So, you’ve just arrived in the city and you’re a regular walker, runner or a cyclist? Awesome! Here’s a few things to get you oriented.
Places to walk, run or ride:
As an industrial city that matured in the 1920s, and that then experienced white flight to the suburbs in the seventies and eighties, this region is built for people who have cars. It has not been built to enhance pedestrian mobility (although things are changing and work is underway). Compared to other metro areas, the population is very spread out and is low-density. Trail development is limited. If you live in the suburbs, most people will need to drive to any off-road start points.
Most municipalities in the region (there are 37) are incorporating plans to improve pedestrian and cyclist accessibility into their plans for future development. That being said, here is where to go now:
Mountain Brook – In 2013 the City of Mountain Brook, Birmingham’s wealthiest suburb, completed a major expansion of the city sidewalk system. The result has been a network of winding concrete sidewalks along side the suburb’s well-forested narrow arterial roads, with additional sidewalks under construction.
As well, the Jemison Trail offers 5 miles of off-road mixed gravel, dirt and sidewalk from the south end of Mountain Brook Village (shopping district) along a creek south to Mountain Brook Parkway and through Mountain Brook’s first park. There are roadside parallel parking areas close to where the trail crosses major roadways, at the western end of Mountain Brook Parkway, and at the eastern end of the trail along Overbrook Road.
Homewood – Shades Creek Greenway, which runs parallel to Lakeshore Parkway. Eastern access point (and parking) off of the western end of the Brookwood Mall. Park opposite Target (south side) and walk west along the sidewalk. Currently 3 miles long, the trail is being extended to West Homewood Park as part of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail system, and will eventually connect with the Jemison Trail to the east.
Downtown Birmingham – There are more cyclists venturing out on the streets – and more to come with the city’s new Zyp bike share program. That being said, be aware that driver behavior around cyclists has only begun to shift – and everyone needs an educational public safety campaign regarding safe behavior! (See Bici Coop’s list of state laws regarding cycling., and the new 3-foot passing law that came into effect September 1st, 2015.) Obey the rules of the road, signal clearly, use lights and treat all drivers as potential killing machines unless you have made eye contact, and confirmed that they see you and aren’t fiddling with their phones. Many novice adult cyclists are riding on sidewalks or against traffic, and are not using lights. The unpredictable behavior patterns are creating problems for pedestrians, other cyclists, and drivers.
Rail Road Park has a 3/4 mile walking/jogging loop. The Rotary Trail (estimated completion – spring 2015) starts a few blocks further east on 20th Street, and will run to 24th Street, where it will connect with the Jones Valley Trail out to Sloss Furnace.
UAB – UAB’s 2015 draft campus master plan emphasizes walkability and cycling access. Roads through campus have been marked over the past four years as “sharrows” and some have designated cycling lanes. There is good sidewalk infrastructure, making this a good area for walkers, runners and cyclists.
BIrmingham-Southern College’s TrekBirmingham project is keeping tabs on the developing city walks. Check out their trail listings and descriptions.
Parks and nature reserves
- Oak Mountain State Park to the south of Birmingham has extensive hiking and cycling trails (see the Google Map rendering of the trails). See the Alabama State Park website for a complete list of regional state parks and facilities.
- Ruffner Mountain Nature Reserve, former site of one of the region’s mines, has an extensive walking trail system with several access points. These include the main entrance and a trail head opposite the Irondale Ball Park.
- Red Mountain Park, another former mine site donated by U.S. Steel, is the region’s newest park. Has 14 miles of trails, with additional trails and facilities in progress. Access off of Frankfurt Dr.
- The Birmingham Bicycle Club
- BUMP (Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedallers)
- Black People Run Bike and Swim
- M3 (Magic City Cycle Chix) – a women’s road and mountain bike riding group.
- Bici Coop, a cooperative bicycle maintenance, education, culture and riding group
- Redemptive Cycles, community-focused bicycle outreach and maintenance non-profit.
Most of the older neighborhoods in the city core have sidewalks. Most suburbs built after WWII do not. If you are walking or riding on the roads, especially narrow, dark ones (most suburban streets don’t have street lights — and even in the urban neighborhoods, they aren’t great) please ensure you do the following:
- Walking or running: Walk facing traffic and be prepared to step off the road. Ensure that you are wearing reflective gear or a reflective vest in the pre-dawn, at dusk and at night.
- Cycling: Ride with traffic, assume that all vehicles are out to get you. Be prepared to yield the road on narrower laneways. Use lights, reflective markers and a safety vest.
In many of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, neighbors keep an eye out and will call police if they see someone that they think is out of place. What does that mean for cyclists, walkers and runners? Dress for exercise, especially if you have a darker skin color. Signal clearly that you are out for exercise and not to case their home — especially if you aren’t pretty when you sweat. (This is based on my personal experience.) Carry ID, a credit card and some money and your phone. If a foreign student or foreign national, have a photocopy of your visas with you.
Don’t assume that police will treat you the same as they did in your home country or region. While most are professional and courteous, their assumptions are going to vary depending the neighborhood, situation, and your manner. Be polite when dealing with them. Most American cops in this area are trained to rapidly remove danger to themselves — but not in ways that will necessarily be safe for you. Birmingham police are increasingly wearing body cameras. Ask that this be turned on during your encounter.
The region’s legacy of systemic racism has historically impeded co-operative community development efforts between municipalities, organizations and racial groups. Over the past twenty years, many people have worked to bridge the fault lines — but many others have been content with the status quo. The Jefferson County Library Cooperative and the developing Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, a regional off-road trail network, are two great examples of regional cooperation. They show what is possible going forward.