Futurist Sees Challenges to Trail Development Ahead
The "Trails for the Future" session held at the 2008 American Trails National Trails Symposium brought together a diverse group of trails activists to look at the trends and issues that need most attention in the future.
Speaking on the Trails for the Future panel at the 2008 American Trails Symposium on November 17, professional futurist Ken Harris explained why he thought the growth of trails has been almost exponential in the recent past, but could significantly slow in the next decade or two. He cited six main reasons for trail growth:
• Strong support from the federal government, especially financial support from the Highway Trust Fund
• Growth of rail trails resulting from a legal/regulatory climate that let railroads abandon rights-of-way for trail use on favorable terms
• Strong state and local government and community group support
• Public opinion strongly in favor of exercise even though many people don’t exercise as much as they should for good health
• The zero cost of recreational trails as exercise facilities compared with gyms, health clubs, and pools requiring admission fees or member dues
• Growth in the number of people desiring safe, inexpensive places to exercise paralleling growth in the U.S. population
Harris believes three elements of the past favorable trends are certain to continue.
• The federal government will continue its non-financial support for trails. For example, it will continue the National Trails System and designating national recreation trails.
• Medical authorities will continue to urge us all to be more active in our leisure time, thus strongly continuing to influence public opinion in favor of exercise.
• Strong community support for trails will continue. As other symposium presenters noted, trails have become a much desired community amenity whether residents actually use them or not.
However, Harris sees five factors in the future that will be challenging for trail planners and developers.
• It’s possible that the number of people who exercise enough for good health will not grow as in the past or decline. Job pressures and family responsibilities may limit leisure time. Or, the lure of passive leisure pursuits like television or the Internet may be too strong. It’s even possible that in the future an exercise pill will let people have some of the health benefits of exercise without walking, running or bicycling on a trail.
• People may prefer forms of exercise other than those on trails. The cost advantage of exercise on trails is strong in today’s troubled economy, but a return to affluence could lead people back to the gym.
• The demographics could be more challenging in at least two respects. The U.S. population is becoming more urban. If the trail user population grows faster than the U.S. population, there could be a shortage of trail capacity in urban areas where most people live. The U.S. population is growing older, but people over 45 are more active and are likely to prefer gentler, slower trail use, possibly causing inter-generational conflict with younger trail users.
• As a result of high fuel costs and consolidation, freight railroads have become much more competitive with trucks. This plus expected growth in rail freight transport demand could make railroads less willing to abandon or share rights-of-way with trails.
• Federal financial support in the future is much less certain. Transportation projects most directly related to interstate commerce like road and bridge repair are likely to have the highest priority for both economic stimulus and regular surface transportation funding.
Although the perfect storm of conditions for trail development that has prevailed in the recent past isn’t likely, Harris thinks the trails community can keep moving in a positive direction if:
• It lobbies Congress hard and often for continued support
• Forms strategic partnerships with organizations favoring trail development, especially those with an “exercise for health” message, and lobbies jointly with them
• Seeks private and charitable financing for trails
• Continues forming and maintains strong local trail advocacy groups
• Makes a “good corporate citizen” appeal to railroads reluctant to share or abandon rights-of-way for trails
• Makes trails senior citizen friendly
Ken Harris is Chairman of the Bethesda, MD, futurist consulting company, The Consilience Group LLC, Secretary of the World Future Society, Transportation Field Editor of Techcast.org, and a member of the Association of Professional Futurists.
Trailhead@AmericanTrails.org or if you have questions call us at (530) 547-2060.Submit your opinion, article, or editorial to American Trails at
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Updated April 27, 2009