Keith Laughlin at Flat Branch Park
in Columbia, Mo.
Is That a Trail?
A few years ago, a local survey in Portland, Ore., sought to determine whether residents were interested in being able to ride more as a form of transportation. Respondents fell into three main categories. On one end of the spectrum, seven percent of the population already used their bike for transportation. On the other end, 33 percent had no interest in cycling whatsoever. But in the vast middle, 60 percent of the population was "interested but concerned." Th ese people were eager to cycle more, but were greatly concerned about the safety of riding in traffic with cars.
The membership of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy falls into all three categories. Some of us are "road warriors," who have no problem riding in thick traffic. Others enjoy rail-trails for walking, running, skating or riding a horse and have no interest in getting on a bike. But a large share of our membership falls into this "interested but concerned" category. Many of our members—me included—love rail-trails because they provide safe and pleasant places to ride that are separated from the stress of car traffic.
Many of our communities have had bike lanes for years. While a well-designed bike lane can better integrate cyclists into the roadway, it is still part of the roadway. As a result, there is no evidence that bike lanes increase the confidence of cyclists who are concerned about riding in traffic. And no one would ever mistake a bike lane for a trail.
But as interest in cycling has blossomed in communities across America, an innovative new idea has emerged. Called "cycle tracks" or "green lanes," these new bike facilities differ from bike lanes in one key respect: while part of the roadway, like trails, they physically separate cyclists from automobile traffic. The concept was brand new just a few years ago, but now there are more than 100 examples across the country.
Why would Rails-to-Trails Conservancy care about cycle tracks? Let me suggest two related reasons. First, these facilities off er the possibility that some people will be able to safely travel from their house to a rail-trail without having to drive to a trailhead. Second, as rail-trails continue to spread across the landscape, it becomes possible to link these trails together into a network. Cycle tracks have the potential to close gaps between trails that don't otherwise connect.
Th ought of this way, cycle tracks are simply another form of "trail" in our trailbuilding toolbox. But rather than starting with a rail corridor, they could be categorized as "road-to-trail" projects.
At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, we pride ourselves on our dedication to our core mission of catalyzing the development of rail-trails while staying on the cutting edge of trail development. All of these approaches are necessary to achieve our mission of connecting America with a nationwide network of trails and greenways.