Written By Paola Tejada Lalinde, Communications Director, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
In 2020, the pandemic transformed the way people interacted with the outdoors. As many looked for ways to stay safe, they turned to their neighborhood trails and open spaces more than ever before to exercise, spend time with friends and family, practice self-care and discover local hidden gems in nature.
These notable behavioral shifts were reflected in the increasing number of trail users seen around the country; in the early days of the pandemic, trail use surged by more than 200% and Rail-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) data shows that overall trail use was up 51% in 2020. The demand for safe outdoor spaces to walk, run, bike and play amplified the growing trend for more walkable, bikeable, livable communities and pushed cities and towns to find new ways to meet their communities' needs.
“Through this time of so much uncertainty, trails have provided access to the outdoors, close to home, for millions of Americans. Yet, the nation’s 40,000 miles of multiuse trails do not reach every neighborhood or every person in our country,” said Ryan Chao, RTC’s president, in a recent update about the organization’s strategic plan. “That understanding has brought urgency and focus to our path forward. Our path is one where we prioritize the strategies that deliver at national scale; that increase the diversity and representation of our movement, reducing disparities in opportunity and access to trails and the outdoors; and that are responsive—to the greatest needs of our movement and the country in a time of continued uncertainty and need.”
Central to the organization’s mission to build a nation connected by trails is its years-long effort to create eight regional interconnected and equitably developed trail systems across the country, often with rail-trails as their spines. These TrailNation™ projects in Washington, D.C., California, Florida, Wisconsin, Maryland, Texas, Pennsylvania and the Industrial Heartland region of West Virginia and Ohio go beyond the construction of singular trails, emphasizing strategic trail connections that can be leveraged to provide seamless regional transportation and recreation systems, equitably delivering strong economic opportunity and environmental benefits alongside countless quality of life outcomes.
“Since 2012, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy team has been hard at work with our partners to build model trail network projects that are diverse in scale, scope and geography. These projects are the core of our TrailNation program and are designed to deliver economic, environmental, health and social equity benefits to people and places across eight different regions,” said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development at RTC. “Our focus now is on elevating these best practices to create a playbook that will accelerate the development and completion of trail networks—a need brought into even sharper focus as the pandemic, calls for racial justice and the economic challenges communities are facing intersect.”
One TrailNation project, Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition, is currently working to develop a 35-mile trail network that will connect existing trails across 75 diverse neighborhoods in the city. The trail network will create new connections for the city’s residents to the waterfront, green space and the downtown core, while also providing new transportation alternatives across communities. A recent economic impact study conducted by EY projects that the trail network could generate an increase of up to $314 million in aggregate residential property valuation and save residents, and the city, at least $2.4 million in health-care costs every year. The projected financial and well-being outcomes far exceed the investment of $28 million anticipated as the cost of completing the trail network.
These figures are an indication that trails are truly at the heart of healthy and thriving communities. As the organization moves its initiatives forward, it will continue to prioritize authentic community-led planning processes to reflect local needs and values, ensuring that residents derive long-term benefits from trail projects and related economic development initiatives.
RTC is committed to working across communities and with its partners to build a future where everyone has safe ways to walk, bike and be active outdoors.
Paola Tejada Lalinde is the communications director at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), the nation’s largest trails, walking and biking advocacy organization. Connect with RTC at railstotrails.org and @railstotrails on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.