By Kevin Mills
Most people agree that good schools are critical to high-quality cities, and many recognize other community assets as essential, such as libraries and stadiums. Multi-use trails are less often seen as essential infrastructure to cities aspiring to attract people and sustain a high quality of life.
Trails are safe, convenient, enjoyable places where residents can walk, bike and connect with neighbors; but what makes trails transformational for communities?
These are five of my favorite ways in which free, public, multi-use trails transform communities:
Trails are transportation corridors, connecting people to the places that they need to go. Urban trails are heavily used for commuting and other utilitarian trip. As for roads and rails, our trail builders focus on seamless trail networks that connect to key destinations such as schools, transit facilities, shops and entertainment.
Trails also connect people to each other, serving as social infrastructure to build strong neighborhood and personal bonds. In addition, they serve as linear parks, providing urban residents with easy access to the outdoors and nature.
2. Health and safety
Building healthy places for healthy people is embedded in Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s mission. More than 60 percent of people in the United States fail to get the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity each week, and 25 percent are completely inactive. Millions of Americans use trails to become more active and the low-stress, traffic-free environment entices people of all ages and abilities.
With transportation being the second biggest drain on household budgets, affordable mobility options are critical for lower income families to make ends meet.
Safe places to walk or ride are a critical option given rising pedestrian and bicycle fatalities and serious injuries. Pedestrian traffic deaths alone stand about 6,000 per year, representing 15 percent of total fatalities and a 35 percent increase over a decade.
3. Protecting the environment
Miles walked or biked for a utilitarian purpose replace car trips, making an incremental contribution to reducing emissions associated with climate change. In 2014, a Congressional pilot program documented 85 million driving miles avoided across four communities. Shifting short car trips to non-polluting travel modes has an even greater impact in cutting air pollution as cars pollute far more when first started. Greenways and trails provide additional environmental benefits, such as safe corridors for wildlife to travel.
4. Economic development:
Trails are in high demand, and proximity to them can make a place more attractive. In fact, small towns which have been hit hard by job losses have redeveloped around trails. Cumberland, Maryland, for example, a once booming coal mining town that experienced decades of decline, has found new vitality by catering to trail users.
In an urban context, the economic boost can manifest as increased foot traffic for stores and restaurants, as well as new trailside businesses and residences. In neighborhoods where residents may experience pressures to leave because of rising costs, deploying policies and tools to prevent physical or cultural displacement can help mitigate unintended negative consequences.
5. Social equity
With transportation being the second biggest drain on household budgets, affordable mobility options are critical for lower income families to make ends meet. Trails are part of the solution for those who cannot drive due to the high costs of car ownership, age or disability. With nearly half of all trips in the United States within a 20-minute bike ride, and more than 1 in 5 trips within a 20-minute walk, active transportation is a practical choice. For longer trips, urban trails often connect to transit facilities, enabling residents to safely access public transportation.
Further, rail-trails are relatively flat and highly accessible for persons with disabilities. Lower-income neighborhoods and persons of color have even more to gain from access to trails, given higher average incidences of chronic diseases associated with inactivity and less access to green outdoor spaces. California has recognized these needs and requires that a share of active transportation funds flow to disadvantaged communities.
As the benefits of trails are remarkable and the cost minimal, they are among the biggest bargains for fostering and maintaining sustainable cities. Many local leaders passionately support trails given their popularity and the wide array of benefits that they provide. So, what do we need to do better to fully realize the potential for trails to transform American communities?
The top line answer is that federal, state and municipal governments need to give greater priority to trail networks. These are three critical next steps to elevate trails as essential assets.
A mere penny and a half of federal surface transportation dollars go to trails, walking and biking. Reauthorization of the federal transportation law, due in 2020, is an opportunity to strike a better balance and orient more resources to filling strategic gaps in regional networks and spine trails connecting between communities. State DOTs are critical partners. Some, such as Michigan, are actively championing trails, but many do a poor job of allocating federal funds and end up transferring active transportation funds to other purposes. At the same time, more state legislatures have provided dollars for unmet transportation needs, often including trails, walking and biking facilities.
Urban regional planning organizations also receive a share of the federal active transportation dollars and have been doing a marginally better job of deploying them than states. Some standout cities are themselves investing substantially in developing trail networks, while many more find matching funds to leverage federal and/or state funds. The greatest successes come from orchestrating collaboration across these levels of government.
Organize and partner
To develop great trail networks, people need to organize themselves to sustain the political will and focus to succeed. Coalitions of cross-disciplinary supporters need to work together to ensure that the vision and plan for the network unites, rather than divides, the community and leads to equitable outcomes that broadly advance quality of life for all residents.
Trails are among the key community assets that any city aspiring to attract people and sustain a high quality of life should have in ample supply. Federal, state and city governments need to give greater priority to trail networks and partner in providing resources to further develop this critical physical and social infrastructure.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is working deeply in eight regions to develop robust regional trail networks that clearly will transform those cities into more vital places. A driving force in each of these TrailNation projects is a trails vision that focuses on the network the region really needs rather than individual projects that are most ready to move forward. The challenge then becomes how to forge the vision into a plan and then implement the plan in a reasonable timeframe.
Editor’s note: this article was originally posted on GreenBiz
Kevin Mills is vice president of policy at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, where he works to build the active transportation movement and pass federal and state policies that fund and facilitate building of trails and other walking and biking facilities.