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  Keith Laughlin at Flat Branch Park in Columbia, Mo. © Jennifer Kaleba/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Keith Laughlin at Flat Branch Park
in Columbia, Mo.

The Promise of Active Transportation

I remember it like it was yesterday. In the late 1950s, I lived in an area outside of Ann Arbor, Mich., where the only paved roads had too much high-speed car traffic for a child to ride a bike. So I contented myself with riding my 20-inch Schwinn up and down our short gravel side street. But one weekend I was out exploring and discovered something amazing: They were building Interstate 94 not far from my house. Stretched before me was a fresh ribbon of asphalt as far as the eye could see. As there was no work under way, I went home and got my bike. For the rest of that day, I enjoyed the freedom and exhilaration of riding as far as my bike could take me without any danger from car traffic.

Those memories came rushing back one afternoon last October. We were holding an event on a newly paved segment of the Metropolitan Branch Trail project not far from our offices in Washington, D.C. We were there to present new bikes, helmets and locks to 40 neighborhood kids as part of our Metropolitan Grants Program, funded by The Coca-Cola Foundation.

As we adults made the necessary speeches, the kids were fidgeting and eyeing that long line of brand-new bikes. When we finally gave the word, they rushed forward to claim their new wheels and were soon off in a chaotic swarm of pure joy. I will never forget the look on their faces as they rode up and down that half-mile segment of new pavement.

I have ridden rail-trails in communities across the country and have often witnessed the thrill of children riding their first bikes. It's one of the great rewards of our trail work, and one of the many reasons I'm especially excited about our new Urban Pathways Initiative. This new program, funded by The Kresge Foundation and launched in 2009, will focus on making trails available to children and families in inner-city neighborhoods across America.

Where green space is scarce, these urban trails open up new worlds. You can exercise, run errands, meet your neighbors or just goof around after school. If you don't have a yard and there isn't a park nearby, that trail may be the only public space you have to enjoy and explore. Rarely does a strip of safe pavement become more meaningful.

A trail can mean many things to different people, and our Urban Pathways Initiative will touch thousands of residents in ways we can't predict. But I'll never lose sight of the fact that these pathways ensure that children everywhere—in rural, suburban and urban communities—can experience the simple joy of riding their bikes and playing in a safe place. Once you've seen the look on their faces, you'll never forget it.

Happy Trails!

Keith Laughlin

Spring/Summer 2010

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The Duke Ellington Building
2121 Ward Ct., NW
5th Floor
Washington, DC 20037