Millions of people in thousands of places across the country are lucky — they have a trail in their community.
Since the country’s first rail-trail, the Elroy Sparta in Wisconsin, was converted from an old, unused railroad line in the 1960s, more than 23,000 miles of rail-trails and more than 31,000 miles of multiuse trails have been built, cutting ribbons of green into the nation’s landscape. Every state has at least three rail-trails.
These trails are powerful — and incredibly important. They connect us to each other and the places we live. They connect us to our neighbors, providing public space to enjoy each other’s company. They connect us to our families, offering safe places for children, parents and grandparents to walk or cycle together. And they connect us to nature, protecting our open spaces and preserving places of beauty that quiet the mind and refresh the spirit.
The vast majority of these trails are well loved and heavily used. But we have not yet maximized their capacity because they were originally conceived as individual trails, not as segments of larger systems designed to connect people and places.
With thousands of trails on the ground, new opportunities exist to leverage trails for people-powered connectivity — investing in and focusing on strategically filling gaps between trails to create powerful, connected trail systems that get people where they want to go on foot or by bike. This is an opportunity to create a future where trail systems are at the heart of healthy, thriving communities, and where more communities leverage trails for a reputation as walkable, bikeable and livable places — helping them compete for new residents, new businesses and new tourists.
Strategic investments in walking and biking infrastructure do give places a competitive edge. There are proven outcomes associated with trail networks. Communities are stronger, healthier, happier and better connected when trails and active transportation are woven into their DNA.
For example, trail and active transportation networks create the infrastructure that expands transportation options by making it safe and convenient to walk and bike as modes of transportation. As trail systems grow, they stimulate economic activity — everything from new trailside businesses and commercial opportunities along the route, to trail-oriented development and tourism that brings new dollars into the community. Comprehensive trail systems encourage health and wellness by helping us build routine physical activity into our daily lives. Trails also contribute to a healthy environment by protecting precious open space while encouraging active modes of transportation that reduce air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change.
Arguably most important, trails have the opportunity to promote equity in our communities. As we plan new trails and strategize ways to fill gaps in trail systems, we have the responsibility to ensure that the benefits trails bring are equitably shared by everyone in the community. In this scenario, trails become safe routes to everywhere for everyone.
The trails movement is powerful. We’ve built and protected tens of thousands of miles of trails. Today, we have the opportunity to expand our work and take trails to a new level. By focusing on connectivity, we can create regional trail systems with rail-trails as the spines.
At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, we are working in close partnership with local communities to create a portfolio of model projects _ TrailNation projects — that demonstrates the benefits of regional trail and active transportation systems. This work in the San Francisco Bay area, southeast Wisconsin, the industrial Heartland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Miami and southeast Texas is designed to catalyze the development of trail networks nationwide.
These projects bring our trail network vision to life. They’re literally laboratories where we can test our theories about the transformative power of trails and the tools we have created to ensure we’re building trail systems efficiently and equitably.
Amid celebration of the start of the spring trail season, we must commit to the advocacy and hard work that’s needed to ensure these vital community assets continue to be cared for, expanded and connected.
A future where trails are at the heart of healthy, thriving communities is already being realized in places across the country. Now, the opportunity is before us to expand that vision and connect the country by trail — to connect our trail nation and enjoy the myriad benefits it will bring.
Keith Laughlin is the president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation’s largest trails organization and the organizers of Opening Day for Trails, an annual national celebration that marks the start of the spring trail season.