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Building Trails

Elevating Opportunity in 2023—Reflections From the Trails Movement

By: Amy Kapp, Brandi Horton
December 14, 2023

Ohio's Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail | Photo by Jason Cohn
Ohio's Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail | Photo by Jason Cohn

This past year, a major theme resonated for trails across the country: activation.

The landmark infrastructure bill signed in late 2021 infused unprecedented funding into the federal trail and active transportation landscape—putting trails at the forefront.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) galvanized America into action as we sought to connect communities of every shape and size with new programs and opportunities to expand and connect their trails and trail networks, and get more people outside.

As we look back on 2023, we pause to reflect on the joy and impact that trails uniquely delivered—from safe walking and biking access; to new opportunities for economic vitality; to deeper connections, past and present, to the places where we live and work.

Here’s to another year of impact in the national trails movement.

Igniting Investment in the Country’s Trail Networks

Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River Trail, part of the Circuit Trails | Photo courtesy SRDC
Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River Trail, part of the Circuit Trails | Photo courtesy SRDC

RTC worked hard in 2023 to get the landmark funding for trails, walking and bicycling previously passed through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) into communities across the United States, especially those that have been historically under-resourced and underrepresented. BIL increased investment across the board for trails and active transportation—bolstering long-standing federal programs and adding new opportunities across other programs for equity, safety and climate.

On many fronts, trails, walking and biking—and more importantly—the connectivity of this infrastructure, were elevated in federal grant programs. The highly competitive RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) program awarded nearly $400 million in grants exclusively for walking and biking projects, including several transformative grants for projects within RTC’s TrailNation™ project portfolio.

The awards included a $25 million grant to help advance connectivity in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland and Washington, D.C., through the 800-mile Capital Trails Network; a $19 million grant to help build out the Camden County LINK, a critical spine trail in the 800-mile Circuit Trails network that will connect to the Ben Franklin Bridge and Philadelphia; and a $5.6 million grant to complete an extension of the planned Kenosha County Bicycle Trail in Southeast Wisconsin’s 700-mile Route of the Badger.

In Northwest Washington, the cross-country Great American Rail-Trail® got a big boost with a $16.1 million RAISE planning grant for the Puget Sound to Pacific initiative to connect the developing 138-mile Olympic Discovery Trail across the Olympic Peninsula, which is the western terminus for the Great American.

Connecting America’s Trail Networks

In the fiscal year (FY) 2023 federal appropriations bill, $45 million was included to kick-start the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program (ATIIP)—a new program that provides dedicated funding for the planning and construction of safe and connected trail and active-transportation networks and long-distance spine trails.

RTC is advocating for full funding in the FY 2024 federal budget for this important program, which is critical for launching ATIIP and demonstrating that connectivity investments are in high demand across America—and your voice is critical!

Sign the petition.

RTC advocacy was prevalent in 15 state legislatures this year, where our efforts, along with many partners, helped secure $533 million in new one-time funding for trails, walking and bicycling.

Major victories were celebrated in Florida, where we successfully advocated for $200 million for the Shared-Use Nonmotorized (SUN) Trail Program, and in California, where a multitude of trail, walking and bicycling projects within the Bay Area Trails Collaborative, a 2,600-mile developing RTC TrailNation project, received a collective $106 million through California’s Active Transportation Program.

In North Carolina, which designated 2023 as the Year of the Trail, the General Assembly passed its long-delayed budget, which provides almost $55 million for trails, including $25 million over two years to start the Great Trails Program.

In the Midwest, the Hoosier State appropriated an additional $30 million for the impactful Next Level Trails program, bringing the total invested in the program in the last five years to $180 million.

Accelerating Connectivity on a National Scale

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, part of the Great American Rail-Trail | Photo courtesy Visit Omaha
Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, part of the Great American Rail-Trail | Photo courtesy Visit Omaha

There are currently more than 41,000 miles of multiuse trails across America, including 25,000 miles of rail-trails.

Through RTC’s TrailNation initiative, which comprises eight diverse projects ranging from 35 to 2,600 miles, RTC is redefining how trail networks are built, and demonstrating what’s possible for people and places when these assets are central to community design.

This past year, we looked to secure critical support for these projects—with an eye on acceleration and activation—raising more than $200 million in public and private funds.

As demand has increased for trail network development, we have collaborated with thousands of industry experts to expand and connect safe walking and bicycling infrastructure across America. In 2023, we primed the pumps to accelerate and expand upon these efforts with the launch the TrailNation Collaborative, a learning community where advocates, public leaders and professionals can come together to share their experiences and discuss challenges and strategies for trail network development.

To date, more than 6,500 individuals have signed on to the Collaborative, which aims to elevate and celebrate—on a national stage—the work to create equitable trail networks in the United States.

“This momentum is a result of decades of advocacy, the determination of the trail-building community, and the ingenuity it takes to envision a future where trail networks are embraced as fundamental to the quality of the places where we live, work and play.”

—Liz Thorstensen, RTC Vice President of Trail Development

Momentum continues to pick up pace for the Great American Rail-Trail, with more than $41 million in public and private funds raised for trail projects along the route in 2023—the most raised annually since the project launched in 2019. RTC and partners also celebrated the completion of the 2-mile FIRST AVE Trail in Council Bluffs, which connects to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge into downtown Omaha, Nebraska, a key Midwestern connection in the cross-country system.

More than 100 miles have been added since 2019 to the Great American, which is 55% complete to date, and 160 additional miles are currently in the pipeline for completion.

RELATED: Council Bluffs Celebrates First Avenue Trail Completion, Cochran Park Reopening (The Daily Nonpareil)

Activating and Acelerating the Development of America’s Trail Networks

In November 2023, RTC awarded 30 grants for a combined $348,000 to communities to develop and activate their local trail networks, with a focus on engagement and equitable access to safe spaces to walk, bike and be active in the outdoors. Since 2008, RTC’s Trail Grants program has provided nearly $3 million to more than 225 organizations across the country.

RELATED: New TrailNation Collaborative Community to Escalate Trail Network Development Nationwide

RELATED: These 2023 Trail Grants Are Activating Trails and Trail Networks Across the US

Equity at the Forefront of Our Movement

RTC seeks to inspire and support the development of welcoming and inclusive trails, creating new gateways to mobility and the outdoors across communities. These efforts are at the center of our work to connect the nation by trail, and in 2023, we focused on establishing new standards for equitable trail development that put people and communities at the foreground of these planning efforts.

This is demonstrated through TrailNation projects such as the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network—in which a coalition of 90 organizations are working to connect historically divided communities across the city of Baltimore—and Southeast Wisconsin’s 700-mile Route of the Badger, where efforts to revitalize and connect Milwaukee’s historic 30th Street Corridor by trail could improve access to safe walking and bike routes for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Amplifying Voices, Drawing Connections to Trails—Past and Present

We continued to elevate voices from across America, lifting up and celebrating the impact of trails on our lives and the places where we live. Through projects like our Trail Moments campaign, which reached millions of people this year, we are sharing the powerful stories of transformation, and the far-reaching benefits trails deliver related to health, economic vitality, alternative transportation, social equity, climate and beyond.

In 2023, the campaign generated an estimated 336,000 impressions on social media and 4.8 million impressions via our national partnership with iHeart Radio.

Tandem bike ride | Photo courtesy of Ajoa Abrokwa, @SheIsFocused_Next
Tandem bike ride | Photo courtesy of Ajoa Abrokwa, @SheIsFocused_Next

Ajoa Abrokwa: Sharing Experiences and Creating Memories

Helping people explore trails and the outdoors is a mission for Ajoa Abrokwa (@SheIsFocused_Next). Learn how she leverages Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail and the regional Circuit Trails network to create community for family and friends.

Photo by Chris “Salt” Morton, @OfficiallySalt_
Photo by Chris “Salt” Morton, @OfficiallySalt_

Chris “Salt” Morton | A Journey of Self-Reflection

What started on a whim to become the first Deaf man in America to walk solo across the country became the adventure—and challenge—of a lifetime. Read about Chris “Salt” Morton’s (@OfficiallySalt_) journey to help spotlight the Deaf community and mental health.

As we seek to draw deeper connections between people, America’s trails and the places connected by these momentous routes, RTC is lifting up the stories of the individuals, events and geographic changes that have shaped America’s history, from thousands and millions of years ago to today.

In 2023, our History Along the Great American Rail-Trail project and historical marker partnership with the William G. Pomeroy Foundation helped shine a light on just some of the unique history and powerful cultural connections to be found along the route, enabling people to create meaningful relationships to the past and present through the trail experience.

Related: History Along the Great American Rail-Trail | TrailLink

Chinese laborers on the Northern Pacific line | Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW522
Chinese laborers on the Northern Pacific line | Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW522

Remembering the Chinese Who Built the Northern Pacific

Like many U.S. railroads, the Northern Pacific Railway, completed in 1883 as the nation’s fifth transcontinental line, was built by immigrants—many of them Chinese. Their legacy remains and can be traced today on the NorPac Trail and Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes on the Great American Rail-Trail in western Montana and northern Idaho.

The gravesite of White Buffalo Girl is honored and respected generations after she was laid to rest. | Courtesy Antelope County Museum, Neligh, NE
The gravesite of White Buffalo Girl is honored and respected generations after she was laid to rest. | Courtesy Antelope County Museum, Neligh, NE

Legacy of White Buffalo Girl

“I leave the grave in your care. I may never see it again.”—Black Elk (Translated)

In 1877, just outside Neligh, Nebraska, Moon Hawk and Black Elk of the Ponca Tribe lost their infant daughter to illness during the tribe’s forced, 55-day relocation to Oklahoma. To this day, the town honors her gravesite, which exists a mile from the Cowboy Trail along the Great American Rail-Trail.

Activating People on Trails Across the Country

At RTC, we believe everyone, everywhere, has the right to access safe spaces to walk, bike and be active outside. We also know that having the information about where to find trails, how to safely use them, and what to do in these spaces, is key to getting people out on them.

Through TrailLink™, our national trail-finder website and app, we’ve catalogued more than 41,000 miles of multiuse trails, which have helped millions of people each year safely and conveniently navigate their trail experiences in their communities and beyond.

This year, we reached some major milestones—with more than 90 million users and 550 million trail pages served since 2008.

TrailLink by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy: Find Your Trail
TrailLink by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy: Find Your Trail

“On Celebrate Trails Day we drew a crowd of about 150 people to push for the development of the [proposed] trail. It was very rewarding to see so many people enjoying the trail which [we] have worked so hard to create.”

—Partner, Kenilworth, New Jersey

To close out with something meaningful and fun …

We want to thank the 220+ organizations, companies and sponsors who joined with us this year for Celebrate Trails Day—the nation’s annual kick-off to the spring trail season. The day is all about elevating and celebrating the impact of trails on people and communities, inspiring stewardship, and empowering people to embrace the trails and activities they love.

Celebrate Trails Day 2023 Infographic by RTC
Celebrate Trails Day 2023 Infographic by RTC

In 2023, our partners helped implement 120 events across America—from trail clean-ups and tree plantings to bike rides and nature outings and beyond—engaging thousands. What’s awesome: Participants reported 96 minutes on average spent on trails during Celebrate Trails Day, and a combined 1.3 million active minutes.

Amazing impact.

Related: Celebrate Trails Day 2023: Showcasing the Impact of America’s Trails

Learn more: Impact of Celebrate Trails Day 2023

Amy Kapp | Photo courtesy Amy Kapp
Amy Kapp

Amy Kapp serves as Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief of Rails to Trails magazine. Kapp frequently writes about the impact of, and vast historical and cultural connections made by, America's rail-trails, parks and public lands.

Brandi Horton | Photo by Joe LaCroix
Brandi Horton

Brandi Horton serves as RTC's vice president of communications. She has dedicated her career to communicating for social change and is passionate about creating communities that promote health and well-being.

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Everyone deserves access to safe ways to walk, bike, and be active outdoors.