History of the Trails Movement

David Burwell and Peter Harnik, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy co-founders | Photo by Robert Trippet

Check out our interactive timeline below to browse important moments in the history of RTC and trail development in America.

History of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Thirty years ago, a group of walking and biking enthusiasts, railroad history buffs, conservation and parks groups, and active-transportation activists began meeting regularly in Washington, D.C., to mobilize efforts to preserve unused rail corridors for public use. The group quickly realized the need for a dedicated organization, and on Feb. 1, 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy opened its doors.

Resources Radio podcast with Peter Harnik, cofounder of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Host Margaret Walls talks with Peter Harnik, cofounder of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, about grassroots and legislative efforts to repurpose abandoned railroad lines as recreational trails. Harnik discusses why the United States has so many abandoned railroad lines, the process of converting a railroad line into a trail, and the legislation that provides funding for trail projects.

Since our founding, RTC has worked from coast to coast, supporting the development of thousands of miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails for millions of people to explore and enjoy. Our work combines national policy advocacy and research expertise with on-the-ground trail development. We advocate for trail-friendly policies and funding at the federal and state levels—in the courts, in Congress and throughout the country. Through our trail development work, we have helped hundreds of communities in America plan, build and maintain trails in urban, suburban and rural areas.

We’ve helped craft rural trails that spool out over a hundred miles of open prairie, snake through mountain passes and span canyons and riverbanks, offering views unknown to the highway traveler. We’ve supported the development of connections between towns and suburbs, linking communities along vibrant corridors. And we’ve helped create thriving urban networks that are transforming neighborhoods and entire regions.

Related: American Icons: Rail-Trails That Helped Shape the National Landscape

RTC recognizes that trails are more than just wonderful recreational amenities; they are multi-use corridors that create powerful opportunities for active transportation and physical activity—improving our health and well-being and safely connect people of all ages and abilities to jobs, schools, businesses, parks and cultural institutions.

"In 1965...Rails-to-Trails was still a highly localized movement; people said, 'We've got an abandoned railroad track, so let's use it.' Only gradually did there emerge a realization that America desperately needs a national trails system, and that unused rail corridors are the perfect backbone for that network."
       —Peter Harnik, RTC Co-founder


History of Rail-Trails

It began in the mid-1960s as a quiet Midwest phenomenon barely noticed in the major metropolitan areas of America. The idea: To convert the abandoned or unused rail corridors—which were closing at an increasingly rapid pace across America—into public trails.

As tracks started being pulled out, people instinctively began walking along the old corridors, socializing, exploring, enjoying nature, discovering railroad relics and marveling at the bridges and tunnels. At the time, most people simply walked the corridors; although some outdoor enthusiasts skied or snowshoed the local pathways in winter. These early users started calling them “rails-to-trails"—a name that quickly caught on. Of course, none of the corridors were paved or graded; that would not come until later.

The rail-trail movement would see its formal birth with the opening of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in 1965 and the opening of the Illinois Prairie Path soon thereafter. In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, which largely deregulated the nation’s struggling railroad industry and allowed for the discontinuation of unprofitable routes. This prompted the abandonment of 4,000 to 8,000 miles of lines each year throughout the early 1980s. In 1983, Congress became concerned about the potential permanent loss of thousands of miles of rail corridor and amended the National Trails Systems Act to create “railbanking,” a tool to preserve inactive corridors for future rail use, while providing for interim trail use.

When we opened our doors, there were 250 miles of open rail-trails in America. With 30 years of leadership, this “great idea”—to preserve America’s irreplaceable rail corridors by transforming them into multi-use trails—has blossomed into a movement. 

Today, rail-trails are continuing to make a significant mark on American communities, with more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails providing a place for tens of millions of people to walk, run, hike, skate and cycle each year.

RTC’s initial vision, experience and expertise put us in the forefront of the national effort to preserve rail corridors for public use. Over time, we have expanded our work to include creating connections between these rail-trails and other multi-use trails and open spaces. In addition, our policy work has shifted into more of a defensive position as federal funding for trails increasingly comes under attack.

In 1986, with only 250 miles of rail-trails in existence, there was little established knowledge of the rail-trail conversion process. If RTC was not directly involved, then a trail might not be built. As a result, our policy work initially focused on the implementation of the “railbanking” act, with RTC operating as a “conservancy” to railbank and acquiring inactive corridors. We also began providing technical assistance to local rail-trail pioneers seeking to navigate the new rail-trail conversion process. This assistance has expanded over the years to include an array of technical support and guidance in building and maintaining trails.

Because the primary benefits of rail-trails were considered initially to be corridor preservation, recreation and protection of open space, trails often were built with limited public funds dedicated to parks and recreation. This focus shifted significantly with the passage of the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, or ISTEA, which was championed by RTC. For the first time, federal surface transportation funds were available for the development of trails for walking and biking through the creation of the Transportation Enhancements and Recreational Trails Programs. With this new funding source, the benefits of rail-trails explicitly expanded to include transportation. 

Unfortunately, in the years since passage, RTC has had to fight to protect federal funding programs dedicated to building trails and has turned back repeated legislative and administrative efforts at the state and national levels to undermine the program—a role we will continue to play in the years ahead.

In the 30 years since our founding, we’ve continued to look for new opportunities to have an impact. Increasingly, RTC has come to recognize the importance of large, interconnected, regional trail networks. These trails deliver high value to regional areas—which often cross state lines—as both active-transportation networks and destination-quality trails. And through our promotion of rails-with-trails—trails alongside active rail lines—we are helping advance the full potential of transportation systems.

Today, our role as defender, protector and supporter of trail development persists, even as the nature of that role continues to evolve.

A Cultural Shift

A lot has changed since RTC opened for business 30 years ago. No change has been more profound, however, than the burgeoning growth in demand for safe places to walk and bike. 

This trend began about 15 years ago when people became increasingly interested in healthier, more active lifestyles. Concerns had been growing that America’s car-dependent lifestyles are contributing to the obesity epidemic, making it difficult for people to build physical activity into their daily lives. 

A recent report found that nearly 1 million more people reported walking or biking to work in 2013 compared to 2005. Paralleling that trend, there has been a consistent decline in vehicle miles traveled. Corresponding to these changes, real estate trends show that people are placing higher premiums on urban living versus auto-dependent suburban lifestyles. 

As people are placing higher value on safe places to walk and bike, trails increasingly are considered an essential element for a healthy community and improved quality of life. This cultural shift means that trails and interconnected networks have become a competitive economic advantage for communities across the nation. Trails and trail networks not only make a state’s residents healthier and fitter but can also draw high-quality employers, economic growth and tourism.

In response, RTC is using strong, on-the-ground support to create policies that fund and prioritize trail building and to ensure trail networks are widely understood to be essential community assets. RTC will continue to advocate for the adoption of national, state and local policies and funding streams that encourage the creation of safe places to walk and bike and make America more walkable and bikeable through regional trail systems.