Suffolk County launches GEAR Up, an intermunicipal approach to greenway expansion

Suffolk County launches GEAR Up, an intermunicipal approach to greenway expansion

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, left, and Marty Buchman, a member of the board of the New York Bicycling Association. Photo from Bellone’s Flickr page

Suffolk County’s transportation network may soon undergo significant transformation.

In 2020, the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning published its Hike and Bike Master Plan, which calls for 1,200 miles of new pedestrian and biking infrastructure countywide.

To mark Car Free Day on Friday, Sept. 22, county officials joined transit advocates along a bike path in Kings Park, announcing a new program to achieve the goals of this master plan through intermunicipal coordination.

“Today on Car Free Day, I am proud to announce that we are taking our Hike-Bike Master Plan further, taking additional steps to create a safe and comfortable biking environment in Suffolk County,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D).

The new program, GEAR — Guidance for Enhancing Active Recreation — Up Suffolk, will authorize the county’s Department of Economic Development and Planning to provide free technical and design assistance to municipalities to implement active transportation projects. This undertaking aims to help Suffolk’s towns and villages expand trail access by reconfiguring local roadways.

While various trail networks already exist, Bellone said the GEAR Up initiative could help “fill in the gaps” between existing trail infrastructure.

“Where are the gaps? They’re roads,” he said. “In many cases — most cases even — they’re local roads.”

Bellone said the county government seeks to offer conceptual and preliminary designs, conducted in coordination with local municipalities, tailored to meet a community’s needs. 

These proposals may include corridor designs, bike lanes, sidewalks, crosswalks, curb extensions and flashing beacons, among other design elements.

“We want to create an interconnected biking and hiking network that you can use [to] travel across the county,” Bellone said.

Marty Buchman, a member of the board of the New York Bicycling Association, pointed to the deficiencies of past planning and its impacts today on local communities.

“Suffolk County was never designed for the amount of population that it contains right now,” he said. “The roads were designed for a rural county,” adding, “The situation of cars in Suffolk County is going to get worse.”

Buchman advocated for planners and municipalities to view the bicycle as an alternative to the automobile. He suggested trails could help alleviate several of the challenges drivers experience on roadways.

“I’d like to see more paths — not just recreational paths but paths for transportation,” he said, advising “that a bicycle be looked at as more than just a fitness tool or an outdoors tool but a way for people to get from point A to point B.”

He added, “That’s not going to happen without the required or needed infrastructure.”

Bellone outlined multiple benefits of expanding trail access, such as environmental protection, economic development and downtown revitalization.

Amid escalating fears of a youth exodus from Long Island, Bellone said promoting alternative modes of transit can help the county retain and attract young people.

“We are in a competition for innovators, young people, entrepreneurs and skilled workers,” the county executive said. “We want them living in our downtowns. We want them raising their families here because that will bring more jobs, businesses and sustainable economic growth.”

“You get that when you make investments in the things that improve people’s quality of life,” he added.

Buchman referred to hiking and biking infrastructure as an apolitical policy area: “This is not a political issue,” the transit advocate said. “Republicans ride. Democrats ride. People ride.”

In achieving the goals of the master plan, Bellone said intergovernmental collaboration would remain crucial while working toward the objectives of the 2020 master plan. 

“Having an interconnected hiking and biking network throughout Suffolk County helps every community and family across the county,” he said.

The county will accept applications for the GEAR Up program on a rolling basis.