Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Game-Changing Rails to Trails

An earlier post, Transform an Unused Railroad Corridor into a Lively Trail, detailed how many towns have  railroad corridors that have been abandoned and now have become unused, unsafe, and unwelcoming parcels of land in a community.   These former railroad corridors are great opportunities to create new destinations in a community by transforming those corridors into vibrant public places.  Ideal for many uses, such as walking, bicycling, inline skating, cross-country skiing, and equestrian and wheelchair use, these rails to trails are extremely popular for both transportation and recreation.

In February 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) opened its doors, and since that time, trails have become the fabric of their existence—for health and  physical activity, transportation, economic development, recreation and cultural impact.

Below are some examples of how a few communities have transformed  former rail lines into great public spaces.

Written Amy Kapp in America's Trails, Success Stories

Martin Olav Sabo Bridge over Hiawatha Avenue along the Midtown Greenway in Minnesota | Photo courtesy Tony Webster | CC by 2.0
Earlier this year, we posted Ten Trails That Helped Build the Movement in honor of RTC’s 30th anniversary in 2016. But of course, with almost 2,000 completed rail-trails across the country, we just scratched the surface. In 1986, there were only 250 miles of rail-trails. Three decades later—thanks to a lot of passionate people—rail-trails have transformed America.

Here are 10 more game-changing rail-trails (in no particular order) that have had an impact, as destinations, recreation magnets, economic drivers or transportation connectors, in the U.S.

(Same disclaimer as last time. We know there are a lot more great rail-trails out there; consider this a partial list!)

1. Revolutionary – Minuteman Bikeway (Massachusetts)

Minuteman Bikeway in Massachusetts | Photo courtesy Friends of Lexington Bikeways
History abounds along this 10-mile route outside of Boston, which follows part of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride of April 18, 1775 (you know—the one that alerted the colonies to the approach of the British military at the start of the Revolutionary War). But its revolutionary qualities don’t stop there. The trail connects a number of major communities, including Cambridge, Arlington, Lexington and Bedford (with further trail/transit connectors to Concord and Boston), making it incredibly convenient for commuting, recreation and physical activity—its impact on the health of residents has been noted by local leaders—and today, the trail welcomes several hundred thousand trail users annually.

2. Living History – Heritage Rail Trail County Park (Pennsylvania)

Heritage Rail Trail County Park in Pennsylvania | Photo by Carl Knoch
The 25-mile Heritage Rail Trail County Park in Pennsylvania follows the former route of the rail line that carried President Lincoln to deliver his now famous Gettysburg Address in November 1863, and that served as a portion of the way for his funeral train procession in 1865. Today, the iconic rail-with-trail celebrates and embraces its historic Civil War legacy with Steam Into History, a 10-mile excursion train ride for tourists, powered by a replica 1860s steam locomotive built from scratch, and accompanied by costumed tour guides and re-enactors. It’s an incredibly successful example of a tourist train + trail partnership in America. The trail also connects with the 19.5-mile Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail at the Mason-Dixon Line, creating a beautiful, continuous 44.5-mile route into northern Maryland.

3. Destination Trail – Cape Cod Rail-Trail (Massachusetts)

Cape Cod Rail Trail in Massachusetts | Photo courtesy Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism | CC by 2.0
Speaking of tourism, the Cape Cod Rail Trail is a true leader in this respect, serving up lots of local culture along its 22-mile route, with quaint villages, beautiful landscapes, diverse wildlife and its star offering, Cape Cod National Seashore with 40 miles of beaches. Bike and inline skate rentals are available along the route, and the trail is monitored by police bike patrols. Used by hundreds of thousands of trail users annually—including horseback riders, it’s a full integration of destination tourism, outdoor recreation and active transportation (in an area known for its traffic jams).

4. Cross-State Connection – Katy Trail State Park (Missouri)

Katy Trail in Missouri | Photo by Wilson Hurst
The Katy Trail is currently the longest continuous open rail-trail in America at approximately 238 miles, spanning (almost across the state) from Clinton to St. Louis. Plans are in the works to connect the trail to the in-progress Rock Island Trail system, which will run from Kansas City to Beaufort—and that means a 450-mile-plus continuous loop extending the entire width of Missouri. Just imagine the economic and transportation benefits. (Also, the Katy Trail’s former rail line was one of the first in the U.S. to be railbanked, an act that, since its creation by Congress in 1983, has made thousands of miles of rail-trails possible.)

5. Good Things Happen in Threes – Little Miami Scenic Trail (Ohio)

Little Miami Scenic Trail in Ohio | Photo courtesy Green County Parks and Trails
Here’s another cross-state connector, brought to you by the Buckeye State. The Little Miami Scenic Trail is anything but little, spanning 73 miles from Springfield and Newtown (near Cincinnati) and connecting dozens of towns and five counties. But the connections don't stop there. It also connects with the Simon Kenton Trail in Springfield, creating a total of 105 miles of seamless trail. And, it's a key anchor of two impressive larger trail systems: the southern leg of the Ohio to Erie Trail system, an in-progress 320-mile cross-state route from the Ohio River in Cincinnati to Lake Erie in Cleveland; and the 330-mile Miami Valley Bike Trails network, which is centered in Dayton and Xenia and is the largest paved trail network in America.

6. Galvanizing a Community – Richmond Greenway (California)

Richmond Greenway in California | Photo courtesy RTC
This 2-mile urban trail in the San Francisco Bay Area was once called “El Baldio” (the abandoned place) by locals—but has made a remarkable transformation in the past five years due a passionate community-driven effort by partners such as Friends of the Richmond Greenway, Pogo Park, Rich City Rides and RTC (which also played a pivotal role in the trail’s development). The development of new parks—using a resident-driven approach—as well as new art, greening projects, community gardens, youth and family bicycling programs and bicycle co-ops have taken the greenway from neglected corridor to vibrant gathering space. It’s a powerful example of how communities can come together to revitalize trails, and how trails can revitalize communities.

7. Urban Resurgence – Dequindre Cut Greenway (Michigan)

DeQuindre Cut in Michigan | Photo by Joe Gall
This 2-mile pathway is helping to lead Detroit’s (active) transportation reawakening. Built in a rail trench “cut” 25 feet below street level in the 1920s, the trail took form in the late 2000s when the disused line was in serious neglect. “The Cut” runs through the busiest part of the city and provides valuable commuter connections to the riverfront (a stone’s throw away from the Detroit Riverwalk), Eastern Market and Midtown. Its 20-foot-wide paved pathway includes separate lanes for bike and pedestrian traffic and—preserving the spirit of the area—proudly displays colorful urban art and graffiti murals—many of which have graced the corridor (unofficially) for years. The trail is a matter of great pride for Detroiters and has helped to ramp up development interest along the route.

8. Revitalizing a City – Atlanta BeltLine (Georgia)

Atlanta BeltLine in Georgia | Photo by RTC/Jim Brown
To understand how trails transform communities, one need look no further than the Atlanta BeltLine, an ambitious, 30-year project integrating trails, green space, public housing and economic development. When complete, the system will connect 45 of Atlanta’s diverse neighborhoods by way of a 22-mile loop built on a former rail and industrial corridor, as well as 11 miles of spur trails. The 2-mile Eastside Trail, opened in 2012, has already sparked a wave of private investment. And as more people flock to the trail, retailers, homeowners and restaurateurs are embracing trailside openings and trail-facing patios (it’s like the waterfront effect, but with a trail!).

9. Bike Transportation Utopia – Midtown Greenway (Minnesota)

Midtown Greenway in Minnesota | Photo by Tony Webster
This 5.5-mile trail in Minneapolis—which is nestled 20 feet below street level, incorporates eastbound and westbound biking lanes and includes a separate walking path—has become a commuter’s paradise since it opened in 2000. Built on a disused rail corridor that was little more than a dumping ground by the 1990s, the trail, once complete, sparked a wave of real estate investment and is now an anchor of Minneapolis’ active-transportation community—no small fete for a city boasting a bicycle commuter rate nearly seven times the national average. The trail has helped forge the way for Minneapolis to become one of the world’s top biking cities—a formal designation the city received in 2015.

10. All Around – Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park (W&OD)

Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park at trail's end in Purcellville | Photo by Matthew Culbertson
Developed in the 1980s, the 45-mile W&OD Trail is a marvel of convenience and conveyance in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. It’s dozens of parking and access points, proximity to public transportation, half-mile markers, interpretive signs and well-maintained corridor make it one of the most popular trails in the region for commuting, recreation and physical activity. That’s pretty cool when you consider that D.C. is frequently named one of the healthiest or fittest cities in the U.S. Additionally, the many communities the trail connects offer plenty of businesses, restaurants, watering holes, services and local color. The trail’s positive economic, recreational, cultural and transportation impacts make it an all-around exemplary rail-trail.

Acknowledgments: Laura Stark, Tom Sexton, Kelly Pack, Eric Oberg, Laura Cohen and Barry Bergman.

Does your community have an abandoned rail line that could be become a vibrant place for residents, and tourists, to gather?  If so, it may be time to take action to make that happen.


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