Feature Article - May/June 2003
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Trail Guide

Building multiuse trails and bridges

By Kyle Ryan

An equestrian bridge at Black River Reservation
in Loraine, Ohio.

Every night, Matt Lebow sits in New York's municipal courthouse, guarding it while most people in the city that never sleeps, well, sleep. His night shift is part of stepped up security following Sept. 11.

"I have to make sure nothing's going on," Lebow says. "I also have a lot of time where I'm sitting there watching a door. It gives me time to work on proposals."

While watching that door, he came up with the idea to build the first multiuse trails in New York City. Just beyond the concrete canyons of Manhattan lie Wolfe's Pond Park and Long Pond Park on Staten Island, with 200 acres of unused wilderness (aside from some abandoned stolen cars and other trash).

It's not surprising, though, that the New York City Parks Department hasn't exactly been swift in responding. The most urban area in the United States isn't synonymous with mountain biking, a sport that at least requires soil.

But Lebow and his organization, the New York City Mountain Bikers, did their homework. He has plans, volunteers, designs and determination. With a similar set of ingredients, just about anyone can plan, design and build sustainable multiuse trails.

What's the point?

Why go through all this hassle for a glorified recreational sidewalk?

Funded by the USDA Forest Service, the prefabricated steel truss recreation bridge spans 70 feet over the South Platte River in Eleven Mile Canyon near Lake George, Colo. The bridge provides access to picnic areas.

"The recreation viewpoint may be narrowly construed," says Ders Anderson, director of the Greenways Program for the Openlands Project in Illinois. "Everybody tends to forget that people walk. We don't need to live in cars or mass transit. The reason people are walking or biking is a lot deeper than recreational activity. That's why I think now, in the last five years, we're beginning to understand that a little better."

Trails, Anderson says, are open to all age groups and all ability (or disability) levels—unlike, say, a soccer field.

"A half-million dollars put into a trail services the community a lot more than a half million put into a soccer field," Anderson says. "Trails are very cost-effective."

They may even pay for themselves in time, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that organizes and lobbies for the conversion of abandoned rail lines to multiuse trails.

In some urban settings, trails and greenways are built on abandoned intracity rail corridors, providing pathways to urban settings for people who live outside them. This in turn leads to revitalization, both economically and aesthetically (rusty tracks vs. crushed limestone and foliage). The RTC also points out that, in addition to helping residents connect with places and each other, the trails help with conservation and easy transportation problems, all of which could save money.

Spanning 46 feet, this timber lattice truss recreation bridge, funded with local support, was built by the National Guard in Elroy, Wis. The bridge is part of an extensive system of bike trails that connect numerous towns in Southwestern Wisconsin.

Beyond economics lay the health benefits. It's no mystery that obesity rates in the United States are skyrocketing due to poor diet and lack of exercise. Walking is the easiest, most accessible form of exercise, especially for sedentary people. Trails give them a place to do it, with the perks of a natural setting instead of the dreaded treadmill.

Trail proponents also like to point out the social benefits. The RTC calls trails "America's new front porch." Anderson speaks of anecdotal evidence of trails becoming community centers. Michael Sands, who designed a trail system for a suburban Chicago development called Prairie Crossing, agrees.

"They are in and of themselves an amenity in civic space," Sands says. "You don't really connect with a place by looking at it from a road or car window. It's really when you get out and walk through it that it becomes more real."