by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
The United States is finally promoting walking, bicycling and other forms of active transportation within a system that has been dominated by cars for over a century.
Thanks to complete-street policies long advocated by Ecocity Builders and other organizations, responsible engineers now design rights of way with safety features that encourage people to use their own legs for shorter trips. For example, over half of all trips in the US could be accomplished with a 20-minute bike ride, which is why many communities are addressing their congestion problems by building protected bike lanes instead of adding more lanes for automobiles.
When connectivity is added to walkability and bike-ability, active transportation becomes an even more viable option for traveling to school, work, shopping, and other everyday destinations. Well-connected active-transportation networks reduce congestion, pollution, GHG emissions, noise, healthcare costs, and traffic-related injuries while generating trail-related economic development, employment, and improved property values. Successful eco-mobility systems also allow families to eliminate one or all of their motor vehicles, a move that takes expenses that primarily flow out of a community (like gas, insurance premiums, and the cost of the car itself) and redirects those savings to purchases more likely to benefit local economies (Pruetz 2021).
A study published by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy estimates economic benefits of $138.5 billion per year could result from implementation of a substantial nationwide active-transportation system Although most of this benefit would be attributable to savings in healthcare and fuel costs, $21 billion would result from spending generated by rail trails. The key to achieving substantial benefits is connectivity achieved by connecting trails and linking cities, counties, and states to create a nationwide network (Bhattacharya, T. et. al. 2019).
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a leading advocate for connectivity. This non-profit organization guides the development of the Great American Rail Trail, a 3,700-mile, cross country trail to be formed by linking existing trails in 12 states between Washington D.C. and the Pacific Coast in Washington State. To date, roughly half of the total mileage is open and the proposed route lies within 50 miles of 50 million people, a sizeable constituency for this ambitious project.
Through an effort named TrailNation, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy invests in projects and collaborations that connect communities with active transportation systems. TrailNation and its partners are currently focused on trail networks in Baltimore and seven regions in all corners of the country: San Francisco Bay (2,500 miles), the Lower Rio Grande Valley (428 miles), the Washington, D.C. region (800 miles), Greater Philadelphia (800 miles), Greater Miami (225 miles), Wisconsin (700 miles), and 51 counties in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia (1,500 miles) (TrailNation 2022).
Wisconsin’s Route of the Badger illustrates how diverse benefits flow from interconnected trail networks. In announcing a $6.3-million grant from the federal Transportation Alternatives Program for six trail segments in the Badger State, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy recited how connected trails unlock opportunities for health, recreation, and local economies: “A recent RTC study found that the net economic impact of trails and active transportation annually in Wisconsin is as much as $1.5 billion, including direct user spending of $686 million and health costs avoided of $833 million – economic benefits that increase exponentially as the connectivity between trails, people and places improves” (Brooks 2020).
As an example of hyper-connectivity, the 225-mile Miami LOOP includes a segment of the East Coast Greenway planned to ultimately stretch for 3,000 seamless miles, linking 450 communities in 15 states from Florida to Maine. In 2020, the East Coast Greenway was home to 50 million walks, runs, and bike rides, making it the nation’s most popular park. Even though it is far from being finished, the East Coast Greenway demonstrates how much it pays to make connections.
Bhattacharya, T. et. al. Active Transportation Transforms America: The Case for Increased Public Investment in Walking and Biking Connectivity (Washington, D.C.: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2019)
Brooks, P. New Federal Grants Deliver Momentum for Southeast Wisconsin’s 700-mileTrail Network. Accessed 2-8-22 at https://www.railstotrails.org/resource-library/resources/new-federal-grants-deliver-momentum-for-southeast-wisconsin-s-700-mile-trail-network/.
Pruetz, R. Prosperity Comes in Cycles: Bikeways and the Virtuous Cycle. (Arje Press, 2021.)
TrailNation. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 2022. Accessed 2-8-22 at https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/.