Scientist Bruce Ellsworth gets his best ideas when he’s operating a device that was invented two centuries ago.
Ellsworth, the head of Fibrosis Discovery Chemistry at Bristol-Myers Squibb, lives in West Windsor. While thousands of drivers are careening down his town’s Alexander and Washington Roads on the way to Princeton Junction train station every weekday morning, battling over narrow, scarce parking spaces and then warily navigating the treacherous commuter warrens of Penn Stations Newark and New York before actually getting to work, Ellsworth is going in the opposite direction, pedaling his bicycle along a bucolic stretch of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail.
“Earlier this week I saw American goldfinches for the first time this year,” Ellsworth said recently. “I’ve stopped and snapped photos of sunrises. The sights are amazing.”
Ellsworth began working at BMS in 1988 after earning a Ph.D. at University of California Berkley and doing postdoctorate work at UC Irvine. Spotting songbirds, watching foxes, and yielding to herds of deer and other wildlife have been part of his workday since 2000, when he began making the bike commute. Riding on the LHT, the 14-mile route to BMS campus in Pennington takes an hour in comfortable temperatures, a bit over that in winter.
While Ellsworth is a long-time bicyclist and riding advocate, he credits the LHT with not only making making him a higher-performing employee, but also with enhancing his mood.
“I am just a much happier person when I get home, even more so when I’m on the LHT,” says Ellsworth. “The most interesting thing about riding is the serenity, and being away from traffic. I’m reminded of a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that when you’re sitting in a car, it’s like you’re watching TV. You don’t notice things like the color of fall leaves unless you’re out there on a bike, or walking.
“It makes me happy!”
It makes Becky Taylor happy, too. Taylor is the founder and co-president of the LHT, a 22-mile loop trail through Hopewell and Lawrence Townships (18.7 miles are complete and open to the public, the remainder is estimated to be completed in two to four years). Taylor was senior director of the corporate and business communications department at Bristol-Myers Squibb when she originally conceived the idea.
As the former communications director and press secretary for Gov. Christine Whitman and who now owns her own public affairs agency with an office in Lambertville, Taylor has the knowledge and skills to get people motivated to do something.
But the inspiration for the LHT didn’t originate solely from a strategy meeting in a conference room.
As a resident of Hopewell Valley, Taylor had been bothered by the fact that there was no good way for kids to be able to connect with their friends if they didn’t live in the exact same neighborhood. “It wasn’t safe to ride a bike on the roads in a lot of areas,” says Taylor, a mother.
A visit to Stowe, the renowned Vermont outdoor recreation town that’s laced with hiking trails and paths, helped inspire the idea. “There are lovely winding trails connecting everything there,” says Taylor.
And then there was the accident. “At one point, when we were living in Hopewell Borough, my husband was riding a bike up 518 from the Borough toward Rocky Hill, and an elderly woman driver hit him on his bike and threw him on the side of the road.
“He was lucky that he lived, no broken bones. But it scared me.”
More inspiration, certainly unpleasant, but it helped lead to her vision. “It all came together after that,” says Taylor. “I was working at BMS in 2001 and we had three major facilities in the area. When we dealt with appointed and elected officials, and the townspeople, and the county, sometimes there were concerns about the impact we had on roadways.
“At the same time we were looking for ways to clearly demonstrate our commitment to being good corporate citizens. We thought a good way to do that would be to see if we could engage others in a joint project. We were looking to, number one, create a trail for biking. But we also wanted to change in a positive way the dynamics of regulator and ‘regulatee.’ We wanted to get to know each other as people,” she says.
No one owns the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail. As Taylor puts it, the LHT is a ‘public-private compact, the first of its kind.’
In 2002 Taylor took what she calls “a crazy, bold step” and invited representatives of Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Mercer County, the state Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Protection, and other key community players to a meeting.
“We said we have an idea that all of you might want to work on together,” remembers Taylor. “Everyone showed up. We had 30-35 people there. It was unbelievable.”
Taylor knew that interest in the trail was one thing. Long-term commitment was another—and she found it in Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes.
One of the first meetings we had was with Brian,” remembers Taylor. “He looked at Eleanor (Horne, the other co-president of the LHT) and me and said ‘Nobody believes that you’re going to do this. Nobody. I’m not sure I believe it.’”
But Hughes has remained a steadfast supporter throughout the project. “Frankly, I thought the proposal was daunting, and it actually was,” says Hughes. “Yet I was captured by the enthusiasm that Eleanor and Becky brought to the table. Despite their inexperience, they were persuasive and passionate, and very quickly garnered public and private support.”
Hughes’ backing provided Taylor with faith when she and Horne encountered numerous challenges along the way—especially when trying to carve a trail through the Carson Road Woods, which is now a 183-acre public preserve adjacent to BMS Lawrenceville.
“BMS had just spent a million dollars to preserve that piece of property, because a developer wanted to go in there and build houses,” says Taylor. “The homeowners in the area didn’t want that. BMS didn’t want that. The D&R Greenway came up with funds to buy the property, and BMS came up with the last million.
“Then, when we said we wanted to put the trail through there, not everyone was enthusiastic about it. One homeowner in Carson Road Woods said ‘This is a trail to nowhere,’ and did everything he could to fight it. He pressed local officials so they would not approve the trail going through the property…after all these funds were spent to preserve it. The naysayers there prevailed for years.”
Fortunately, negativity was not the norm. “Down the road, in the Foxcroft neighborhood, we had the total opposite reaction,” remembers Taylor. “Homeowners were delighted. One of the neighbors hosted us for a community meeting, the neighbors came in, we talked about what we’d done, what we wanted to do, and they were delighted. Same thing at Princeton Farms off of Pennington Rocky Hill Road. They couldn’t have been more welcoming of us.
“On the other hand, on another section of the trail, owners of a farm that was on a critical portion of the trail—we couldn’t go around it—they just just did not want the trail to go through there. We finally got our approvals,” says the perseverant Taylor. “It took 13 years.”
No one owns the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail. As Taylor puts it, the LHT is a “public-private compact, the first of its kind.” An intrinsic value has not been determined, but County Executive Hughes points out that the worth of the LHT is manifested in several ways.
“The trail adds value as a community amenity, both in increased property values along the trail and as a recreational resource,” says Hughes. “The trail has created stronger relationships between Lawrence and Hopewell Township officials and residents, as they have a common goal and resource to focus upon.
“The increase in property value is anecdotal, but it is consistent with studies that have been done elsewhere on this subject,” says Hughes. “We know that real-estate brokers now advertise the proximity of a home to the trail as a selling point.”
Beth Kearns, a real estate agent with Callaway Henderson Sotheby, does just that. Kearns lives in Lawrence and moved back to the region with her husband in 2002, to raise their children in the area they both grew up in, and love. The LHT is key, because it factors in both her personal and professional life.
“I’m on the trails every single day with either our kids or our dog, walking or biking,” says Kearns, who was an executive at Hearst Media before getting involved in the real estate business. Kearns participates in numerous local activities, from serving on the Board of Directors at the Trenton Country Club to being PTO president of Lawrenceville Elementary School, and knows first-hand how significant the LHT is to residents.
Of course, the value of any road or trail stems directly from its use. It has to go somewhere that people want to go.
That’s why connections are key to the success of the LHT, which links to the Mercer Meadows trail system, the Pennington Connector Trail, and the D&R Canal Trail. Those connections provide direct access to the LHT for thousands of area residents.
Ellsworth, who lives within walking distance of the D&R trail in West Windsor, is intimately familiar with the need for connectivity. “If I live 10 miles of horrendous roads away from the LHT, I’m not going to ride it. But with the connecting D&R Canal Trail, the connection for me is nearly seamless.”
ETS Spokesman Tom Ewing says that about a dozen employees bike their way to work, and easily half use the LHT to get there.
These days, Ellsworth works at the BMS location on Carter Road in Hopewell Township. He still occasionally rides there, though the 9-mile route puts him on more roadways (“The worst part is the intersection of Carter Road and Elm Ridge Road,” Ellsworth says). The remaining unfinished leg of the LHT will, once complete, allow Ellsworth to take the trail through the Educational Testing Service property and up to his new location.
Taylor says Mercer County is trying to make even more connections throughout the region, so that even more people can access the LHT. And those connections will link to more than neighborhoods and corporate campuses.
“If you ride to Brearley House on the LHT and connect with the D&R Canal trail, you can go to Maine or Florida,” says Taylor. That’s because the LHT and D&R trails are part of a larger trail system called The Circuit Trails, a continually growing network of trails in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that in turn is part of the 3000-mile East Coast Greenway trail system.
LHT co-president Eleanor Horne says that a counter on the trail at the Keith Road entrance to Village Park indicated that that one segment—which is not the most heavily used segment of the LHT—gets 69,000 user visits in a year. Horne extrapolated that figure to come up with an estimate of 1.2 million user visits annually for the entire trail.
“The counter can distinguish between walkers and bikers,” says Horne. “Some trail segments might have more bikers than walkers and some more walkers. We know that 60 percent of our users are walkers and 40 percent bikers.”
ETS Spokesman Tom Ewing says that about a dozen employees bike their way to work, and easily half use the LHT to get there. Most coming from the south use the route through Carson Road Woods to get there.
BMS has 30 regular bike commuters among its three area locations, according to the director of community affairs, Lisa McCormick Lavery, an avid user of the trail herself. BMS also provides a bike share program out of their Princeton Pike and Route 206 locations, with the goal of getting employees out of the office and onto the trail so they can clear their heads and get some exercise. And that’s the other aspect of the trail that’s so important to so many residents.
Horne says that the trail was designed to be family-friendly and handicapped-accessible to the fullest extent possible. “It is not the kind of trail that a Lance Armstrong might want to ride,” she says. “It is designed for young children, families, senior citizens.”
And it provides more than just a place to work out, Horne notes. “You can ride an exercise bike or run on a treadmill in your basement or a gym, and burn the same number of calories or rack up the same mileage. What you will not experience is the glory of being outside, of feeling a breeze on your face or the warmth of the sun. You will not pass through a canopy of trees and emerge by Rosedale Lake. You will not hear birds chirping or see a butterfly.”
“You will not,” says Horne, “restore your soul.”
Which Bruce Ellsworth knows very well.