Ties That Bind: A New Trail System Is Creating—and Strengthening—Connections in Columbia, Mo.

Posted 08/26/14 by Katie Harris in Building Trails, Trail Use

All photos courtesy Columbia Parks and Recreation

The Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) was created in 2005 under the federal transportation act, SAFETEA-LU. This program allocated $25 million each to four communities across the U.S. for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and programs. Between 2009 and 2013 alone, the program was responsible for averting 85.1 million vehicle miles traveled and 34,629 tons of CO2 emissions. This post rounds out our August focus on these communities and the lives that were positively impacted by NTPP. Check out the previous installments, including our look at SPOKES in Minneapolis, Minn., the Cal Park Hill Tunnel in Marin County, Calif., and trail connections to an elementary school in Sheboygan, Wis.


Columbia, Mo., is a city with a few tricks up its sleeve. Its charm starts slowly, unassumingly, disguised as just another Midwestern college town, but after spending some time there, exploring the tree-lined streets by foot or riding part of the trail system, you may just become hooked. And you wouldn’t be the first to fall under Columbia’s charismatic spell. 

Resident Steve MacIntyre is one such example. He admits that sometimes he has considered moving to “greener pastures,” but whenever he weighs the pros and cons, he thinks of his family’s quality of life—and his choice is made.

He attributes Columbia’s burgeoning trail system—and the freedom of mobility it affords—as being an integral factor in his decision to stay. Most days, he doesn’t need to get into his car. In fact, he often goes his entire work week without driving. 

“Sure, we could move to San Diego, and yes, the weather would be great!” says MacIntyre. “But how long would it take me to get to work? Could I ride there? Could I commute by bike like I can in Columbia?”

cyclists-in-columbia-missouri.jpgWith the launch of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) in the mid-2000s, Columbia set out to create an integrated system of trails to usher in a more active era of transportation. The existing trail system was well used, but it did not connect its neighborhoods to its downtown area, and the city recognized the need for safer options for people to navigate—by bike or on foot—to school, work, parks, businesses and commercial areas. 

Chip Cooper is the primary founder ofPedNet, a Columbia-based nonprofit created to promote active transportation. It was Cooper and a group of fellow advocates that, decades ago, first helped introduce local policies in support of bike infrastructure and create bike master plans with a long-term trail vision. 

“I didn’t expect to live long enough to see it completed,” explains Cooper. “But the federal funds [from NTPP] dramatically accelerated the plans, and because of the federal money, the community is going to experience a fully built network.”

He continues, “It’s bigger and better, it’s connected, and the community is changing the way they talk and think about alternative transportation.”

Much of the backbone of the system—13 miles of continuous, level trail—has already been built. According to Cooper, NTPP funds supported the creation of a series of “feeder” trails to connect neighborhoods to the trail backbone. The parks and recreation department is preparing to install markers that identify the network as the Columbia Trails System—a rebranding that signifies the realization of what Cooper and others imagined decades ago.

Cooper notes how the trail network is attracting people to Columbia. The city’s chamber of commerce and three universities, as well as businesses throughout the region, are seeing the value of the trail system and are using it to market the city. 

"The trail system put the city on the map," says Steve Hollis, human services manager for Columbia and board member for PedNet. "We're seeing young professionals move to Columbia specifically for [this amenity]."

He continues, "I know two people personally, one physician and one small business owner, who chose to move to Columbia rather than other small cities due in large part to our trail system and other outdoor opportunities our community has to offer."

The trail network serves the citizens of Columbia on a day-to-day basis, and its magnetic force draws in and retains new residents seeking to engage with and improve their community. Take Walter Gassmann who, after moving to Columbia with his wife Allie in 2000, quickly joined the ranks of those fervently advocating for improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure. And with the changes that have and continue to take place, he’s hopeful.

Gassmann commutes to his job at the University of Missouri by bike, a commute he claims is one of the prettiest he has ever had, and for someone that has lived in multiple countries—he’s originally from Switzerland, was raised in Asia and has lived in Berkeley and San Diego—that’s no small claim.

“Some people ask me, ‘What are you doing in Missouri?’” says Gassmann. “But Columbia is a very pretty town, and the bike infrastructure is one of the reasons that I stay here.”

“Things are looking up in Columbia—not down,” he jokes. “And that is what keeps us optimistic and keeps us here.”

Special thank you to Steve Hollis, human services manager for Columbia/Boone County, for assisting with the development of this blog.

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