Everyone agrees that getting more children walking or riding to school each day would be a great thing. The regular exercise would do them the world of good, not to speak of keeping all those parent-taxis off the road in a.m. and p.m. peak hours.
In 1969, about 41 percent of kids walked or biked to school. Now, that number is down to about 13 percent. And in that same time period, the percentage of children who are overweight has more than tripled. This generation of young people is the first in our history expected to have a shorter average life expectancy than their parents, and inactivity is the main reason why.
However the problem isn't just lazy kids. Many communities have developed in such an auto-centric way that their roads and streets don't have sidewalks, and walking or riding is either unsafe or, in some instances, banned.
Students at Kenowa Hills High School in Michigan were suspended earlier this year for riding their bikes to the last day of classes, a ride which, incidentally, they had to take on-road as there are no sidewalks or bike lanes connecting to the school.
At Norwood-Norfolk Central School in Norfolk, N.Y., they are facing a similar challenge - students and staff are desperate to add more regular physical activity to their days, but the school is in an area where the built environment discourages active transportation. The school says it was told by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYDOT) that sidewalks would not be permitted alongside the only road that connects to the school.
No sidewalks? Okay then, how about a rail-with-trail? Luckily for Norwood-Norfolk, there is a rail corridor running adjacent to the school's playground (left). Though still active, the line is lightly-used, and school district officials are leading the push to make better use of the underused corridor as a walking and biking pathway for students, teachers and the broader community.
"It would be a definite benefit," Superintendent Elizabeth A. Kirnie told the Watertown Daily Times. "We were told by DOT, no sidewalks, no recreation on [State Route] 56. This is one possibility. We don't have a lot of alternatives."
Kirnie's aim is to create an all-season recreational trail that could be used for activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, walking and running. Elected officials in Norfolk and Norwood have added their support, and as a result of this coordinated application the National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA) has awarded the project a grant of consultancy expertise, to be provided by the Department of Interior.
Although it is still early stages for this exciting project, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) Northeast Office has contacted RTCA staff and offered to provide technical assistance relating to rail-with-trail designs.
"Rail-with-trail is a growing part of our work," says Carl Knoch, RTC's manager of trail development in the Northeast. "These rail corridors were designed to take people and goods directly to community centers, gathering points and places of interest, which are exactly the routes modern planners are looking for today."
One of the biggest hurdles to getting approval for rail-with-trail projects continues to be the perception that having biking and walking close to active rail lines is unsafe.
"But building a designated trail area alongside such corridors can contribute to a reduction in accidents, as it provides a better alternative to walking on the actual rail line. If there is a trail there, you don't need to," Knoch says. "As these pathways prove themselves to be safe, convenient and incredibly efficient uses of otherwise underutilized land, I think more and more municipalities are going to see their tremendous value."
RTC is currently producing a report on rail-with-trail projects across America, to be released in 2013. Stay tuned.