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EDITORIAL: Trails, Bike Paths and Sidewalks are Infrastructure Too

Trails offer a large return for a very small investment.

By Robert Searns

"More creative solutions are needed, and bikes and walking shoes are part of this solution."

Just how many automobile bridges can you build with the penny or so of each Federal Transportation dollar spent on bicycling and walking facilities? Is that really the deal breaker? Of late, some have suggested that there is a causal tie between federal investment in non-motorized facilities and the growing problem of deteriorating roads and bridge infrastructure. Worse still there have been comments and political advertisements trivializing bicycle and walking facilities as somehow obsolete, frivolous and less than worthy.

While these improvements might seem to be a good scapegoat for our highway ills, the facts say this is simply not true. The reality is that while nearly 10% of all trips to work, school and the store are by bike or foot, the amount of federal dollars invested nationwide for bike and pedestrian improvements has averaged around 1% over the past decade or so. It is also noteworthy that more than 40% of the trips made daily in our cities are two miles or less and 25% less than a mile. Many of these are by car but could be made by bike or on foot— with improved facilities.

We can visualize the part of each dollar spent as smaller than the number "1" on the corner of the bill. But, if you visualize what has been accomplished, catalyzed by this small investment, you would see hundreds of miles of bike paths and greenways that are transforming our cities, and countless barrels of oil not burned. You would see millions of trail users, billions of private dollars invested in quality urban redevelopment in Denver, Chattanooga, and Pittsburgh stimulated by these amenities.

Some have suggested that these investments are a throwback to the 1900s with cartoon-like figures on old-time bicycles. Perhaps it is these critics living in the past, though their past is the 1950s, a time of cheap oil, un-crowded roads and smaller populations. It's a nostalgic vision that does not take into account that today— according to the Texas Transportation Institute— the average commuter spends 88 extra hours a year in their car at a cost of $78 billion in lost time, burning 2.9 billion extra gallons of fuel spewing tons of contaminants. That vision also overlooks that in the 1950s a school kid had a longer life expectancy than today's child with nearly one in five clinically overweight due in large part to being driven rather than walking.

How shortsighted to envision a transportation system epitomized by an SUV modeled after an assault vehicle that burns a gallon of gasoline to convey an overweight occupant eight miles down a crumbling road. Is this the pinnacle of American ingenuity and know-how? We can do better! The 2007 reality is that we need a diversity of solutions and each has its place.

While investment in alternative modes of transportation won't fully solve these daunting problems, simply building more roads and bridges won't either. More creative solutions are needed and bikes and walking shoes are part of this solution and they are a very apropos means of travel for these times. No one in the bicycle and trails community suggests that highways and bridges are not absolutely necessary infrastructure to be funded and maintained. We are saying, though, that bicycle and walking facilities are also part of the picture.

Even in trying times this kind of investment can and should be a part of the picture. In the depths of the depression, FDR dispatched tens of thousands of unemployed youth into the National Forests, building a legacy of over 100,000 miles of trails, instilling a sense of stewardship and a sense of pride. Some say that action may have helped save our Republic by engaging a restless populace and stimulating the economy. Surely we can similarly allocate a penny or so on the dollar to help solve today's daunting problems.

More importantly these improvements are something that the public— the taxpayers who ultimately fund all of the programs— have said they desire and demand. Survey after survey shows that trails, walking and bicycle facilities rank in first priority for recreational activity, in deciding where to buy a home and where public funds should be spent. In Kansas City for example citizens ranked investing in trails over building a new football stadium! Indeed one of the engines transforming our inner cities and sustaining our economy is the rise of a class of creative workers and entrepreneurs who demand trails, greenways, bicycle and pedestrian amenities— an essential ingredient revitalizing urban areas from Denver to Detroit.

We call on our elected officials to address the problem of our crumbling infrastructure in a positive way: looking for leadership and ideas, rather than a "fall guy" or laying blame. There are workable and equitable ways to secure the revenues and move forward in solving these real problems. We at American Trails stand ready to support and assist in that process. We also encourage the tens of millions of Americans who use trails, greenways, bicycle facilities and sidewalks to make their voices heard.

Robert M. Searns is Chair of the Board of Directors of American Trails. Bob is the founding owner of Urban Edges, Inc., a planning and development firm based in Denver. He has worked with communities nationwide on greenways, trails, and outdoor resource conservation. He co-authored, with Chuck Flink, Greenways: A Guide to Planning, Design and Development, and contributed to Greenways, The Beginning of an International Movement. Urban Edges, Inc. and DHM Design Corporation lead The GreenWay Team, a conglomeration of experts offering creative talents and over 25 years of practical experience in the planning, design and implementation of greenway, trail and open space projects

For additional information, please contact Bob at the American Trails office at 530-547-2060 or via email at

Submit your opinion, article, or editorial to American Trails at or if you have questions call us at (530) 547-2060.

American Trails offers this website as a public resource to share ideas and opinions on trails and greenways. We have not evaluated the accuracy, feasibility, or legality of any of the material or articles. The opinions and editorials presented here do not necessarily reflect the opinion or support of American Trails. American Trails does not discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis or race, religion, nationality, or political affliiation.

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