America's Next Gen of Trail Cities - Not Where You Expected

Posted 07/10/13 by Eric Oberg in Success Stories

Image © Emerging Terrain/

The great thing about what we're seeing with rail-trail development at the moment is that it's ignoring all the preconceived notions of what we think we know about American cities.

Bike share programs? Innovative off-street networks? Bike-friendly mayors? Oh yeah, that's just Portland, Seattle, Boulder, right?

Wrong. Lately the cities that have been really pushing the envelope are places like Memphis, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, Houston, Atlanta and Kansas City.

Get ready to add Omaha, Nebraska to that list.

I read this morning about plans to convert a disused and overgrown rail corridor through Omaha's Midtown into a multi-modal transportation line carrying both light rail and a bike/ped trail.

The Omaha project adds to a growing list of American communities discovering the efficiency of rail-with-trail - trails alongside active freight, passenger or tourist lines - which, when land is tight, make the most of a city's available transportation corridors.

This story at says that the rail company's closure of service in the 1980s left swaths of derelict space, and contributed to a crisis in many inner-city neighborhoods. The rail-with-trail plan, being developed by Emerging Terrain, a nonprofit research and design organization, would connect northern and southern neighborhoods and connect to employment, shopping and transportation hubs.

"The repurposed Omaha Belt Line could spark industrial and other development that could bring an estimated 9,000 jobs and 4,500 new homes in just one 3.5-mile stretch of the 20-mile corridor." These are estimations based not on wishful thinking but on the actual experience of communities across America - time and time again we have seen multi-modal transportation projects serve as the catalyst for rejuvenation.

Still, there is untapped potential. The report refers to the bike/ped pathway as a "recreational trail." This vastly under-appreciates the function of urban rail-trails as commuter routes and critical transportation assets. Referring to such pathways as "recreational" ignores the millions of Americans who use them each day to get to work, to stores and other hubs, as a modern, economical and sustainable alternative to cars.

We hope to see the local planners recognize the trails' potential as a "people mover" rather than just a "people pleaser," as this exciting new proposal takes shape. Way to go, Omaha.

NB: This update from Sloan Dawson of the Metropolitan Area Planning Association: "Thank you for this piece! As one of the project team members, I wanted to clarify that we definitely see the trail component fulfilling commuter as well as recreational functions. The beauty of the geometry of the corridor is that it connects the city's lowest income neighborhoods into current and planned city/regional trails and on-street bike facilities. When paired with the transit function - and a regional bus rapid transit system - it would greatly enhance the mobility options of residents." Thanks Sloan!  

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