Yesterday, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy announced its partnership with Google as a content provider for Google Map’s brand new biking routes in 150 U.S. cities.
Keith Laughlin, president of the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails, told me in a recent conversation that bike trails used to be something communities saw as “nice to have, but not a priority.” Now, they can’t be built quickly enough.
You’ve been at Rails to Trails since 2001. What’s been accomplished since then?
Since 2001 we have built an extra 8,000 miles of trails, so we have over 19,000 now. In addition to that there’s been a cultural shift. There was a time when people viewed having these trails in their communities as a nice to have thing, but not a necessity. But what we’re seeing is an increased demand at the local level, and the trails are now viewed as critical infrastructure for a livable 21st century community,
Back when the organizations started, environmental issues weren’t as much of an impetus for cycling as they are today.
We’ve seen a joining in of these issues over time. We started as a land preservation and recreation group. Over time, as we have preserved this land, we’ve become a transportation advocacy organization. Now there’s issues of air quality and climate change, and beyond that, it’s become public health issue, because you’re targeting sedentary lifestyles and the obesity epidemic. That’s the beauty of what we’re doing now—by doing one thing, we can check off about five boxes [of public benefits].
Are all these trails all from railroads?
Well, 15,000 miles of the 19,000 is directly from railways, and an additional 4,000 miles has been added on to those trails as connecting trails. This 19,000 is not counting trails along river corridors or bike lanes.
We had a huge number of abandonments and consolidations in the railroad industry from the 1960s through the 1980s. So we’ve tried to keep those corridors in the public domain by preserving them. These are land areas that would have been lost.
How do the trails help communities?
It has changed so much in the nine years I’ve been here. We have become extremely mainstream. At one point, there was a small number of very vocal people saying having these trails would increase crime and decrease property values. Now, people see the exact opposite is true—having the trails reduces crime and increases property values. We have so many examples it’s hard to refute.
On the economic side, it’s become a key economic development tool in many communities. You’ll see trailside cafes, bike shops, B&Bs—all sprouting up next to the trails. It’s been a spark to economic redevelopment. Some of these small communities were originally created because the railroad went through the towns. When the railroad stopped, it was devastating. Now they realize that bicycle tourism can be a boon for these small communities. They understand that cyclists have a lot money in their fanny pack.
Click here to read more about Google Maps' biking routes.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com