The Power of Trail Networks in Shaping the Future

Posted 01/12/16 by Elizabeth Striano in America's Trails, Building Trails

The Schuylkill River Trail, part of the Circuit Trails, a 750-Mile active-transportation network in the Greater Philadelphia Region | Photo courtesy Montgomery County Planning Commission | CC by 2.0

As we enter our 30th year, RTC’s vision of a nationwide network of trails and pathways continues to grow clearer with each new mile of trail opened. Increasingly, the focus of our movement has changed from single trails to interconnected trail networks spanning cities and entire regions of the country. These active-transportation systems are providing more and safer mobility than ever before in urban, suburban and rural areas, connecting people to jobs, schools, shopping centers, cultural institutions, and to friends and family members.

Jones Falls Trail, part of Baltimore's developing 35-mile Greenway Trails Network | Photo courtesy Steve Earley | CC by 2.0

These trails serve as economic engines, spurring tourism, civic activity and a wide range of investment—from the opening of locally owned shops and restaurants to the development of real estate and cultural sites that help to define communities. Trails are generating millions of dollars annually for their local areas—while creating a sense of local pride and cultural identity for the people they serve. They also are helping to attract skilled, educated professionals—many of whom are choosing to walk and bike as their primary modes of travel.

In the coming months, to celebrate RTC’s 30th anniversary, TrailBlog will feature some of these great new projects emerging around the country and will explore RTC’s role in helping to make them a reality, including our trail-building expertise and national support. Each project is built on a foundation of strong local, regional and national partners and are the combined result of thousands of collaborators, leaders and visionaries from around America. Each one provides insight into what it takes to create trail networks of the 21st century—and beyond.

Stay tuned in the next few months as we take a closer look at each of these projects. The projects are diverse, ranging from a 30-mile loop in Baltimore weaving through the city’s neighborhoods to a 1,500-mile network spanning five states. We hope these stories will provide inspiration for the next round of multi-state regional trail networks. Here is a sample of what’s to come ...

The Circuit Trails

The Circuit Trails was the first project of this caliber that RTC undertook. The goal is to create a 750-mile network of bicycle and pedestrian trails connecting people to jobs, communities and parks in the Greater Philadelphia Region.

To date, 300-plus miles have been built. RTC has a leadership role in many aspects of the project, from economic impact research to youth engagement to communications, and is heavily involved in the network’s development on a day-to-day basis.

Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition

The Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition represents the biggest geographic scale at which RTC is working. The vision is to create up to 1,450 miles of networked trails connecting Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York, and providing significant economic development and tourism potential for the many communities along the network. RTC is collaborating with municipal governments, local nonprofits and planning agencies to create this trail network that will help to revitalize the rust belt. Approximately 48 percent of the trail system has been built.

Route of the Badger

Route of the Badger presents an unprecedented opportunity to create a world-class, 500-mile-plus trail network that would not only serve urban communities, but connect a variety of areas within the greater southern Wisconsin region.

Bay Area Trails Collaborative

The Bay Area Trails Collaborative is unique from the other projects, combining trail policy and trail development through the creation of a new regional coalition to build policy, political and financial support for trail building in California’s Bay Area. The BATC includes about 40 agencies and organizations from parks, trails and conservation interests in the region.

Baltimore Greenway Trails Network

Runner on the Jones Falls Trail through northern tip of Druid Hill Park | Photo by Steve Earley | CC by 2.0

The Baltimore Greenway Trails Network Coalition in Maryland represents an unprecedented opportunity to advance famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s original vision to create an “Emerald Necklace” for the city of Baltimore. Phase one includes the creation of a 30-mile-plus loop of existing trails, inactive rail lines, parks and protected on-road facilities. A future proposed loop and spoke network will connect residential neighborhoods, the downtown business district, former industrial areas, transit hubs, universities, cultural anchors, stream valleys, urban coastal wetlands, parks and public spaces via an active-transportation network.


Although the Trail Modeling and Assessment Platform (T-MAP) is not a trail network, this effort will further the burgeoning trail-building momentum on a national scale. This set of data collection instruments, methodologies and analysis tools (in development) will transform the way America thinks about—and develops—trails and trail networks. The information generated will be used strategically to demonstrate to decision-makers the dollar value of investments made in trails, and how these investments relate to people—real trail users and not just miles of trail.

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Celebrating Our Past and Our Future

RTC is pleased to celebrate our 30th anniversary in 2016! Check out our interactive timeline and expanding 30th anniversary blogs series for stories highlighting the evolution of RTC and the rail-trail movement.