Keith Laughlin at Flat Branch Park
in Columbia, Mo.
The Promise of Active Transportation
My daughter recently turned 24. She still doesn't have a driver's license. Neither does her 20-year-old brother. That was unheard of in my youth, when I got my license the day after I turned 16. But my kids grew up in a family that valued both its AAA membership and bicycling. And they grew up in a place—Washington, D.C.—with a world-class public transportation system that made getting around without a car a real option for their many activities.
My kids aren't alone. In 1988, 45 percent of 16 year olds in the United States had their driver's license; by 2008, that figure had dropped to 31 percent.
I'm sure my kids will eventually get their licenses. But when they do, I think they'll view the car as just another transportation option, not as a central element of their lives.
When I consider this generational difference, I sense that a fairly dramatic cultural shift is under way. We are witnessing a transition from the auto-dominated American lifestyle of the post-war years to something new—something more grounded and local. At the neighborhood level, demand is growing for more livable communities that emphasize health and quality of life. And as part of that vision, people want the choice of walking, biking, driving or public transportation, depending on the fastest or most convenient way to reach a particular destination. They want the choice to leave their car behind, even if it's just once in a while.
Providing people this choice is a primary objective of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Campaign for Active Transportation. As part of this campaign, we've been tracking how even small changes in transportation infrastructure can lead to huge shifts in the look and feel of a community. More bike lanes here, wider sidewalks there, a rail-trail through the heart of an urban neighborhood—all fairly minor adjustments to the visual landscape. Yet these efforts can lead to vastly more active lifestyles, less road congestion and more connected and open communities. It's really incredible to watch how a simple trail can draw people outside and get them to interact in ways that are impossible on streets and highways.
In this issue, you'll get to read about how some of those changes are taking shape in Baltimore, Md., Billings, Mont., and Fort Wayne, Ind. We still have a lot of progress to make, but it's exciting to see such great results already coming together.