I was a newly minted driver in 1968 when I abandoned my Schwinn Varsity and plunked down my meager life savings to buy a 1962 Buick Special. Growing up in southeast Michigan—the epicenter of America’s car culture—I was one of millions who observed this 20th-century rite of passage.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this milestone in my life coincided with the emergence of the Age of the Automobile in post-World War II America. The interstate highway system was under construction, cars reigned supreme, and railroads were in decline. Amidst this disruption, our communities began to change shape, catering to cars and creating places where it was difficult—even dangerous—to walk or bike.
But 1968 also saw another important development. Our nation’s leaders understood the need to preserve and protect the country’s public lands. That year saw the passage of the National Trails System Act, and in describing the legislation, President Lyndon Johnson observed the need for “trails as well as highways … where young and old alike” could enjoy the outdoors. This vital legislation laid the groundwork for the thousands of miles of trails that crisscross the country today.
“Trails as well as highways … where young and old alike could enjoy the outdoors."
—President Lyndon Johnson
The dawning of 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislation as well as the 35th anniversary of the 1983 amendment to the law that created “railbanking”—making it possible to convert thousands of miles of unused rail corridors to trails. There is much to celebrate as we mark these historical milestones.
But however nostalgic this anniversary might be, it comes at a time when significant disruption is underway. And I am more excited about the future than reverent about the past.
Like the decades of my youth, we live in a time of great change. The internet and smartphone have transformed society. People are walking and biking more, and driving less. The emergence of new technologies and business models—particularly the autonomous vehicle and the “sharing economy”—have the potential to transform how we get around, marking the imminent decline of the Age of the Automobile as we know it. By 2030, the very real possibility exists that communities will experience new transportation options provided by shared fleets of electric self-driving cars summoned by smartphones.
A new era is upon us—one we’re calling the Age of Connectivity, both for its genesis in technology and its potential to reconnect people and places. This is a time when trails—our communities’ greatest connectors—will work hand in hand with innovation. But to realize that potential, we must do things differently this time. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redesign our communities around people, not machines.
A new era is upon us—one we’re calling the Age of Connectivity, both for its genesis in technology and its potential to reconnect people and places.
As the Age of Connectivity unfolds, we will likely discover that we have more road capacity than needed. Just as we focused 30 years ago on transforming excess rail capacity into rail-to-trail projects, we can now foresee opportunities to create “road-to-trail” projects in every community. Imagine how that could transform life!
While we pause to celebrate the victories of 50 years ago, we will not lose sight of emerging opportunities to ensure that trails will be at the heart of thriving 21st-century communities.