and sometimes stewards of resources that are important to them.
Michelle Walker Daniels developed this type of relationship with the McQueen's Island Trail, which runs parallel to U.S. 80 from just east of the Bull River Bridge to Ft. Pulaski.
"Personally, I like the trail because I can see all of nature unobstructed," said Daniels, who has enjoyed the trail since 1997 and trained for her first marathon on it. She's also a cyclist and said she appreciates not having to worry about car and truck traffic on the trail, which she described as "peaceful and safe."
Yet in recent years she saw the trail becoming less safe due to erosion. "Finally it got so bad, mainly at the western-most bridge, that it became dangerous," she said.
Daniels said she and Dan Hernandez, another McQueen's regular, would "complain back and forth" about the worsening conditions when they saw each other on the trail.
Ultimately they decided to do something about it.
"Let's see if we can put on a race," she said. And they did, raising $10,000 for the restoration and maintenance.
The second Ledesma Sports Medicine Rails to Trails Ultra race will be held Jan. 11. Sadly, the situation has become even more precarious since last year's event and sections of the trail have been closed, forcing the rerouting of the 25k and 50k races.
In December the Georgia Department of Natural Resources approved temporary maintenance work, but a long-term solution is needed.
For Daniels, restoring the trail is not just about preserving a place for runners, walkers, bikers and birders. She also treasures its place in history. A historical marker on the trail informs visitors that they are near a significant Civil War site:
"Built by Federal troops during the Civil War in February 1862, Battery Hamilton prevented Confederate gunboats and reinforcements from moving down the Savannah River to aid the besieged Fort Pulaski. Its presence also allowed the Federals to construct the eleven artillery batteries that pounded Fort Pulaski into surrender in April 1862."
The trail itself is sits atop the former railbed of the Central of Georgia's Savannah to Tybee line, which carried passengers until 1933.
Daniels said the trail has more recent historical significance as well.
Just as the CAT Bike program will be the first public bicycle sharing service in the state, the McQueen's Island Trail was the first rails to trails conversion in Georgia.
Our state is currently in the midst of a trail revolution of sorts, with construction and planning underway on projects around the state.
Let's hope our status as an early leader in this movement serves as a motivation to preserve the trail that earned the Savannah area that distinction.