Give and Take at TrailLink.com
By Jennifer Vogelsong
ook at the map of Idaho's popular Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes that the state provides and you'll see trailheads, restrooms, picnic areas and former mining towns speckled along the route. Go to TrailLink.com, a free trail-finder website powered by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), and you'll find a treasure trove of reviews and on-the-ground commentary about the Coeur d'Alenes provided by trail enthusiast John Wells.
His tips at TrailLink.com include practical information such as which section of the 72-mile corridor runs alongside a Wal-Mart superstore, where you can find a trailside espresso stand and where to be on the alert for moose.
Wells, who lives on Washington's San Juan Islands and summers in Newport Beach, Calif., is one of a number of volunteers who have spent the past few years reviewing and compiling detailed mapping information about trails across the country for RTC.
He sets out to do trail surveys on his "Gutter Bunny '10"—a full-suspension mountain bike rigged with Specialized Armadillo tires, water and tire-pump racks, and removable fenders "to keep the crud down." He customized the bike for survey work by adding clamps for gear and handlebar bags, which he fills with trail essentials and an arsenal of equipment including a GPS unit, field notebook, digital voice recorder, custom Google Earth trail maps, binoculars, camera and spare batteries.
At the end of a typical survey, Wells returns home with two or three dozen voice notes, about 50 photos and a saved track line with waypoints that he converts to files he puts up on TrailLink.com for other users to access.
"The fun of doing this is the excitement of new discoveries," he says, not to mention the knowledge that other trail enthusiasts will benefit from his work when they visit the site. Since the summer of 2009, Wells has surveyed about three dozen trails for TrailLink.com, 14 of which were not previously in RTC's database.
TrailLink.com now offers detailed information, GIS data, photos and user reviews for more than 1,300 trails nationwide, totaling approximately 15,000 miles. The vast collection of data and interactive features is what brings Wells and many others to the site to plan their trail travels and upload post-trip photos and reviews of their own. It's also why in spring 2010 Google and RTC announced a partnership to use the online trail-finder's GIS data to include trails—and bicycle directions—on Google Maps.
Creators of GoogleMapsBikeThere.org, a site started to promote the proliferation of turn-by-turn bicycle directions on Google, had gathered more than 50,000 signatures on a petition asking Google to add bicycle directions to its car, walk and public transit options. "This was the number one most requested feature for Google Maps," says Elaine Filadelfo, spokesperson for the Google Maps team. "We've been asked for it pretty frequently."
Filadelfo says RTC was a natural partner for the project, given the amount of trail data the organization and its volunteers had already compiled. "They have information on a great network of trails all over the country." In November, trails began showing up on Google Maps. In March, the Internet behemoth added bicycle directions to its mapping service.
Google biking directions favor the use of trails, even if a recommended route might send travelers a few blocks out of their way. They also steer cyclists to streets with bicycle lanes and use an algorithm that avoids hills, high-traffic roads and busy intersections, if possible.
Filadelfo says Google is happy with the response to the feature so far. "It's exceeding our expectations."
Even as Google Map users tap into the bicycle directions, trail enthusiasts continue adding trails and updating RTC's data on existing ones with the easy-upload features on TrailLink.com. Not only are they providing information on rail-trails for biking and walking (as well as other pursuits such as equestrian use and cross-country skiing), trail users are responding to TrailLink's expanding call for all multi-use trails—not only rail-trails.
"Rail-trails are what we do best," says Frederick Schaedtler, RTC's director of information technology, "but in terms of meeting the demand for recreational trail information, multi-use trails often look and feel pretty much like rail-trails to the people that use them."
Schaedtler points out that many multi-use pathways are connecting corridors. Including them helps RTC more accurately measure its goal of having 90 percent of the U.S. population living within three miles of a trail or trail system by 2020.
"There is just an incredible demand for trail information, but collecting the data on a nationwide scale remains a challenge," says Schaedtler. "We continue to need the public's ongoing support to reach our mapping goals."
For trail enthusiast Tim Bischke of Jordan, Minn., helping collect and update trail map data is a way to give back. He and his wife use TrailLink.com to plan rides during the winter months when they travel to warmer states. When he heard that RTC needed volunteers for the mapping project, he offered to hit some of his favorite nearby trails to collect data. "I do a lot of trail riding, and there are still many trails that don't have maps, so I thought I'd make a contribution," says Bischke.
Some municipalities have joined the individual volunteers in submitting data for the mapping project. Renee Jordan, a trail system planner in charge of new trail development for Plano, Texas, sent in data on the city's more than 60 miles of multi-use trails, and she has been encouraging nearby cities to do the same.
"Ever since we had that really bad summer with $4-a-gallon gasoline and job losses, a lot more people [have been] using bicycles," she says. "They realized, 'Hey, this isn't bad—it's actually kind of fun. I lost weight, feel better and am saving money.' I think that attitude really started to spread."
The process of adding trail information to TrailLink.com has been streamlined now that users can map and upload trail data on their own through the site. Staff at RTC need only check submissions for accuracy.
The number of visits to TrailLink.com has skyrocketed in the past year or so. "Hopefully, this [data sharing] creates a little more of a community around these trails," says Tim Rosner, GIS specialist for RTC.
What you can do on TrailLink.com
- Search for trails by geographic area, length, surface and activity.
- Download and print detailed trail maps.
- Download detailed trail maps and data to your GPS unit.
- See user-submitted photos of trails, or submit your own images.
- Read user-submitted reviews of trails, or write your own.
- Use the Google interface to see aerial and street-level views of trails.
- Upload data to the site to update existing trail information or add a new trail.
Rosner says even though all the data on TrailLink.com is free, visitors do need to create a user name and password to access the information. "It makes the site a better experience for the users, since the registration process reduces the potential amount of spam that would otherwise junk up the site with fake reviews and false information," he explains. "It also allows us to let users know about new features on the site and other news from RTC."
Although the quantity of material on the site and the number of trail enthusiasts using it continue to grow, Rosner still thinks the maps are the "coolest" feature. "They are very detailed," he says. "You can turn on the aerial photo and see the trail and what's around it. The interactivity of the maps is really powerful."
For folks like John Wells, who loves sneaking a peek at what to expect around the next bend in a trail, the site is invaluable. "It's a great database, and I want to help make it better."