How Will Trails Change the Course of America by 2036?

Posted 09/16/16 by Keith Laughlin in Health and Wellness, Taking Action

Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by Milo Bateman

In honor of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s 30th anniversary, we are pleased to present this “thought experiment” by Keith Laughlin, “Imagining a Healthier Future (through trails!)," from the Fall 2016 issue of Rails to Trails magazine (hitting mailboxes in late September).

Imagining a Healthier Future

As we wrap up the celebration of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s 30th anniversary, I would like to shift the focus from the past to the future by asking you to join me in a thought experiment. Imagine that we are celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2036. What do we want the world to look like? How will our lives be different? And—perhaps more importantly—what do we need to achieve over the next 20 years to make this vision a reality?

GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail in South Carolina | Photo by Ian Curcio

In 2036, my grandkids will be 24 and 22. I imagine them coming of age in a place much healthier than today’s America. They will live in communities in which few people own a car. Cars will still be a major element of our transportation system, but they will be self-driven vehicles owned by a taxi fleet that you will summon when needed on an electronic device.

Because people will no longer need a place to park their personally owned vehicle, there will be little need for on-street parking. This will permit the transformation of parking lanes on existing roadways to separated bike lanes and widened sidewalks for pedestrians. These new separated bike lanes and sidewalks will be seamlessly connected to a national system of trails. And this system of walking and biking infrastructure will also be connected to public transportation.

How will this 2036 community be healthier? It will be economically healthier because families will enjoy improved mobility without incurring the costs of car ownership, while society at large will benefit from a dramatic reduction in traffic-related deaths. It will be environmentally healthier because these self-driven vehicles will be electric and fueled by renewable energy. Public health will be vastly improved because it will be safe and convenient for people to build walking and biking into their daily lives.

RELATED: 30 Years: Birth and Evolution of the American Rail-Trail Movement

How will we transform this vision into reality?

Over the next four years, RTC will focus on four major priorities to move us toward this vision:

  1. Katy Trail State Park in Missouri | Photo by Aaron Fuhrman
    We will create a portfolio of up to 12 major projects in urban, suburban and rural communities to demonstrate how regional trail systems can increase walking and biking for the purposes of both transportation and recreation.
  2. We will develop innovative new models to finance the creation of such systems using federal, state, local and private-sector investment.
  3. We will deploy cutting-edge technology and data analysis to make an irrefutable economic case for such investments.
  4. We will expand the broad base of support for regional trail systems by working closely with state and local governments, economic development entities, social equity advocates and the health-care sector.

Just as the amazing success we have enjoyed in the past 30 years would not have been possible without the steadfast backing of our members, our ability to achieve this vision of a healthier America will depend on the continued support of thousands of trail lovers across the U.S. We encourage everyone to join us in making a brighter future for all!

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