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Half-baked trails?

The Case For Trails: Well Done, Medium Rare, and Works in Progress.

By Robert Searns

"The key is to continue to envision and build great projects be they dramatic in scale or a single-track walking path from here to there."

Recently, I got a call from a community in southern Utah. They told me a cable suspension bridge that for decades had linked the Navajo Reservation to a nearby town had washed out. Barely more than some cables and some planks— like in the Indiana Jones movies— Navajo kids had used this simple crossing to attend school. The tourists used it to visit archeological sites on the Navajo side. Some found the dicey feel of the squeaky boards and cables over the river a trail thrill in itself. It was a simple structure less than three feet wide and certainly not meeting today's design standards. Yet for nearly three generations it worked. More than a river crossing it also bridged two cultures.

Their plan is to build a new bridge that will meet more stringent design standards, but will likely still be modest in both stature and cost. Once complete, though, it will be of incalculable value as there is no other way to cross the river without diverting hours by road.

This project got me thinking about ways in trying times we can most effectively focus and continue the important accomplishments of the trails movement. In an era of mounting pressure on public funds on all levels, and factors like the sub-prime meltdown possibly reducing revenues at the local level, we need to draw on our creative resources to better navigate an unsettled political and financial landscape. Part of this calls for increased advocacy and making our case to assure vital funds are there to catalyze trail efforts. Part of it may also call for new ways of looking at trails, resourcefulness and creative flexibility— particularly in planning and building urban and suburban multi-use trails.

The unfinished trail speaks eloquently of the destination to be reached

The Erie Canal Trail runs most of the way through the scenic agrarian landscape of upstate New York connecting historic mill towns and way stations. Parts are paved, parts are gravel. A segment near Rochester runs adjacent to higher-end, trail-inspired restaurants and condos. Another section, near Syracuse, is just a single-track beaten path through a field. The vision, though, is one day to have a continuous corridor traversing the state— a boon to tourism and economic development. It's not there yet, but by adding some knobby tires to my road bike, I was able to ride (along with about 400 others) the entire length a few years back.

This past summer a bunch of us rode a piece of the East Coast Greenway. Again, segments are missing and there are gaps that need to be closed. But, the vision is there and the communities along this corridor are thrilled that one day there will be a first class trail from Maine to Key West. Chuck Flink and his East Coast Greenway Alliance Board are working hard to make this happen.

The folks in Metro Detroit have a similar grand vision, an interconnected system of greenways and trails— a way to connect people together. Through the leadership of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan, tens of millions of dollars of privately donated money is leveraging what ultimately may be hundreds of millions of dollars for improvements.

While the trail along the Detroit riverfront may be a broad, paved, more formal, beautifully landscaped, and furnished amenity, other segments may be more basic. In some instances, at least for the near term, it might just be a blazed single-track path through rural fields (a number of folks in planning meetings there said they liked it that way) though one day as areas develop the trail may become more formal. Interestingly, residents of Cherry Hills Village, an upscale community outside Denver, love their simple grass and dirt trails and would have it no other way.

Sometimes you gotta jump out of the box

Throughout France (and other European countries) there is an expansive network of trails. They go almost everywhere. Yet at first they are hard to find. The reason for this is that they are often just a mowed strip in a farmer's field or a single-track dirt route. They are often marked by a simple strip of yellow tape on a small post set in the ground. It's a system of minimal cost— mostly created and maintained by volunteers. Once you find this treasure, however, there is no better way to see Europe!

In Bogotá, Columbia, Gil Penalosa, President of Walk & Bike for Life, figured out a way to make the existing streets— infrastructure— already in place function as wonderful urban trails. The idea was to close the streets to motorized vehicles during low traffic use times and let the people take over on foot and on bike. The only real "bricks and mortar" infrastructure items were some beautifully designed signs and posters. With virtually no financial investment a trail system was created.

Where I am going with this, as you might have guessed, is that there are many ways to create a trail experience and to leave a trail legacy. Thirty years ago, when the urban greenways and trails movement began, you pretty much needed a paved path to accommodate bikes. With changing technology, including the "mountain" and "hybrid" bicycles and trends toward walking, I would suggest there are now myriad ways to create quality trails and trail systems.

The trails world has indeed become a diverse world and that gives us more flexibility, more durability, and more staying power to continue the important work we have all started. The commonality is that these trails that we have envisioned and built are now mainstream. They are a vital part of our national and global infrastructure. They pay off in many ways beyond what is seen on the surface.

Trails are transformers: more than meets the eye

Indeed, trails, greenways, and alternative modes of travel by bicycle and foot are more than what they appear to be at first glance. Some critics may see only the tip of the iceberg and claim that these investments are trivial. However, many others now recognize that these amenities have many benefits and the capacity to transform not only the visual landscape but the economics, health, and daily quality of life of a community.

In Grand Forks, ND, in the wake of a devastating flood, the community invested in a riverfront greenway. Chuck Flink's firm Greenways, Inc., the lead planner for the project, promoted the concept of the project's economic viability. In fact, studies show a $6 million economic benefit to the community in tourism, new development, and business. Applying the multiplier effect— the way a dollar spent keeps moving through the economy— the benefit is $16 million annually!

There are countless other examples from San Antonio to Denver to Pittsburgh where new waterfront trails have transformed urban landscapes and helped catalyze billions in new investment and revenues.

Continue to advocate, educate, and create

With uncertain times and competing demands on dollars, we may again see a rise of nay sayers when it comes to funding trails and greenways. We in the trail, bicycle and pedestrian community need to expand this limited view. We need to get the word out that these projects are vital infrastructure and rewarding investments as well.

Projects like the East Coast Greenway, the Rich Guadagno Memorial Trail (see page 16), and the Medical Mile (American Trails Magazine, New Years 2007) provide inspiring visions. Some of these are grand projects, while others like the Cyclovia of Bogotá and the Randonnee trails of France, are modest in capital cost, though monumental in their impact. They reflect the application of creativity and resourcefulness to keep the trails effort growing.

A diversity of solutions, a diversity of trails

The key is to continue to envision and build great projects be they dramatic in scale or a single-track walking path from here to there. When resources are scarcer we might have to make do with just securing sections of the right of way and a simple post to mark the way like the Randonees. Other times a paved urban multi-use trail and greenway all decked out may be the appropriate solution. Each has its place. Each has its time. The key, though, is to keep moving forward. With your support, American Trails aims to be here as a resource to vigorously support the trails movement. And with over a million and a half visits to our website each year, we know the need is growing. I don't know about you, but I could not imagine living in a world without trails.

Robert Searns is Principal of The GreenWay Team, Inc., and works with communities nationwide on greenways, trails, and outdoor resource conservation.

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