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Trails for the Future

Why conditions for trail development have been so favorable in the recent past, whether those conditions will prevail in the future and what strategy the trails community might pursue in light of changing circumstances.

Presented at the American Trails National Trails Symposium, Little Rock, November 17, 2008

By Kenneth W. Harris
Chairman, The Consilience Group LLC

Why Have Conditions Been Favorable for Trail Development in the Recent Past?

I see 6 reasons why we have over 200,000 miles of trails in the United States today and the trails are so popular.

  • The first is federal government support. The National Trails System Act of 1968 created our National Trails System, and the federal government has provided generous financial support for trails from the Highway Trust Fund--$370 million for fiscal years 2005-2009 alone. Also, over 70% of U.S. trails are on federal land.
  • Second is the growth of rail trails. In 1980, there were only about 200 rail trails. Today, there are over 1,500 with a mileage exceeding 15,000, and more are built and opened all the time. The big increase happened because the Rails-Trails Act allowed railroads to abandon unused rights-of-way for trail use on favorable terms and because railroads were unable to compete economically with trucks except in bulk commodity transport until very recently.
  • Third is strong state and local government and community support. For example, the Capital Crescent Trail has been built, maintained and improved because of the joint efforts of a very active community group, The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, and the Montgomery County government in addition to those of the National Park Service.
  • Fourth is public opinion in favor of exercise. American Sports Data surveys have consistently shown that 15-17% of Americans believe in exercise and are frequent participants and 62-64% believe in the importance of exercise and would like to do more than they do. The health benefits of exercise are a major reason for this favorable public opinion. The medical community and disease fighting charities like the American Heart Association have been pushing for people of all ages and both sexes to be more active in their leisure time. Leisure time exercise is essential because automation and mechanization of homes and workplaces and dependence on the private automobile for transport preclude exercise in other phases of life for most people.
  • Fifth is the advantages recreational trails have over other exercise facilities. Recreational trails are facilities for forms of exercise involving movement from place to place like running, walking and bicycling. They make it possible to exercise inexpensively and yet pleasantly. All one really needs to exercise on a trail is a good, comfortable pair of shoes. There are no membership or admission fees and no expensive or complicated-to-setup machines to buy. In fact, walking for years has consistently been the most popular form of exercise participation.
  • Sixth is favorable demographics. The U.S. population has continued to grow and, with it, the numbers of people who want to exercise safely outdoors and to enjoy the natural world while they do so. I think a “Build it and they will come” phenomenon is at work here. As trail usage becomes popular, community groups advocate more strongly for them and governments feel obligated to build them.

Will Conditions be More or Less Favorable for Trail Development in the Future?

In my opinion, three factors that have favored trail development in the recent past are certain to continue for at least the next decade and probably much longer.

  • First, the federal government will not dismantle its non-financial support for trail development. It won’t repeal the National Trails System Act or Rails-Trails Act or stop new federal designation of recreational trails.
  • Second, medical authorities will continue to urge us to be more active in our leisure time. The scientific evidence that exercise is essential for everyone’s good health is strong and getting stronger.
  • Third, strong community support for trails will continue. Even if people don’t exercise outdoors as much as they should, trails have become a highly desired community amenity.

But, I also see five major uncertainties, which will make trails planning and development more challenging in the future.

  • First is the extent to which Americans will exercise enough for good health. I think the proportion doing so will gradually increase, and I have identified 15 trends including development of trails, which are pushing us in this direction. We can discuss these in the q&a if you wish. But, the number of people who exercise enough for good health in their leisure time might not grow as it has in the past or even decline. Lack of leisure time may be a reason. That is a major reason people give for not exercising today, and it may become even more significant in the future because of job pressures, family responsibilities, and physical condition. Also people on average already spend more time on inactive leisure pursuits than on exercise, and they may want to spend even more time in the future in front of the TV and computer as those technologies get better and cheaper. And, in the future, they may be able to take a pill that will give them the weight control benefit of exercise without actually exercising.
  • Second people may prefer forms of exercise other than those that are practiced on recreational trails. You can’t watch TV when you exercise on a trail as you can on a treadmill at a gym or a stationary bicycle at home, and exercise on a trail does not satisfy one’s need for competition like tennis, golf, soccer or basketball. Our current economic difficulties certainly favor exercise on trails, but new boom times could be more favorable to exercise at the local country club, health club or home gym.
  • Third is the size and composition of the trail user population. If the trail user population grows in proportion to or faster than the nation’s population, there may not be enough trail capacity in the urban and suburban areas where most people live and even higher proportions will live in the future. Also, there is the potential for intergenerational conflict among trail users as more people age 45 and up become and remain active. Trail planners and developers should also be sensitive to trail use needs of people from non-Western cultures and non-English speakers.
  • Fourth, railroads may be less willing than in the past to abandon rights-of way for trail use and to share rights-of-way with trails. Higher fuel prices have made railroads much more competitive with trucks than they were until very recently, and the increased business is encouraging them to increase facilities. The U.S. Department of Transportation expects rail freight transportation demand to double by 2035 and investment of $148 billion in railroad facilities will be needed to meet that demand increase.
  • Fifth and most important, federal financial support for trail development may not be as strong as in the recent past. Congress has already approved tax rebates and $700 billion to rescue our financial system with further stimulus very likely. All this anti-recessionary spending is being financed by increases in the public debt, and the unprecedented debt service requirements will constrain federal spending once the economy recovers. Moreover, the Highway Trust Fund won’t be as strong a source of trail development funds as in the past because its source of funds is steadily declining gasoline tax revenues. Finally, in the coming battle over surface transportation re-authorization, projects with a more direct tie to interstate commerce like road and bridge repair are likely to emerge with higher priority for funding than trails.

What Should the Trails Community’s Strategy Be?

The trails community definitely needs a strategy for the more problematic times ahead. I propose a 7-element strategy:

  • First, lobby Congress hard and often: There will be huge battles over transportation funding in the next Congress and later. The trails community will have to lobby hard and often to continue federal transportation trust fund support for trails. The message ought to emphasize that urban and suburban trails provide opportunities for healthful, environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient transportation, not recreation and leisure. The lobbying effort should also include advocating funds for trails in any anti-recessionary infrastructure spending.
  • Second, form strategic partnerships: Reach out to other elements of society, which are sympathetic to trail development, and lobby all levels of government jointly with strategic partners favoring more active lifestyles like the American Heart Association and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
  • Third, seek charitable support for trail development: Tight federal, state, and local budgets are likely to result in diminished government financial support for trails. Therefore, the trails community needs to seek foundation and individual donor support.
  • Fourth, continue forming and maintaining local trail advocacy groups: One of the main reasons why so many trails have been built in recent years is that community groups like The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail have lobbied strongly for them and not taken no for an answer from government agencies, and they have generously contributed their time, labor and money.
  • Fifth, make “a good corporate citizen” appeal to railroads: If railroads resist sharing their rights of way with trails or abandoning them for trail use, appeal to their “better nature”. Point out that their support of trails improves their public image.
  • Sixth, make trails senior citizen friendly: More people aged 45 and over are certain to use trails as our population ages and regular physical activity comes to be seen as essential for people of all ages. They will do so if they feel trails are accessible, comfortable and safe. If trails are more usable for senior citizens, they will be more useable for younger people as well. Senior citizens vote, have discretionary income for donations, and influence community decisions, so how they feel about trails does make a difference.
  • Seventh, watch developments: The trails community’s strategy will have to evolve continuously to meet the challenges of the years ahead. It should be systematically gathering data on which to base that evolving strategy. I can say more about this in the question and answer period if you would like.

To sum up, I believe we have had a “perfect storm” of conditions for trail development over the past 20-30 years. Will it continue? It can, but only if the trails community recognizes that the future of trails could be less rosy than the recent past and works even more actively to be sure that future does not happen.

15 Trends Favorable to Exercise

  • Development of recreational trails
  • Continual technological improvements that prevent and mitigate the effects of injuries, keep people comfortable and connected as they exercise, and facilitate monitoring and recording of exercise performance.
  • Support of many organizations like the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Curves Clubs for a more active lifestyle
  • Many more opportunities to participate in athletic events after high school and college like theNational Multiple Sclerosis Society’s MS 150 bike rides
  • Increasing numbers of exercise tours offered by companies like Country Walkers and Vermont Bicycle Touring
  • New forms of sports and exercise and re-emergence of old ones like climbing, bicycle polo, and some originally intended for children like dodgeball
  • Changes in laws, regulations and social attitudes making exercise more possible for women, people over 40, and the physically and mentally challenged.
  • Weakening of forces favoring dependence on private automobile transport through development of walkable and bikeable communities
  • Incorporation of exercise into the work lives of people with sedentary jobs by employee wellness programs and mandatory on-the-job walking
  • Facilitation of exercise in the home by dedication of home space to exercise and electronic versions of expensive personal training programs
  • Emergence of active video games like Dance Dance Revolution
  • Incentives such as tests that compare the body’s real age to its chronological age, providing a scientific basis for workouts to improve conditioning
  • Efforts by private groups like Moms Team and the National Alliance for Youth Sports to make youth sports more inclusive and fun
  • Federally supported efforts by states and localities to provide safe routes for children and adolescents to walk and bicycle to school
  • Reform of school physical education programs

Societal Developments Trail Planners and Developers Should Monitor

  • Trends in urban design (Are communities becoming more or less bike and walk friendly?)
  • Trends in the use of leisure time (Do people have more or less leisure time? Do they believe they have more or less leisure time? Are they more or less active in their leisure? Do they engage more or less in leisure activities involving movement from place to place?)
  • Medical opinion about sports and fitness participation, particularly non-mainstream opinion that catches media attention (Are doctors advising more or less exercise for all people or certain groups? Are they advising the kinds of exercise that people engage in on trails?)
  • Trends in federal, state, local and private financing of trails (Are governments and foundations more or less receptive to trail funding?)
  • Trends in mode of local travel (Are people biking and walking to work and to do errands more or less?)
  • Trends in accidents and crimes on trails (Are there more or fewer accidents and crimes on trails? What are the media saying about trail crimes and accidents?)


Index of articles on federal funding programs

Supporting trails and greenways

Interview with USDOT Secretary Mary Peters

Letter from American Trails to Secretary Peters

SecretaryPeters' remarks at 2004 Trails Symposium

Sen. Coburn's proposal to redirect federal bike funds

Rep. McHenry opposing bicycling and trails funding


More resources:

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