Trails Transform America

Congress has the opportunity to deliver an active transportation system for the nation that provides essential infrastructure and puts Americans to work.


Photo: The Ronald Kirk pedestrian bridge (left) and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity Skyline Trail, Dallas, Texas

At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, we know that trails and other active transportation infrastructure will play a critical role in putting Americans to work while contributing to healthy, safe and equitable communities.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, trail use has surged nationwide. People are building walking and biking into their daily routines like never before—local leaders predict that these behavior patterns will sustain and they’re finding ways to create infrastructure that meets these needs, despite funding concerns. The pandemic has tested our communities and proven the incredible value that trails and active transportation infrastructure provide.

As more Americans rely on trails, walking and biking for essential trips, and communities turn to active transportation as an economic strategy, the nation’s federal policies must reflect these changes and the opportunities they represent while providing for the safety of all Americans as they walk, bike and move.

As Congress takes up debate about the future of the nation’s federal transportation bill, we have an opportunity to invest in connected active transportation infrastructure that provides safe, convenient and equitable walking and biking routes in our communities while addressing critical challenges to our economy, climate, health and safety.

The Opportunity for Visionary Change

America’s transportation policy has long prioritized the ability to move the maximum number of cars efficiently rather than the greatest number of people safely. While the automobile has been the dominant mode of transportation for the past 70 years, the majority of trips taken in this country are within a 20-minute bike ride or less, and more than one in four trips are within a 20-minute walk or less. To encourage more people to walk or bike and to maximize the benefits of active transportation, we need walking and biking infrastructure that connects to where people want to go and is safe, convenient and comfortable.

Congress has turned its attention to the next major federal transportation bill, which will guide transportation spending—including funding for trails, walking and biking—for years to come. This is a generational opportunity to invest America’s transportation dollars in ways that deliver myriad transportation, health, equity, environmental and economic outcomes, especially as COVID-19 has strained local economies and existing trail and active transportation infrastructure. There are more than 40,000 miles of multiuse trails on the ground nationwide, ready to form seamless networks that connect people and places.

The federal law—the FAST Act—currently governing funding of America’s surface transportation programs, including the part covering trails, and other pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, is set to be reauthorized in 2021. Debate is already underway. Now is the time for Congress to take bold steps to transform America with safe, connected trail and active transportation networks.

"Investing in the transportation system America needs" by Ryan Chao | The Hill
"Investing in the transportation system America needs" by Ryan Chao | The Hill

Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) are the original cosponsors of the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act—a bipartisan bill that creates safe, convenient walking and biking routes in our communities while addressing critical challenges to our economy, climate, health and safety.


The Pillars of a Visionary Reauthorization Bill

In order to build a robust, modern transportation system that serves all Americans, federal investment needs to carve out funding designed to create and maintain connected active-transportation networks. Organizations representing interests as far-ranging as biking and walking, health, transportation reform, environment, disability rights, planning and our nation’s local elected officials joined RTC in calling on Congress to support the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (H.R.5696/S-3391) and take this opportunity to invest in connecting America’s trails, walking and bicycling infrastructure to create an active transportation system for the country. Federal policymakers have the potential to deliver visionary change by:

1Investing in Active Transportation Connectivity

The Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (H.R.5696/S-3391) introduced in the House and the Senate, establishes focused funding for active transportation connectivity—including trails. This proposal would provide $500 million annually for active transportation networks, connecting walking and biking infrastructure so that people can safely travel between home and the places they need to go within their communities, such as jobs, schools, shopping and transit; and active transportation spines, which provide walking and biking routes between communities, regions and states.

Read H.R. 5696

2Growing Transportation Alternatives

The “Transportation Alternatives Enhancements Act” (H.R. 5231) will grow Transportation Alternatives, the largest federal funding source for trails, walking and biking—and curb transfers from the program so that meaningful opportunities are provided in all states to develop safe places to walk and bike.

Read H.R. 5231

3Tripling Funding for the Recreational Trails Program

Tripling funding for the Recreational Trails Program, the only federal funding source that supports trail maintenance, to reflect recreational fuel taxes and ensure good repair as trails age by supporting the RTP Full Funding Act of 2020 (H.R. 5797).

Read H.R. 5797

4Funding Active Transportation Projects on Public Lands

Setting aside 5% of the Federal Lands Transportation Program and the Federal Lands Access Program for active transportation through the Active Transportation for Public Lands Act (H.R. 5642) to provide funding for construction, planning and design of walking and biking facilities to accommodate all non-drivers and provide access to points of interest in our Federal Estate.

Read H.R. 5642

Key elements of the Federal Agenda for Active Transportation follow, with an emphasis on strategic investments in programs that prioritize the connectivity of trails, walking and biking, which has the potential to generate an estimated $138 billion per year in economic benefit to the nation:

  • Prioritize investments that link existing trails, bikeways and sidewalks into functional networks that connect people to key destinations and communities to each other, with special attention to the needs of underserved communities. Competitive federal active transportation connectivity grants are essential to enable communities to establish low-stress routes to walk and bike.    
  • Through reauthorization of the FAST Act, double dedicated project funding for trails, walking and biking through Transportation Alternatives and the Recreational Trails Program to ensure resources are available in every city and state to meet growing demand for safe places to walk, bike and move. 
  • Establish an Active Transportation Administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). 
  • Pilot strategies to make transportation planning practices equitable and responsive to neighborhood priorities and revive the USDOT initiative to promote equitable outcomes.  
  • Prioritize and incentivize active transportation as a critical strategy in cutting carbon emissions from transportation.  
  • Develop regulations governing the use of electric bicycles on public lands that are consistent across federal agencies and responsive to the needs of local land managers and the public.


Now Is the Time

Across America, demand for trails, walking and biking continues to grow. Trail and active transportation networks are emerging, and communities are seeking to maximize the benefits that this type of connectivity can bring.

RTC’s newest research proves that this work is changing our communities—urban, suburban and rural—for the better. As the connectivity of trail networks improves, so does the health of people and places. One example can be seen in the current economic return on investment, with combined health, climate and economic benefits currently delivering more than $34.1 billion annually. A return that can be doubled, and even quadrupled, as connectivity spreads to more places in America.

The evidence is on our side. Investing public funds in trail and active transportation projects delivers powerful outcomes, which are multiplied as the connectivity of the infrastructure improves. Active transportation is already transforming America. Its benefits are far-reaching and bring powerful outcomes to every type of community. RTC’s newest study, “Active Transportation Transforms America,” is the nation’s most comprehensive analysis of the quantifiable impact of trails, walking and biking on the places we live. Use it to help you make the case for public investment in trails and active transportation.

With more than 40,000 miles of multiuse trails on the ground, now is the time to demand transformative change by targeting investments that weave together existing trails and other active transportation infrastructure into networks that connect within communities, and spines that connect between states—just as our road and rail systems are designed.

Trends in Transportation Alternatives Funding & Program Implementation Best Practices

September 30, 2020

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) recently released this year’s Transportation Alternatives Spending Report for FY19. The report provides a detailed review of how effectively federal funds for walking and biking, provided to states through the Transportation Alternative Set-Aside (TASA) program, are used across the country each year. Join RTC for a discussion on our findings in the Transportation Alternatives Spending Report for the 2019 fiscal year and insights from Transportation Alternatives Managers using the program to advance trails, walking and biking in their states. RTC operates the Transportation Alternatives Data Exchange (TrADE) to help stakeholders at the federal, state, and local levels better understand and implement the TASA program.

Featured Priority Projects

Focused investment in connecting trail and active transportation networks—closing key infrastructure gaps within communities and across state lines—has the potential to unlock billions of dollars for the U.S. economy annually. Explore this collection of projects that are waiting on the public funds needed to unlock enormous benefits.

As Congress and federal policymakers plan for the country’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and turn their attention to reauthorize the nation’s federal transportation bill, these projects are examples of compelling opportunities for trail and active transportation networks to play a critical role in getting people back to work while contributing to healthy, safe and equitable communities.

In the Headlines


Advocacy Resources

As we work together to provide the evidence that public investments in connected trail, walking and biking infrastructure deliver critical and equitable economic, climate, health and mobility benefits here are resources to support your outreach and advocacy.

State of Public Funding for Trails and Active Transportation

Over the past several decades, over $20 billion in federal funds have been invested in trails and walking and biking projects nationwide, providing the financial foundation to build the nation’s trails, even though it represents only a sliver of the country’s overall spending on surface transportation. The lion’s share of those funds have come from the Transportation Alternative’s Program (previously Transportation Enhancements), the nation’s largest source of funding for trails and active transportation. Since the program’s inception, RTC has tracked spending through an annual Transportation Alternatives Spending Report, which outlines program investments in each state. This ongoing accounting of program implementation is an important tool in efforts to strengthen the program, improving the efficiency and efficacy of the investments made.


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