It's a cold afternoon in Ypsilanti's snow-covered downtown. The Eastern Michigan students are out, wearing winter coats big enough to cover a hatchback. The cars on the road, covered in that dingy winter film of salt and dirty snow, are on a stop and go through the one-way streets of Depot Town. Meanwhile the Huron River's surface is at a standstill, frozen.
Yet, as if it is a spring day, there is someone out there running. Wearing black spandex pants, gloves, and a winter mask, making a turn from Huron to Jarvis along the county's designated Border-to-Border Trail, an ongoing project linking Ford and Portage lakes by a 35-mile non-motorized, multi-use path following the Huron River.
The runner looks like a ninja, dressed in all black, bundled up against the cold air, following the little apple green signs tacked to corner poles with "B2B" blazoned across them. It was cold, bitter cold, which didn't seem to bother this runner at all.
"You don't build a bridge for the amount of people who swim across the river," says Bob Tetens, director of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreations Commission (WCPARC) and one of the brains behind the B2B Trail. "You build a bridge for the amount of people who will use it." Many years ago during a public meeting about this very thing – the Washtenaw County trail system – an older woman stood up and said those words. Something, Tetens says, he has never forgotten. "That's a perfect analogy for the Border-to-Border.
"We can't build it and expect 350 people to use it right away on a daily basis," he says. "We build it and people get accustomed to it, they see what it is, what it can be, and it grows from there."
Tetens has been working toward trail connection in Washtenaw since the 1980s. "I've spent a good part of the last 27-28 years committed on these trails," he says. And while the trails and metro parks along the Huron have always been a draw for hikers and bikers, outdoorsy types, and families to come to Washtenaw County, the buzz about a the B2B Trail didn't begin, in earnest, until 1998.
Now, a decade later, the concept has grown on all sides. Tetens says the B2B Trail is more than just a safe place for your 9-year-old to ride a bike without the threat of speeding cars or a picturesque spot for a morning run. Though it is, indeed, both those things, the trail is goes beyond providing a point of recreation to offer a more rounded, social aspect for not only the communities it runs through, but also Washtenaw County and Michigan as a whole.
Of course, recreation and the push for a healthier lifestyle is a good start. Michigan was the 10th fattest state in the nation in 2008, according to the yearly CalorieLab study. It's no surprise then that the Washtenaw County Public Health Department as well as the Ypsilanti Health Coalition and the healthy living program Washtenaw Steps Up helped produced the B2B Trail's Ypsilanti area map.
Yet the trail goes further than just trimming the waistline.
"We're changing lifestyles and behavior here," Tetens says. "It's more than just this trail or that trail; there is a larger expansion here. It might take a generation but we have to change behavior. People will first get involved with the trail for more recreation and gradually they'll start to see it as a transportation alternative."
Right now the B2B Trail, supported by a collaboration of communities and a countless number of public and private organizations throughout Washtenaw County, is about 60 percent complete; the last 40 percent is mostly rural, running from northern Ann Arbor to Portage Lake. The completed sections follow the river from Ford Lake in the south of Washtenaw, cutting through downtown Ypsi and Depot Town, around EMU and St. Joseph's, up through Ann Arbor and the hospital, and pulling in at Huron Bridge Park. There are also sections up through Dexter – always following the river – that are completed, as well.
The paths through these areas lend perfectly to a non-motorized lifestyle, slipping through the middle of the busy downtowns of both Ypsi and Ann Arbor, while connecting the two of them. "The Border-to-Border Trail connects some unique spots – Depot Town for one," says Tom Freeman, deputy director of the WCPARC. "It's a great way to get somewhere in a different fashion."
Tetens evokes Dwight Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System and how Ike's idea made the connection and transportation to major U.S. cities across the nation quick and easy. This trail through Washtenaw County could do the same but with non-motorized travel.
"Think about the Border-to-Border Trail as a form of transportation," Tetens says. "Like what the interstate system did for the U.S. but on a more personal scale. This thing can grow like a cancer. It can be a spoke that connects all (Washtenaw) communities together. We want this to be like an intrastate trail system."
Freeman says that they are reaching out to areas off the B2B Trail who are looking to link up, offering neighboring communities an alternative mode of transportation to places like Ypsi and Ann Arbor.
"We're working together with a Pittsfield/Saline group to effectively design a project that will connect (trails) to Ann Arbor," he says. "We're not interested in building trails within a community, but building trails that will connect to that community."
Other cities like Madison, Wis., and everyone's favorite model of progressive development, Portland, Ore., have been outrageously successful with linking non-motorized travel paths through their cities and counties. And though the populations of places like Portland are much more dense than Ypsi, Ann Arbor, or Washtenaw County, Freeman says they offer good distinctive models to follow. Hopefully we'll emulate their successes, as well.
"Trails like this are a draw to places like Portland," Coy Vaughn, superintendent of the WCPARC. "Young people want to live and work in areas with non-motorized networks like this. Something like this will bring people here."
Vaughn says that the B2B network could also assist the local economy.
"There will be more and more interest in this from businesses and restaurants. It can be an economic and entertainment boost," he says. He explains that people on their bikes will want to go somewhere, not just to and from work or school. "There is a draw for so many things," he says.
Still, the trail is not quite where it needs to be. Luckily, the issue isn't if it gets done, it's when. And funding isn't the problem, it's spending it, Vaughn says.
Getting the right of way from private landowners along various points has proven to be the biggest obstacle to the B2B Trail. Tetens says people are afraid of losing their privacy, being so close to the trail. He's certain, however, that ten years from now they'll list their houses as being near a "scenic, picturesque, networked trail system." He smiles at this.
But, Tetens would like to remind everyone that B2B is not just about scenery, or picture postcard moments.
"We want to connect the community and have this be an active center that is safe and inviting for the family and to use this as a recreational experience, of course," he says. "But we also want to show that there is a viable alternative to cars here. We can have an integrated transportation system in this region and not be so heavily biased toward automobiles. It's in our culture, but we can change that."
Terry Parris Jr.
Tom Freeman, Bob Tetens, and Coy Vaughn Looking Over the Expansive Border 2 Border Trail-Ann Arbor
The Summer Version of the B2B(Can't Wait!!!)-Courtesy of B2B
Tom Freeman-Deputy Director of Washtenaw County Parks
The Winter Version of the B2B-Ford Lake Ypsilanti
All Photos by Dave Lewinski (except where noted)
Dave Lewinski is Concentrates Managing Photographer. He fishes the B2B trail.