The Pacific Ocean loomed just over the Santa Cruz Mountains about thirty miles away in California. Growing up in San Jose, Steve Winslow yearned to ride over the mountains to the coastline, but it never happened. Later in 1989, as a married couple, Helen and Steve Winslow moved from the bicycling nirvana of Davis, California to Malden as a most convenient place to commute to work in Boston. Winslow recalls, “I remember trying to bike up Washington Street to Melrose and it was horrible.”
The Winslows were appalled by the local horrendous biking conditions and the resulting lack of cyclists. It was time for change in their new community.
Winslow explored the abandoned railroad bed running through Malden. He followed it to where he could smell the salt marshes of Revere. Winslow reflects,“We are really close to the ocean and wouldn’t it be great to bike to the beach!” This would be such an easy and fun ride with a total elevation of 108 feet. But, the virtual challenging mountains of Malden, Everett, Saugus and Lynn were of a different nature than the Santa Cruz Mountain range. These intangible peaks took over twenty years to scale.
The Winslows were determined to create this rail-to-trail path. The couple were already connected with grassroots activists through the Malden Recycling Committee. The bike trail became the new mission after the city recycling transitioned to curbside pickup. Now that the trail is established, the Winslows state, “we are so pleased to see so many people using the trail. Our diverse community feels welcome to come. The health and enjoyment of cycling for all people is our creed.” Winslow continues, “cycling is a right protected by law and the state needs to make it safe.”
Public events have proven to be pivotal factors for public awareness and involvement with the trail. Hence, the first Bike to Sea Ride and Fair evolved in March of 1991. This first event took place with the help of the then existing Malden Cycle Center at the National Grid parking lot. The first official 1993 Bike to Sea Day demonstrated a fun and family friendly way to get to the beach. The rides have been instrumental to recruiting organization board members and increasing general membership.
Winslow remembers, “The monthly group bicycle rides are the glue of the organization” which bonded the very patient activists of the Bike To Sea Organization to their ultimate goal of trail completion. The first phase of planning and advocacy for the bike trail tarried for 18 years, mostly under Winslow’s leadership. Eventually after 10 years, the Bike to the Sea Organization named the trail as the Northern Strand Trail to include walkers, skaters and other movers and shakers. The Bike to Sea Organization retained its name to state its compelling mission.
Winslow learned at a rails-to-trails conference that, “Once you have permission to build a trail, you’ve got the trail built.” Securing leases from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (the landowner) was the first obstacle to conquer.
The challenges were mountainous. Monetarily, any state funding for alternative transportation such as rail trails was drained by the notorious Big Dig. Chronologically, bureaucracy bogged the path with multitudes of state committees, advisors, studies, and attorneys. The MBTA lease negotiations with twenty-seven communities lasted four to five years due to burdensome legal language, liability issues and changes of legislation. Winslow stated, “I had to work to rewrite the lease” to expedite the lease process.
Meanwhile, the communities were building momentum. Malden and Saugus were rearing to start. Everett needed the trail to connect different parks and schools. Saugus residents chose the bike path over maintaining the existing rail bed. Everett was the first to sign the final MBTA lease. Malden, Saugus and Danvers followed. Now that the permission was secured, the communities were unleashed to build.
The timing of the executed leases was critical. Fatigue from bureaucracy was insidiously draining the energy of the Bike to Sea Organization. The vision of the Northern Strand Trail was crumbling. To begin the construction phase was crucial to the organization’s stability. Winslow states, “We had come to a point where the Bike to the Sea Organization was about to disintegrate.”
Ingrid Barry of Danvers recruited Iron Horse Preservation of Nevada. In 2012, the worth of commodities was high; steel was valuable. Iron Horse Preservation committed to ripping out the rails for resale. Winslow remembers, “Without Iron Horse, we would not have had the breakthrough to get things going, it got the ball rolling.”
In 2012, Everett had its rails ripped up, Saugus ripped in 2014. Iron Horse began rail removal in Revere, but the Nevada company didn’t realize the challenges of the New England weather and other logistical setbacks drove the company out of business. The city of Revere finished their portion of the work with the help of Bike to the Sea Organization.
The City of Malden constructed its portion of the trail by allocating the meals tax funds and through municipal bonds. Currently, Bike to Sea is working with a federal program, Recreational Trails Program, for an exclusive matching grant for trail improvements such as lighting the entire trail and paving the Revere and Saugus sections.
Winslow states, “When the abandoned railroad was overgrown and not maintained due to absentee landlords, it was full of problems for the neighbors and businesses. People saw the advantage to cleaning it up and keeping control of the railroad bed. Our trail is neither plague or panacea. Neighborhood crime happens in the context of the neighborhood.” Winslow continues, “If you are having a crime wave in the neighborhood, it is going to happen whether there is a trail or not. But, it is a good thing when the media, police and community does react to crime. The sad thing is when you don’t hear of incidents and there is no reaction from the community.”
The construction phase is mostly complete, except for the Lynn portion, the final peak before the ocean. City of Lynn officials and public have voted in favor of the trail. But, the current Lynn city officials tend to be risk-averse. The Bike to Sea Organization is willing to find resources to assist Lynn, but there needs to be more evidence of readiness and a final commitment in order to raise money. “There is risk in everything we do. It is about understanding and managing risks, and not being completely risk averse”. Winslow continues, “It is especially difficult for struggling communities, such as Lynn for deep systemic reasons. But, seeking opportunities to improve the community even by piece by piece can deviate a community from overwhelming crisis management.” Winslow wishes for strong cyclist leadership in Lynn.
Currently, The Bike To Sea Organization presides over the stewardship phase. Collaboration with Malden resident, Clay Larson of Groundwork Somerville is key for stewardship, by providing consistency in management and raising project money through grants. Volunteers vary in numbers for cleanup days but large projects such as the Malden Community Garden, major cleanups and construction need a paid coordinator. The national organization, Groundwork, makes this possible.
Malden lacks a bike shop. There are a couple of bike shops in Medford and Lynn that cater to mountain biking. Wealthy communities can support a brick and mortar bike shop. There is a seasonal demand in Malden. “There are community non-profit models like Bikes Not Bombs in Boston where in the busy summer months, you have mechanics working on bikes and during the slow months, you run grant driven programs, like Earn-A-Bike. Ultimately, you train youth to become bike mechanics. We have an application submitted with the Malden Enrichment Center and possibly the Malden YMCA to join in and work with at-risk youth.” Bike to Sea Organization is planning to have a pop-up bike shop on the trail during this spring. Depending on its success, a bike shop may appear on the Malden section of the Northern Strand Trail where the whole community can gather.
The future includes further extensions through Everett, trail improvements and maintenance and commitment from the city of Lynn to complete their section. The City of Malden wants to create designated street access to the trail. Winslow continues, “The City of Malden needs in-house staff and technical expertise in transportation to create fundamental improvements for a cycling and pedestrian focused community. Moderating automobile speeds with properly constructed raised crosswalks is crucial for safety.”
The Northern Strand Trail is a designated trail of the urban East Coast Greenway, a future 2900 mile traffic-free route that will link major cities along the Atlantic Coast: Calais, Maine to Key West, Florida. The Northern Strand Trail is a crucial link for the East Coast Greenway Boston connection. The Massachusetts Committee Chair of the Greenway was born in Everett and worked in the Malden Cycle Center, years back. Winslow boasts, “the Greenway designation proves that our trail is not only a great neighborhood trail, it is an important regional trail, it is an important state trail, it is an important national trail.”
The twenty-fourth Bike to the Sea Ride will be held on June 12. Registration is open for everyone and is available on the Bike to the Sea website: http://biketothesea.com