MANHATTAN (CN) — While much of the planet was in some state of lockdown, Judi Desire found herself traveling farther than usual.
Desire is a web developer and globetrotting cyclist. She leads bike tours through her Harlem-based organization, Uptown Boogie, to bolster interest in bicycling for convenience and community.
Since she first took to cycling during a trip to Europe more than a decade ago, Desire has toured six continents on her bike. Back in New York City, where she was born, the focus is on keeping it close to home.
“I wanted people to see themselves as a commuter,” someone who “takes a bike to go somewhere,” Desire said.
Since 2017, Desire has organized more than 100 local rides. Participants arrive with varied expertise; some enjoy cycling, but don’t have space or money to own their own bikes. Others are just curious. Ages vary, too, from 4-year-olds to seniors. Teenage boys with their moms are a popular combination.
Groups typically go on local outings: One tour viewed artwork at a church. Others have ventured kayaking, practiced yoga, shopped and dined locally, and volunteered to place food in community refrigerators.
Last year, perhaps unsurprisingly, was different.
Seeing her community affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and knowing she could not gather the typical fleet of cyclists, Desire decided to show New Yorkers how to “escape the city” while remaining socially distanced.
Throughout 2020, Uptown Boogie bike rides leveled up: Each ran at least 30 miles long, mostly to Westchester County or destinations further upstate like New Paltz.
The voyage was made possible in part by a yearslong, state-sponsored construction project, quietly completed at the end of a tumultuous year.
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Empire State Trail’s finishing touches, giving way to a record-setting 750 miles of contiguous trail.
As the longest multiuse state trail in the country, the trail’s completion offers cyclists a straight shot from New York City to the Canadian border. It also splits west, connecting Albany with Buffalo.
“Not only does it provide an opportunity to experience the natural beauty and history of New York, but it also gives New Yorkers from every corner of the state a safe outlet for recreation as we continue to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic,” Cuomo said in a statement.
The governor encouraged New Yorkers to “put on your mask and experience it for yourself.”
Along the trail are markers bearing the Empire State Trail insignia, designed in the blue and gold state seal colors that Cuomo has embraced during his tenure.
For New York’s cycling enthusiasts, the end of the trail’s construction caps two decades of fighting for the state to close gaps in its trails.
Dylan Carey, project director at the Albany-based nonprofit Parks & Trails New York, said his organization began its annual Cycle the Erie Canal bike tour in 1999 to bring attention to the potential for a bike trail that spans the entire state.
“All it needed was attention and time and energy,” Carey said.
Lacking that attention, cyclists at first rode on grassy areas and abandoned towpaths for parts of their journey. Conditions improved over the next decade, as Carey’s organization released annual progress reports, but breaks in a bikeable path remained.
In 2015, cyclists from across New York and in other parts of the country signed postcards asking Governor Cuomo to “close the gaps” in the state’s trails. A group biked to Albany to hand deliver the notes.
“I think that really helped create a spark that kind of got things flowing in a lot of people’s minds,” Carey said of the 2015 campaign.
Two years later, Cuomo launched the $200 million Empire State Trail project. “I don’t think that was a coincidence at all,” Carey said.
Closing the gaps has encouraged New Yorkers to hit the trails. Parks & Trails New York estimated in 2014 that around 1.6 million people used canalway bike trails statewide. In 2019, the number had grown to 3 million.
“We’ve seen trail use really balloon,” Carey said.
Cuomo’s office expects that 8.6 million New Yorkers and tourists will use the Empire State Trail each year — and not just cyclists. Hiking, running, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are all permitted on the recreational trail. In areas where it’s seasonally appropriate, so are snowmobiles.
Carey said a “trail culture” has grown along with the improvements.
“We see such a wide range of people,” he said, adding that multiuse trails “have almost a choose-your-own-adventure aspect” that appeals to families, cycling newbies and adventure-seekers.
Echoing that sentiment, Andy Beers, the director of Empire State Trail, said the project provides “an off-road setting for people of all ages and abilities to walk, run, bicycle away from traffic on a pleasant and welcoming trail.”
During the pandemic, Beers said, New York has seen “record numbers of trail users across the state.”
That growth is exciting, but Carey said his organization’s work is not done. Next, he wants to see the state continue trail expansion beyond the now-completed corridor, forming a network of trails that lead directly to state parks and historic sites.
“Our vision,” Carey explained, is a situation where “you can step out your door, go for a short ride on your bike, and then you’re on a trail — and from that trail, you can get anywhere in the state.”
The “web” of trails would also facilitate car-free tourism across New York, moving tourism dollars to parts of upstate that are struggling economically, Carey said.
Even with the completion of the Empire State Trail, off-road paths are still lacking.
About 25% of the Empire State Trail, which Cuomo’s office calls “a safe and scenic pathway for New Yorkers,” is alongside roads. A map on the trail’s website identifies the on-road portions of the trail.
Residents of Kingston, New York, have raised serious concerns about a specific on-road trail segment, saying the new trail has created a more dangerous intersection that resulted in a cyclist being struck and killed in November.
Previously, cyclists in the area would ride with car traffic and follow the same controls. After the trail was created, a stop sign for cyclists was installed, causing confusion among cyclists who were used to riding with traffic, neighbors told Hudson Valley One.
Darryl Savage, 54, was struck by a bus making a right turn after he passed through the stop sign. He later died in the hospital.
Savage’s four children have filed a notice of claim with the city of Kingston and New York state, signaling that a lawsuit will follow.
Joseph E. O’Connor, an attorney for the family, said the suit is not a commentary on the entire trail, but on the specific section in Kingston that he said the state designed negligently and that the city then failed to correct after officials became aware of potential danger.
O’Connor, of the firm O’Connor & Partners, interviewed neighbors who can see the intersection from their homes, and was told that they had witnessed more accidents, or near-accidents, over the past few months than in the three decades prior.
“You want the real answer, is it dangerous? Talk to those people,” O’Connor said.
Beers was not available to comment directly on the Kingston incident. He did say, however, the “on-road connecting sections” of the trail, some of which are as short as 300 yards, are meant to be used by veteran cyclists.
“They’re really intended for experienced bicyclists, on a longer day, or multi-day trip, that are comfortable riding next to traffic,” Beers said.
Novice cyclists can stick to the off-road portions of the Empire State Trail — provided there is space to ride.
Judi Desire said she is beginning to see overcrowded portions of trail, especially around New York City, where her tours begin.
“When you’re biking with a group of 10, that trail becomes very tiny,” Desire said.
Along with busy trails, electric bikes whizzing by pose potential safety issues, she said, citing concerns that new cyclists may be overwhelmed by the action and get discouraged.
State laws currently allow motorized bikes, provided that the entity maintaining the trail — like state parks or the state’s Canal Corporation — permits them.
Still, Desire is optimistic about the trail, which she said has already bridged a divide between the Bronx and Westchester. “It opened two communities up that were really separated,” Desire said.
Now, it’s up to those connected communities of New Yorkers to practice sharing the trail.