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America’s Trails

Tapping Into Opportunity: RTC’s Strategic Priorities

By: Ryan Chao
January 11, 2024

Happy multiracial women having fun embracing each outside - Photo courtesy Getty Images
Photo courtesy Getty Images

It’s hard to argue that rail-trails aren’t special.

Over decades, these trails have become American institutions, with thousands spreading across the country, delivering incomparable benefits to hundreds of communities. Few infrastructure investments have the same impact that trails have had for the well-being of people, places and the planet.

There is beauty in the ubiquity of the multiuse trail experience—in which people can walk, bike and be active outdoors in free and accessible spaces as varied as the country’s landscape. And there is inspiration in what makes them unique. For all that the nation’s trails have in common, each represents the unique culture and heritage of the places they call home.

As we reflect upon the success of our movement, there is an extraordinary opportunity before us. Unprecedented public funding and demand for trails allow our country to maximize the potential of the 41,000+ miles of multiuse trails that stretch from coast to coast. That’s because as trails are connected, their use goes up significantly—by as much as 80%—as do the associated benefits for our health and well-being, our local economies and our communities.

Related: Take RTC’s funding quiz to help determine which federal funding source may be best suited for your project.

Looking ahead, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is doubling down on this opportunity. For years, we’ve been focused on building a nation connected by trails, spreading trails across the country to bring new potential to communities and more walking and biking connectivity between people and places. Today, there are more than 150 trail networks in development nationwide, represented in every single state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. This critical mass represents an enormous opportunity to spread the impact of this infrastructure to every neighborhood in America.

America's Trail Networks Map by RTC | Explore interactive map
America’s Trail Networks Map by RTC | Explore interactive map

Related: New Data Illustrates Importance of Connected Trail Infrastructure to the Nation

In our new strategic plan, we’re working to ensure that trails and trail networks are prioritized as essential for people and places. We’re striving to make trail networks the backbone of local and regional active-transportation systems that connect people to important destinations—making it safer and easier to get around without the need of a car.

Biking around D.C.'s Cleveland Park neighborhood | Photo by Ellie Kaverman, courtesy Victoria Yuen
Biking around D.C.’s Cleveland Park neighborhood | Photo by Ellie Kaverman, courtesy Victoria Yuen

Related: Swapping a Car for a Bike? Here’s What I Learned.

We will work in partnership with organizations across multiple sectors to accelerate equitable development strategies, ambitiously proliferate the connectivity of the nation’s trail and active transportation networks and foster meaningful participation among people of all backgrounds. We will tirelessly advocate for the public policies and programs necessary to robustly fund trail and active transportation networks. And we will make sure that this infrastructure is accessible, inclusive, and equitably distributed and funded.

Our goal is that trail networks are prioritized as essential to the well-being of people, communities and the environment. Our approach will prioritize the following:

  • Infrastructure—We will proliferate the development of trail and active transportation networks nationwide.
  • Investment—We will grow public funding to create, connect and maintain trails, while improving the effectiveness of those resources and creating new opportunities for investment.
  • Equity—We will catalyze the development of community-driven trail and active-transportation networks with the aim to increase trail use and the proximity of trail networks to underserved and under-resourced communities alongside growing participation.
  • Participation—We will encourage and inspire more people to use trails across the country, hastening a culture shift where communities demand trail systems as essential for their well-being and the well-being of the places they live.

More than anything, the opportunity and the work ahead requires that we push forward a bigger vision for the role that trail networks play in our communities and in our lives. Collaboration, shared priorities, and partnerships within the trails movement and with sectors that are working to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our society—creating economic opportunity, combating climate change, ensuring the safety of everyone who does not or chooses not to drive, and assuring our collective health and well-being—are what it will take.

Together, we can make trail networks essential infrastructure for the nation and part of everyone’s everyday lives.

RTC Strategic Plan 2024Download
Find Your Trail on | Graphic courtesy TrailLink
Find Your Trail on | Graphic courtesy TrailLink
Ryan Chao | Photo by Anthony Le
Ryan Chao

Ryan Chao is the president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, responsible for overseeing the organization’s national leadership in trail development, policy advocacy and movement building. He brings to his role a long history in community and economic development and a passion for connecting people to opportunity and the outdoors.

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