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How will new technology affect trail experiences?

It is not hard to imagine an all-terrain version of the Segway expanding access to trail networks.

By Robert Searns, Urban Edges, Inc.

State of the art, 1974

"Clearly, as trail advocates, we have become the stewards of something very precious and very susceptible to change."

In the fall of 1974, I took a job with the City of Denver. My assignment was to serve as staff to a mayoral committee building a hike/bike path along the South Platte River. About 18 months later we cut the ribbon on the first trail segment of what was later to become a metro-wide trail and greenway network. We planned and designed the trail system for bicycle, pedestrian and paddle craft use.

Early in 1979 we were close to completing the ten-mile length of trail through the city. At that time, the "ten-speed" bicycle was state-of-the-art trail user technology. Planning tools included the IBM Selectric typewriter, the 35mm camera, aerial photographs (if available) and hand-drawn construction documents. The "fat tire" bicycle (unless you were talking about a 1950's vintage Schwinn), and in-line skates were just beginning to appear along with personal computers and word processing.

Less than a decade later, as we were completing the extension of the trail into the suburbs, and the cell phone, Geographic Information Systems, GPS, and the World Wide Web were emerging along with all-terrain bicycles, designer cross training shoes, sports drinks, and Spandex.

The shape of things to come

In the opening scene of Back to the Future, Part II, the character played by Michael J. Fox is cruising along on a levitational skateboard. Short of the Star Trek Teleporter it is pretty close to the ultimate personal mobility device. No doubt there were many who hoped that Dean Kamen's IT would have similar anti-gravity capabilities. Short of a uncovering a couple of deceased aliens and a wrecked intergalactic spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico, the digital-gyroscopic stabilization and steering of the Segway is probably about as sophisticated as it gets— for now.

Nonetheless, the Segway does represent an important breakthrough when it comes to trail planning. It is not so much the technology— in many ways the mountain bike may have been a more significant leap for trail users— but that it will invite a vast new segment of potential users to trails and greenways. Think about it, you just step up on to the thing, turn it on, lean forward a little and it tools along at 15 to 18 miles per hour. A device like the Segway will certainly broaden mobility. Once it becomes affordable, which it no doubt will, every kid (of every age) will have one. Segwaying will rage.

I've heard that the Segway people envision their machine— once it's in common usage— traveling along on city sidewalks. However, I wonder about the practicality of that notion without significant redesign of urban sidewalk systems with their curbs and cross streets. The machine might do better in the street operating in a way similar to bicycles.

Urban trails and greenways, on the other hand, might be ideal for Segways, especially on trails that are grade-separated from street traffic— assuming they are adequately designed and managed to accommodate potential hordes of Segway riders along with those who still choose to travel by muscle power. Also, it is not hard to imagine an all-terrain version of the Segway (the equivalent of the mountain bike) expanding access to trail networks in National Forests, state and county parks, and other outdoor venues.

Can you hear me now? Good?

My brother just bought a new cell phone; only it's more than just a phone. When you open up the back there is a small keyboard and screen. Push a button or two and you can check your e-mail and even watch a short movie clip. You can use this device just about anywhere. Looking at this device, it is not a big leap to envision a new form of trail technology— a virtual take-along "trail ranger." Imagine being able to download a "smart" trail map from a Web site. The map could show you trail conditions, level of difficulty, availability of services, even a real time weather report and satellite view of your trail or greenway corridor.

Add Global Positioning capability and your little handheld gadget could provide all manner of interpretive information with sound and video depicting flora, fauna, geology, and the history of the very spot you are standing on. With such a device you could also upload information to the Web site about your personal trail experience, perhaps an animal you spotted (and maybe photographed with your on-board digital camera). At the end of your trail outing, your "smart map" could tell you how far you traveled, calories burned and cardiovascular benefits realized. Take my word for it— this technology is coming soon.

Spandex, Gortex, and context

In addition to high tech mobility and way-finding devices, trail recreation has spun off a multi-billion dollar sports equipment and garment industry. No doubt, new types of shoes, bicycles, paddle craft and other equipment will continue to emerge enabling and encouraging more people to use trails and greenways. Some technologies such as the rock-hopper mountain bike will generate demand for new types trails and challenge courses. New forms of lightweight clothing will enable more trail recreation use by protecting users from sun, rain and cold. Sports drinks, nutritional bars and other forms of recreational nutrition will also continue to emerge.

Lest these ultimately products become meaningless fashion statements and collector's items, a much vaster infrastructure of trails, greenways, and recreational open spaces will be needed. One would think that ultimately it would be in the best interest of the companies that manufacture and market these products to aggressively pursue and contribute to the creation of places to use and enjoy their products.

A broadband in your greenbelt

Emerging technologies may indeed help create and finance trails and greenways. Already, in several parts of the U.S., trails provide rights-of-way for fiber optic lines and the operators of the lines pay rent that helps pay for trail construction and maintenance. Conveniently, the trail also serves as a maintenance path for the fiber optic cable. With the emergence of broadband technology— where a single cable carries telephone, Internet, television and other information— communities will have the opportunity to combine greenways and trail corridors with broadband services.

Greenway, greenbelts and trail corridors make excellent routes for both trunk lines and distribution networks within neighborhoods or subdivisions. One could imagine a community setting up its own satellite dish or broadband receiving station (sometimes referred to a "point of presence" or "POP") and distributing the signal to individual homes via the community trail and greenbelt system. A community association might operate the system and use a portion of the service fees collected to maintain the greenbelts and trail corridors that accommodate the buried broadband cables.

But, are these gadgets righteous? As trail users, trail builders and trail advocates, it behooves us to ask some pressing questions about the good, bad, and ugly aspects of these technologies. On the positive side there are some very clear benefits and opportunities. First and foremost, these devices will enable and encourage a far broader segment of users including people with disabilities that might otherwise not have trail access. In my mind there is no question that this would be a benefit.

Secondly, these devices might broaden the constituency for trail building investment particularly in urban areas where a stronger case might be made for viewing trails and greenways as significant transportation infrastructure. One would hope that the manufactures and users of these devices (along with the manufacturers and users of muscle-powered devices) would contribute financially to the construction and maintenance of trails. Herein, there are opportunities for partnerships.

Now here comes the potential down side. How will these devices diminish the trail experience? For those who choose a power assisted personal mobility device over self-propelled modes or a personal digital assistant device over old fashioned reckoning and spontaneity, I suppose it is a question of personal choice. With respect to crowding and safety, I suppose a Segway is no more dangerous than a bicycle on a multi-use trail. Either could come up silently behind you, so the safety lies with the diligence and courtesy of the user. As these devices leave neither noise nor smoke, I think the major conflict would come from the sheer volume of users.

This suggests that more and better-designed facilities would be needed. It might also be necessary to regulate the speed of the power-assisted mobility devices on certain pathways to assure compatibility with pedestrian users. We may also need to provide more trails limited to walkers and wheelchair users to give sanctuary to those who want to enjoy a trail without needing to be on alert for Segways and bicycles coming up from behind.

Keeping the fire in the belly

When my grandfather was born, the era of the wide-open American West was coming to a close. His parents still viewed civilization as islands in a world that had vast, even uncharted wilderness. That wilderness was a place of awe, mystery, and certainly peril. There was risk and challenge, but a journey into the great outdoors was an adventure that ignited the "fire in the belly." Two generations later, the wilderness is rapidly being reduced to vulnerable islands in a sea of civilization.

Other profound changes are also impacting our psyches. For us baby-boomers, the passing of our parents' generation ends the last direct connection with the pre-technology era marking the end of a way of life that endured for at least 10,000 years. It was an age that depended on foot, animal or wind-propelled transportation. It was a pre-telecommunications time when hand-written and word of mouth were the predominant form of communication.

With these changes, we are experiencing a "quickening" that can be epitomized by both population and microprocessor speed growth. Trails, greenways, and open space represent one of the few ties we have to that earlier age, but the quality of outdoor experiences have become fragile. Clearly, as trail advocates, we have become the stewards of something very precious and very susceptible to change. Trail technology will certainly enable more trail use and, for some, enrich the trail experience. On the other hand, we must evaluate carefully each change and each new product to be sure that special thread of continuity will stay intact.

Robert M. Searns 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. Bob is also a member of the Board of Directors of American Trails.

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