How suburbia learned to stop worrying and love the bike

Jake Blumgart Features, Issue 2 0 Comments

Bill Spingler’s political career almost ended as soon as it began.  In 1991, he won an election to the Radnor Township Board of Commissioners by nine votes. Spingler was a Democrat in a majority-Republican Delaware County town, but it wasn’t partisan politics that nearly did him in. It was a bike trail.

Many decades earlier the township hosted a railroad spur operated by the Philadelphia Suburban  Transportation Company, which once provided mass transit service to the city’s western suburbs. As postwar trends in car ownership spread, the company’s profits declined and its service shrank. In 1955, it closed this bit of track and gave it to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which passed it on to Radnor Township about 20 years later. Although the money was there to transform the spur into a bike trail, the Board of Commissioners feared vocal opposition and sat on the land until Spingler was elected.

Spingler wanted to turn the unused land, then a weedy mess after decades of neglect, into a bicycle and pedestrian trail. But some who lived close to the overgrown tract organized to defend their properties against a perceived threat of criminality and devaluation. In a community of roughly 30,000, where a handful of votes could easily topple any politician, a small but forceful group of activists can stir up a lot of trouble. A gag rule was issued to prevent discussion of the trail in commission meetings, but Spingler kept bringing it up anyway. He was then stripped of his chairmanship of the Parks and Recreation committee. Then-commission president Clinton A. Stuntebeck admitted, during a public shouting match, that the move came in response to pressure from residents who lived along the proposed trail.

A longtime fellow commissioner, Curtis Nase, declared, “I have never seen the township so divided over one issue, and I’ve been a township resident for 40 years.” Signs lined Conestoga Road, reading, “Stop Spingler, No Bike Trail.”

“I started bringing 100 people to every meeting about the trail for the 100 people who came out against the trail,” Spingler remembers. “I put out flyers and brought in people to the meetings. [I said], ‘you shouldn’t let this vocal minority stop us from progress.’ Then when I started to do it, the shit hit the fan.”

The Friends of the Radnor Trail civic group, which supported the project, landed a $700,000 federal grant the following year, but loca1 buy-in was necessary to access the money. Testifying before the commissioners in 1994, opposition leader Laurie Dougherty described the horrors wrought by the few fisherman who already traversed the otherwise unused stretch of rail bed: “A neighbor on Hunt Road found a hypodermic needle in the stream… We have experienced strangers on our private property.” Other opponents argued that the trail would infringe upon their property rights and waste taxpayer money.

“I said, ‘you shouldn’t let this vocal minority stop us from progress.’ Then when I started to do it, the shit hit the fan.”

Although a 1995 non-binding referendum on the trail’s construction passed with 61 percent of the vote, opposition hardened.  A lawsuit was filed to stop construction, which didn’t begin until 2004 as a result. In an interview that year, Spingler, who is still in office today as commission president, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Half the people love me. Half the people hate me.”

All for a bike trail 2.4 miles long and 19 feet wide.

“At this point, many of the homeowners have come full circle and are advocates of the trail,” says Jeffrey A. Knowles, regional advisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Recreation and Conservation. “They’ve seen the values increase for their properties and they love having this recreational asset right in their backyard.”

NIMBY Battles of Yore

Since the beginning of rails-to-trails efforts in the 1960s, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) community groups have often sprouted up and proved formidable foes. When first proposed in 1971, Seattle’s now-famous Burke-Gilman Trail met ferocious opposition. Opponents organized under the banner of the Property Rights Committee and rallied around a narrative of criminal invasion, using such slogans as “Hike in the Woods, Not in My Yard” and “Welcome Hell’s Angels.” Three years ago in Orange County, Calif., an extension of the Santa Ana River Trail faced similar objections, prompting one opponent to say that expanding the well-loved bikeway “is a terrible idea from a public safety standpoint. It’s ridiculously unsafe.”

Here in the Philadelphia area, there may never be another opposition effort like the one that bedeviled Radnor. Still, it is worth remembering that a vocal minority of determined opponents can drag the trail expansion process out for years. Plenty of opportunity for such resistance is on the horizon, considering the sheer number of trail miles that advocates hope to build in the coming years.

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Southeastern Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest bike trail networks in the nation, with years, even decades, of extensions ahead. What began as a handful of added miles in the 1970s has expanded continuously over the ensuing decades. In a recent attempt to create regional coherence, a coalition of cycling advocates, philanthropies and development organizations have rallied around expanding the network, dubbing it “the Circuit.”

When completed, the Circuit will surround the city and connect five Pennsylvania counties with four others in New Jersey, providing opportunities for recreation as well as non-car access to numerous employment hubs. Over three hundred of its projected 750 miles have already been built, with 50 more currently in progress. While major holes remain in the Circuit’s connectivity, residents of Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey will be able to traverse much of the region by bike if and when the mega-trail is finished.

The two biggest rallying cries for anti-trail NIMBYs are the twin shibboleths of neighborhood safety and property values. In both cases, advocates have hard evidence to counter these claims. Fears of bike trails attracting a criminal element are the most visceral: In 1999, a Warrington bike trail was met with claims that it would lure drug dealers and perverts. Leaflets warned that the trail would “inevitably invite strangers and wanderers into the ‘back door’ of our neighborhoods.” Trails in Chadds Ford and Coatsville were stymied due to similar campaigns, the Inquirer noted at the time.

Not only has crime everywhere in the U.S. been falling for decades, but absolutely no link exists between bicycle trails and crime. In 1992, California’s Sonoma State University reported that “survey results from 15 other cities showed only a small number of minor infractions [on bike trails] including illegal motorized use of the trail, litter, and unleashed pets.” A 2000 study from Nebraska, a state with no trails at all a mere 10 years before, found that only 4 percent of respondents could report any thefts related to the trail, while 4.7 percent reported property damage. No violent crimes were reported. A 1995 report from the Colorado State Park service on the Denver metro area found that “[n]o public safety issues could be directly linked to the trail.”

“It’s simply not the case that people are going to ride their bikes 20 miles to come and steal an object from your house.”

SPOKE has been unable to find a single study that links incidences of crime rising upon the completion of a trail. In fact, Knowles says, “trails have been shown to increase security because when you get more people in an area, it gets to be safer.”

With regard to property values, studies show that trails are mostly an unalloyed good. In 2011, University of Cincinnati researchers found that house prices went up $9 for every foot closer they stood to a bicycle trail. The average premium for those houses located 1,000 feet or less from the trail was $9,000. A few years earlier, a different researcher at the same university found that for each foot farther away a house stood from a trail, the value of adjacent properties decreased by $7.05. University of Michigan researchers found that property owners perceived no difference in their ability to quickly and profitably sell their homes after a trail was built. Again, SPOKE was unable to find any research not funded by explicitly anti-trail groups that found a substantially negative effect on property values.

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“In the Radnor case, property values rose on average by $69,000 dollars,” says Sarah Clark Stuart, deputy director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and whose work has extensively dealt with trails. “In that case, the residents were extremely opposed to the trail. But once the trail was finally put in, they built gates [into their fences], hung their ‘For Sale’ signs, and put it on the listing that they were right next to the trail.”

Bike trails have also been shown to disproportionately attract the affluent. “Almost half of surveyed bicyclists earn more than $100,000 annually and 87% earn more than $50,000,” reads one report from the North Carolina Department of Transportation on users of the state’s Outer Banks trail.

Easing Fears

NIMBY opposition to trails continues, although the kind of diehard trench warfare that defined the Radnor battle has not been seen again (or, at least, hasn’t been as well publicized). In Montgomery County, officials had to convince opponents that the Pennypack Trail would not harm their property values when it expanded last year and again this year. Chester County’s Chester Valley Trail encountered opposition, but county planners worked hard to assuage fears and it opened last year.

Opposition to the Perkiomen Trail from property owners was overcome by similar methods, according to Dave Clifford, a senior planner with the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

“There would be two country representatives who would go to the homeowners’ property,” Clifford says. “Basically, you address your concerns privately. ‘We are going to come through with this project, but if you are really against it and don’t want to see it, we can do a fence, we can do natural buffers.’ Sometimes you’ll just share the facts. ‘It’s simply not the case that people are going to ride their bikes 20 miles to come and steal an object from your house.’”

“Once the trail was finally put in, they hung their ‘For Sale’ signs and put it on the listing that they were right next to the trail.”

One-on-one meetings “avoid that angry mob mentality,” Clifford says, but public forums are still necessary. In his estimation, holding a community meeting and presenting plans doesn’t work very well. Montgomery County instead holds workshops where attendees can walk around to different stations and learn about different segments of the project, each represented by an expert who can answer questions. In this more individualized setting, acrimonious exchanges are limited and personal concerns can be addressed outside the context of a crowded room where the loudest voices dominate.  

For Radnor Township’s Spingler, such measures are always necessary because there will always be concerns.

“Nobody wants any change in local government,” Spingler says. “Whether it’s a trail, whether it’s a sidewalk, whether it’s university dorms, everybody wants everything to stay the same. It’s a constant battle. But once we were able to get the trail done, now everybody loves trails. You aren’t going to lose if you support trails.” ◆

Photos by Dan Lidon

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