Ecocity Snapshots

The Path to Pathways

One of the many pedestrian-bicycle bridges on the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt.
Written by Rick Pruetz

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

In Prosperity Comes in Cycles, I wrote that people are increasingly seeking alternatives to car dependency though active transportation, meaning walking, bicycling and other forms of human-powered mobility linked to public transportation, all goals of the Ecocity Standards. When trails connect centers of employment, recreation, education, and culture, they also generate residential development aimed at people who prefer ecomobility to fighting traffic. And as trails succeed, they increase business activity, employment, income, property value, and tax revenues in a self-reinforcing upward spiral that spurs additional trail development. I recently experienced another example of this virtuous cycle when visiting Boise, Idaho and studying its visionary Pathways Plan.

The roots of Boise pathways date back to 1969 when the city adopted the Boise River Greenbelt Comprehensive Plan. After 50 years of assembling land, building segments, and closing gaps, Boise had completed its portion of the Greenbelt, which is now a 25-mile system of multi-use trails that largely follow the banks of the Boise River as it tumbles out of the Sawtooth Mountains in southwestern Idaho and greens the towns and farms of southern Idaho in its 102-mile journey to the Snake River. Since 1969, the city has also been growing a vibrant downtown and university adjacent to the Greenbelt corridor as well as locating key destinations with access from the trail including Zoo Boise, the Boise Art Museum, the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, the Discovery Center of Idaho, two golf courses, three nature centers, and 15 parks.

When Boise’s portion of the Greenbelt was completed in 2016, this city of almost 240,000 people was ranked as the fifth most physically active city in the United States. This recognition was partly due to the various outdoor recreational opportunities available here from rafting on the Boise River, mountain biking in the foothills, and downhill skiing at Bogus Basin as well as the opportunities for recreational exercise on the Boise River Greenbelt. At that time, Boise also ranked 4th for the percentage of commuters who bike to work among 114 large cities in the United States. Furthermore, walking, bicycling, and other forms of active transportation had been rising since 2000.

Deciding to double-down on its success, Boise completed its 2016 Transportation Action Plan (TAP) in partnership with Gehl Studio, the international consulting firm founded by a legendary pioneer in livability as well as ecomobility. In addition to creating mobility choices within a balanced transportation system, the plan promotes great places with this simple reminder: “A street is much more then a street. It is where life happens.” Establishing this mindset involves changing the way people think about the public right-of-way to create a cultural shift that treats the automobile not as the primary mode of transportation but as merely one of many transportation choices. Based on this philosophy, the 2016 TAP laid the groundwork for Boise’s Pathways Master Plan.  

In 2022, Boise adopted its Pathways Master Plan aimed at building on the success of the Greenbelt and expanding the city’s already impressive trail network by over 110 miles, from its current length of 50 miles to over 160 miles.

The Pathways Plan recognizes that the Boise Greenbelt and pathways in general create planet-friendly transportation options for households of every income level, provide opportunities for healthful activity, and generate economic impact by attracting trail related businesses, spurring development, increasing property values, and offering an amenity that helps local companies attract and retain employees.

In addition to adding almost 30 miles of trails through parks, the plan adds 12 more miles of trails within riparian corridors to the 25 miles that already constitute the Boise River Greenbelt. The plan also calls for 53 miles along various irrigation canals that carry water from the river to properties throughout the Treasure Valley. Another 12 miles are planned next to an active rail line and one study suggests that longer rail-trails could be added to the network in the future. A total of 11 new grade separations are planned including six new bike/pedestrian bridges over the Boise River.

Three categories of goal-based criteria were used to evaluate which parts of the plan to implement first. Under the connectivity category, the greatest weight was given to projects that connect schools, grocery stores, and activity centers followed by those linking to transit, parks, and multiple neighborhoods. In a category called Equity-Access-Choice, multipliers are applied for projects in areas currently served by few or no pathways and to areas of need based on demographic analysis. In the third category, extra weight is given to projects with widespread public support. Interestingly, of the top ten projects identified by goal-based criteria, six involve canal corridors and three are rail-with-trail projects. However, an additional screen for feasibility was applied before creating the list of near-term priority projects.

Once the entire 160-plus mile network is completed, a majority of Boise residents will be within one-half mile of a pathway. “The planned expansion of the pathways takes the idea of the Greenbelt and extends it to every neighborhood in the city so all Boiseans can enjoy connections and the improved quality that brings,” remarked Council President Elaine Clegg. Sounding like an advocate for the Ecocity Standards, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean added: “The robust network will connect our residents to economic opportunities, recreation and everywhere in between, without reliance on a vehicle.”


Boise. 2016. Transportation Action Plan.   

Boise. 2021. Boise Pathways Master Plan.

Pruetz, R. 2021. Prosperity Comes in Cycles: Bikeways and the Virtuous Cycle. Arje Press. Free download at  

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.