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Happy Trails for Hoosiers

Thousands of miles of bike, pedestrian paths help residents stay active and healthy

State and local leaders hope a massive investment in bike trails will be a pathway to economic development and a better quality of life for residents.

Gov. Mitch Daniels, R, thinks so highly of the trails that in 2006 his administration outlined a $200 million plan to increase the bike-pedestrian paths in the state, ensuring that every resident lives within 7.5 miles of a pathway by 2016.

"We're pushing to grow as quickly as possible," said Bob Bronson, section chief for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. "We want to get people out of their cars and riding their bikes or walking as much as possible."

Four years into the project, 350 miles of trails have been added in all parts of Indiana, for a total of 2,348 miles of off-road recreational paths.

Bike trails are an important part of AARP's livable communities initiative, said Martin DeAgostino, AARP Indiana communications director.

"As people age — in addition to affordable and accessible housing — they should be able to get around easily and safely," DeAgostino said. "Dedicated recreational trails and bike lanes give people a way to stay active and enjoy their community."

Every week, about 20,000 people run, walk or bike the Monon Trail that bisects northern Indianapolis and continues as the Monon Greenway into the affluent suburb of Carmel. Shops and restaurants are springing up along the bike path. In fact, Carmel City Councilman Ron Carter, R, attributes a large part of the success of the $500 million City Center project to the Monon.

"The Monon is an amenity, like our version of beachfront property in the Carolinas," said Carter, who spent several years as executive director of the Greenways Foundation. "City Center might not be here without the Monon attracting the development community."

One software company attributed the proximity of the Monon as the reason it leased space in a nearby building. "It was something they felt they could offer as an important lifestyle benefit to their employees," Carter said.

Jim Creamer of Carmel started taking casual bike rides on the Monon several years ago and quickly became hooked.

"I just started riding more and kept going farther and farther," said Creamer, 51. "At first, I never felt safe riding on the street, but on the Monon I could ride down to downtown Indianapolis. … Before, I'd go to the gym to stay fit, but I wouldn't really enjoy myself. When I'm on my bike, I'm enjoying myself, and a by-product happens to be staying fit."

State officials hope the trails also will attract people from outside Indiana. The Cardinal Greenway is the largest continuous paved trail in the state, stretching about 50 miles from Gaston to Richmond. With a planned connection to the Nickel Plate rail trail, which traverses Miami, Fulton and Howard counties, officials hope to create more than 150 miles of continuous trail on the northeast side of the state.

Officials envision the Cardinal Greenway and other trails becoming tourist attractions, especially for people who want to bike on trails spanning more than 100 miles. They'll also see a slice of Hoosier life they wouldn't notice from the interstate.

Although the current trail plan will be completed in 2016, Bronson doesn't think the trail building will stop there.

Bikers will "want to continue to the next community, connect to that next trail. They want more. We've seen workers finish laying trail, and people are on it before it even has time to cool off," he said.

Robert Annis is a journalist who lives in Indianapolis.

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