Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier

The Swamp Rabbit Trail passes through Falls Park in Greenville on the banks of the Reedy River.

GREENVILLE -- Gary and Sharon Coleman spent a recent sunny Saturday here buying their first new bikes in years so they could discover firsthand what the new Swamp Rabbit Trail is all about.

"Everybody we know talks about it," Coleman said. "We have good friends who bike it every weekend, and I don't think they were bikers at all."

Coleman, 68, said he hasn't biked much since he was a child, adding, "Seventy pounds ago, I used to ride."

Their story is not unique. Ever since the latest portion of the Swamp Rabbit Trail opened last spring -- creating a 13.5-mile-long asphalt trail between the downtown and Travelers Rest -- organizers, politicians and businesses have been pleasantly surprised by the hundreds of people who use it on fair weather days.

The route twists through Greenville's most scenic parks and then follows an old railroad bed. The trail is named after the train that once hopped along a swampy section of track just south of Furman University.

And the Swamp Rabbit is just the most obvious of many elements that make up "Bikeville," the city's initiative to become more cycling friendly. Some Lowcountry bike advocates eye Greenville with a touch of envy.

Don Sparks, a Citadel professor and a member of Charleston Moves, biked the trail recently and came away impressed.

"Greenville is just not afraid to take some modest risk that we seem to be incapable of doing here," he said.

Happy trail

Ty Houck got so excited about the idea of the Swamp Rabbit Trail that he left his job at a nearby state park to help make it a reality.

Houck, now director of Greenways, Natural and Historic Resources for the Greenville County Recreation District, said a recent study showed the trail was used by about 1,200 people a day on average. Weekends are busiest, but more than 700 people still use it during the midweek.

Of those surveyed, 94 percent said they rode it for recreation, while 6 percent were using it to get somewhere.

"People are marketing their homes saying, 'Direct access to the trail,' " he said.

Even a few glitches, such as a short section that crosses a live railroad track and is marked as being out of service (though riders routinely ignore the sign and enforcement appears nonexistent), haven't diminished its glow.

"Anytime anything comes up about the Swamp Rabbit, politicians are very favorable about it," Houck said. "They use it. They hear people talk about how great the trail is."

Houck is proud of some design innovations, such as using live trees in the middle of the trail to warn cyclists about a road crossing. He said it works better than small bollards and looks better, too. "The tree changes colors different times of the year," he said.

Off the trail

Brian Graham, a greenway planner for the city, said he avoids the Swamp Rabbit on weekends because it's so busy.

But its success has fed a demand for more, and he said the city is out to bid on about 1.5 more miles of shared-use trails suitable for cyclists, joggers and pedestrians.

Scott McCrary, whose specialty bike store in downtown Greenville is just a few blocks from the trail, said the trail has been successful in getting people to consider biking again, but it's only part of what the city is focused on.

"Greenways can be a lovely subset to a biking community, but greenways can't be the biking community," he said.

Graham agreed: "These trails are expensive to build, so we're looking at inexpensive ways to get people from their front door to the trail. We can build these bike lanes, etc., much cheaper than we can build trails."

And the city has been doing just that.

It has striped 12 miles of on-street bike lanes in the past five years and another 1.5 miles of Sharrows, a cycling emblem on the street that reminds motorists to share the road. Greenville also has two miles of way-finding routes -- signs that show cyclists how to avoid busy highways while traveling parallel to them.

And the city has four locations with bicycle-sensitive signal detectors -- a spot on the road where a cyclist can stop and cause the traffic signal to change.

Greenville Mayor Knox White has become personally involved. When he noticed cars were cutting a corner and dangerously encroaching on a marked bike lane not far from Cleveland Park, he spoke up. To solve the problem, the city built a small concrete island between the bike and traffic lanes at the start of the curve.

Andrew Meeker, a Greenville planner who heads the Bike- ville initiative, said he spent his first two years on the job just asking questions but since has forged good working relationships with state and federal transportation groups.

Meeker said the city is using Federal Transportation Administration money to link bus routes and bike lanes. For every dollar Greenville spends on such work, it gets 95 cents back from the feds. "That's a great local investment," he said.

But all this is only the beginning. The city is working with consultants Alta Planning + Design on a master bicycle plan, one that will look at ridership patterns, accident statistics and other data to map out what the city should do next.

"When you look nationally, we're still in our infancy stage. We have had some successes certainly, and we appreciate that recognition, but we still have a long ways to go," Meeker said. "The majority of our community doesn't think twice when they just go pick up the keys to their car to make that trip from Point A to Point B."

End of the line?

Joyce and Nancy McCarrell opened a restaurant in an old hardware store near the northern end of the Swamp Rabbit, hoping it would bring them more business. They have not been disappointed.

On a recent sunny Saturday, the sisters estimated 80 percent of their customers at The Cafe at Williams Hardware dropped by before, during or after a turn on the trail.

"By the time we opened (in December 2008), there was activity on the trail. They were not prosecuting trespassers," Joyce McCarrell said. "Once they got it paved, it was 'Katy bar the gate!' "

They took the old store and built a screened deck out back. They encourage bikers to use their restrooms and fill up their water bottles, knowing there's a good chance they'll buy a dessert or beer or something else.

The popularity of the trail already has the city and county laying plans to run it a few miles south to the Lake Conestee Nature Park just south of Greenville.

Supporters also are hopeful that one day they can extend it farther than the Swamp Rabbit railroad companies ever managed to get.

That's why the mile marker at the northern end of the Swamp Rabbit doesn't read zero but rather "23."

That's the planners' best estimate of many more miles they will have to build before reaching the North Carolina line.