Uniting the Bay: Trails Are Creating Healthy Communities in California

Posted 02/04/16 by Elizabeth Striano in Policy, Building Trails

San Francisco Bay Trail | Photo courtesy Tony Webster | CC by 2.0

Residents in the San Francisco Bay Area have long supported development of trails and greenways throughout the immense and influential nine-county region. This local, grassroots activism has led to creation of some of the best regional trails in the country and positioned the Bay Area as a leader in the trails movement. Despite the tremendous popularity of trails, there are still major gaps in the area’s trail system, due to fierce competition for transportation and park funding, barriers in the built environment and a lack of attention to underserved areas.

San Francisco Bay Trail | Photo courtesy Sandip Bhattacharya | CC by 2.0

Recognizing the importance of integrating the region’s trails into a complete, connected network, RTC worked with local partners to launch the Bay Area Trails Collaborative (BATC) in the spring of 2014. Currently comprising more than 40 nonprofits, public agencies and private entities representing transportation, recreation, public health, equity and open space/conservation interests—the diverse group is speaking in a unified voice to regional and state planning authorities on behalf of trails.

“There’s so much talent and passion in the Bay Area for creating trails and greenways, but much of it is focused locally. We’ve recognized that it’s far more powerful for all of us to be working together to leverage our collective influence, knowledge and expertise,” said Laura Cohen, RTC’s western regional director, and chair and founder of the BATC. “Collaboration also helps build our technical know-how and collectively identify regional needs and priorities.”

The group aims to accelerate completion of an interconnected trail network in the San Francisco Bay Area that would link the region’s nine counties via a route spanning more than 1,000 miles. The completed trail system will connect local communities with jobs, resources and open space, and provide healthy recreation and active-transportation options, including hundreds of miles of trails, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and greenways that abound in the region.

A Plan for Change

Along the San Francisco Bay Trail at Crissy Field | Photo courtesy Mark Doliner | CC by 2.0

Roughly 50 to 75 percent of the trails in the area are complete, including several large, regional systems such as the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the California Coastal Trail, the Bay Water Trail and the San Francisco Bay Trail—one of the largest in the network, traversing more than 500 miles of trails and connecting 47 cities.

The hope is that a powerful multi-sector regional collaborative will advance policy, funding and technical expertise far more effectively than any single group could do alone. Together, coalition members are working to expand trail policy and funding opportunities; leverage resources and knowledge; and improve trail network planning, including integrating trails with the rest of the Bay Area’s transportation system. The group is also working to build community around the trails and promote trail use, and is actively seeking to identify new partnerships.

“Large-scale change requires broad, cross-sector coordination rather than isolated effort by individual organizations,” said Cohen.

The group includes organizations such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (“MTC,” the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization); San Francisco Bay Trail (an Association of Bay Area Governments initiative); Bay Area Ridge Trail Council; Bay Area Open Space Council; California Coastal Conservancy; Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition; Bike East Bay; several county health departments and transportation agencies; City of San Jose Parks and Recreation Department; and many others.

RELATED: The Circuit Trails: Greater Philadelphia’s Burgeoning Trail Network

Accomplishments and Next Steps

In 2015, the BATC advocated for MTC to launch a region-wide bike/ped user count program, which will include trail data for the first time. The data will be critical for creating a regional snapshot of trail use in the Bay Area, with a focus on how new biking and walking infrastructure is performing—and whether or not biking and walking rates are increasing.

At the state level, recent advocacy by the BATC ensured that trails would be highly competitive in California’s Active Transportation Program (ATP), and the latest funding results bear that out. In 2015, 38 percent of the $359 million programmed went to trails and separated bikeways: $133 million for 59 projects.  

Once complete, this interconnected regional and local system will offer not only recreation and transportation benefits, but will address some of the critical challenges the area is facing: alleviating traffic congestion, increasing economic opportunity, improving public health and reducing greenhouse gases and air pollution from vehicle traffic.

“Once people understand the importance of these connected systems, they understand their power to create healthier communities,” said Cohen. “The key is thinking regionally, connecting trail networks and linking them to other transportation and recreation facilities, and making sure we’re serving all communities.”

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