Feature Article - March 2022
Find a printable version here

Trail Mix

The Diverse & Transformative Power of Trails

By Kelli Ra Anderson

"42" may have been The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's answer to the question about life, the universe and everything. But in 2022 that answer could easily be "trails." No longer just a scenic way to get from point A to point B, the humble community trail has turned into a seeming cure-all for what ails much of our nation today. From mowed meadow paths and paved bikeways to wetland boardwalks and scrappy mountain bike singletracks, trails have become a strategic tool communities are using to transform their economies, ecology and quality of life.

It has been the perfect storm, really. Record-breaking public enthusiasm for biking, hiking and all-things-outdoors since the pandemic began has certainly played a big role. As a result, the number of new trails is up 36% since 2019, according to the 2021 National Trail Count from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. But timely innovations have also played a role with bike design and mobility devices that have expanded seasonal use and user demographics. Sales are booming for pedal-assist e-bikes for seniors and the mobility-challenged, smaller mountain bikes catering to young children, and electric one-wheel skateboards popular with millennials and Gen Z. (To say nothing of fat-tire biking and studded tires that allow cyclists to also enjoy winter wonderlands.)

"The diversity of folks using trails is a big trend," said David Patton, vice president for the Pacific region and Northwest area director for the Trust for Public Land (TPL). "Ten years ago, you either had hard-core commuter bikers or hard-core mountain bikers and some casual users, but we are seeing a lot more casual bikers and/or people just out with families on a nice day. People are weary of riding on streets, so building amenities for non-traditional bikers and using them for recreation is big."

Money Over Matter

In response to these many changes, the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has allocated an estimated $11 billion dollars for trails, bike lanes and multi-use paths to fund new projects or upgrade existing ones. States like Indiana, which announced in March that it is investing $30 million for trail projects, are also getting on board, convinced of the strong economic, social and health benefits trails provide. Thankfully, there are many nonprofits and organizations that are more than happy to help communities navigate land acquisition, grant writing, fundraising and trail planning.

"One of the biggest things right now is about being prepared," said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. "Whether rural or urban. Be ready to grab the funding, which really is about having a vision for trail network systems so when funding keeps coming, you are ready to access it."

In addition to communities now hiring more staff to be able to do the planning work necessary, many projects are successfully financed by casting a broad financial net, often a combination of grants, fundraising, donations and even timber harvesting and utilization of carbon credits to make these projects affordable, sustainable and maintainable.

Making Connections

Although trails these days come in many shapes and sizes, for many of them "connectivity" is the name of the game. Whether it is creating an ambitious trans-national bike trail, connecting coast to coast, as in the Great American Rail-Trail project (now 53% complete); building easy-access trails connecting residential areas to nearby recreational trails; or connecting existing trails from town to town to create a networked long-distance tourist attraction, connectivity is trending hard. Case in point: The nation's longest rail-trail, the 240-mile Katy Trail in central Missouri, just achieved another historic railbanking milestone with the purchase of the 144-mile Rock Island Corridor, extending the Katy Trail even further.

Long-distance biking is also growing thanks to the proliferation of e-bikes among an older demographic. Discovering the game-changing freedom a little pedal assistance can bring, they are excited to return to an activity they thought was no longer available to them (and contributing to sales reportedly up by 47% according to the NDP Group). With trails networking across entire states like the Cross Vermont and Cross New Hampshire Adventure trails, e-bikes (especially Class I and Class II) that utilize pedal assist mechanisms are enabling more people to go farther and enjoy more varied terrain than ever before.

"The demand for outdoor recreation trails for walking, biking and accessing recreation may have spiked during COVID, but it is continuing. Mayors have concluded it isn't just a nice thing to have. It is an essential part of a community," Thorstensen said, referencing a 2021 University of Boston survey.

Betsy Cook, Maine state program director with TPL, agreed, adding that "ultimately trails are about creating healthier communities. It's a huge benefit to mental health, but the economic piece is also enormous. It's not just rural areas. It can be a trail in Portland where someone's visiting and buying coffee."

A lot of people are starting to connect the dots.