A spring day on Washington D.C.'s Capital Crescent Trail. | Photo by RTC/Barbara Richey

Building an active transportation system involves many steps. Securing funding for the planning and construction of trails, sidewalks and bike lanes is an early challenge in the process. While trails are primarily built with transportation funding, they can also be built with other relevant sources that receive the benefits of trails. Relevant funding can come from sources addressing community or economic development, public health, or environmental protection or park space.

Figure 1. The steps to build an active- transportation system.

Grants for community development and downtown revitalization can often be used for active transportation infrastructure. Other potentially applicable funds include those related to public health initiatives as part of an effort to promote physical activity through walking and bicycling, or environmental programs to curb sprawl, reduce air emissions or build recreational trails. Lastly, funds to improve the accessibility of transportation networks for people with disabilities may also be applicable.

Once local trail builders secure funding from a federal, state, local or private source, or any combination of those four, they can begin planning. To truly create an active transportation network, it is important to review existing infrastructure to efficiently map out new routes, develop the network infrastructure and connect key destination points.

In order to attract users and create a pleasant walking or biking experience, safety is paramount. Off-road trails are the gold standard for safety. On-road facilities should attempt to mimic trail experiences as much as possible by providing barriers to separate the paths from the road and ensure adequate space and appropriate signage at intersections. Reduced traffic levels, reduced traffic speeds and signage to make drivers aware of the likely existence of bicyclists and pedestrians not only promote safety, but also provide a less stressful and more pleasant trail experience—another important element of promoting active transportation.

The health benefits of trails may also encourage more use, as studies show that 30 minutes of daily physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and more. Walking and biking provide an easy and convenient way to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended 30 minutes of physical activity per day and can help communities lower their public health costs.

When more people use a trail network, advocates can show decision-makers how important these networks are and, thus, successfully advocate for additional funding. Additional funding allows advocates to enhance and connect networks, beginning the cycle again.