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RTC TrailBlog

  • Putting Safety First: U.S. DOT Takes Major Step Forward to Prioritize Safety for Bicyclists and Pedestrians

    Last week, U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the department’s new plan to increase walking and biking and reduce pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. The initiative seeks to improve safety by supporting better infrastructure for walking and bicycling, and providing research and tools for local governments and advocates. 

    RTC, alongside other advocacy groups and trail users like you, has long promoted the importance of safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, especially through the creation of safer active-transportation networks. With this announcement from the U.S. DOT, the highest level of government is showing that it has received the message and has begun prioritizing safer networks for walking and biking.

    We know the safest experiences are when pathways connect to form a continuous network, instead of when they end abruptly and users are forced to walk or bike alongside cars in the roadway. Physically separated from the road, trails provide the gold standard in terms of objective and perceived safety—and trail networks allow people to safely get to where they need to go. RTC and the Partnership for Active Transportation have consistently advocated for investments to build networks of trails, sidewalks and bike lanes that make our communities safer. 

    We are pleased to hear that the U.S. DOT is stepping up its safety efforts by promoting networks and closing the gaps. In order to have safer communities, the U.S. DOT announced that it will first undertake walking and biking assessments in every state to understand the extent of safety needs. The agency also announced that it will update existing resource guides and issue new resources to assist designers, engineers and advocates when planning and constructing trails, sidewalks and bike lanes. 

    Secretary Foxx’s announcement and the U.S. DOT’s new commitment to safety are important first steps, but without a financial commitment from Congress, state and local governments will not have the resources necessary to provide safe facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists. RTC will continue to work with members of Congress to see that state and local governments receive the funding they need to connect networks, provide specific solutions to improve safety and monitor safety performance. The U.S. DOT’s initiative provides us with a newly engaged federal partner. Working together with our local advocates and the U.S. DOT, we can work toward a world where pedestrian and bicyclist injuries are a thing of the past.


    Leeann Sinpatanasakul serves as advocacy coordinator for RTC's public policy team. She focuses on generating grassroots support in America for state and federal trail funding.

  • History Happened Here: How the Switchback Railroad Inspired the Invention of the Roller Coaster

    The Switchback Gravity Railroad, built in 1827, was only the second railroad built in America. It ran nine miles, hauling coal from Summit Hill down to the town of Mauch Chunk and the Lehigh Canal in east central Pennsylvania.

    As the name implies, it relied on gravity, with mules hauling the empty cars back up the hill.

    By 1844, the line's success and subsequent traffic necessitated a separate “back track” for empties. This created an 18-mile, figure-8 track plan, with the empties pushed up two steep grades by a steam-powered contraption that emerged from beneath the rails.

    During non-peak hours, the railroad offered rides along the route for the public, in specially outfitted cars. Following the line's dramatic descents and loops, these cars could attain speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. One patron described it as a "hair-raising trolley ride." In the 1870s, the route, by then devoted exclusively to hauling passengers, became one of the nation's first tourist railroads. Only Niagara Falls exceeded the site's 75,000 annual visitors. This wild ridein which carloads of passengers plunged at high speeds from steep peaksserved as the model for the first roller coaster, introduced on Coney Island in 1884.

    By the 1930s, the popularity of the automobile and onset of the Great Depression resulted in the closure of the Switchback, and the last car descended the hill in 1933. The railroad was sold for scrap in 1937.

    In 1954, the town of Mauch Chunk was renamed Jim Thorpe, and today that city serves as a trailhead for both the 18-mile Switchback Railroad Trail and the 26-mile D & L Trail/Lehigh Gorge State Park Trail. The Switchback's down track is, of course, the easier of the two routes, with a hard-packed dirt surface and the same grade that made the route popular more than 150 years ago. Several bike shops in Jim Thorpe offer shuttles to the Summit Hill trailhead.

    Early silent filmmaker Lyman H. Howe, famous for thrilling footage shot from the front of fast-moving trains, includes "Famous Ride on a Runaway Train" in his body of work. Considered a classic, Howe released versions in 1908, 1914 and 1921. They include footage reportedly shot on the Switchback.

    A six-minute, 1921 version of the Howe film released in New Zealand is part of an anthology of 12 silent films now available from the National Film Preservation Foundation. Titled Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive, the 198-minute DVD is available from Image Entertainment and elsewhere.


    James D. Porterfield is director of the Center for Railway Tourism at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va., and a contributing editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine.

  • Awaiting a Decision in Missouri, We Ponder the Great Possibilities

    Rail-trail supporters in Missouri and across America have been holding their breath these past few weeks as they await a decision that could have lasting ramifications for the state.

    What will be Ameren's decision on the fate of the 145-mile Rock Island Line corridor? Will it be sold into private ownership or preserved in public ownership for development of a rail-trail? We expect an announcement any day.

    Here at RTC, too, everyone has their fingers crossed. All our staff members feel the weight of an opportunity that comes along but once in a very long while: the chance to preserve a connected corridor of such length is rare, and getting rarer.

    It's why we stepped forward and made a bid that, if accepted by Ameren, will result in the corridor being donated to Missouri State Parks and preserved through railbanking.

    Although a single rail-trail of 145 miles would be one of the longest in the country, what's particularly exciting is the corridor's connection in Windsor to the iconic 237-mile Katy Trail. Looking at this map, you can see that, together, the two rail-trails would create a loop of almost 400 miles and a remarkable destination for trail tourists.

    Looking further ahead, these connected rail-trails would form the core of a trail system stretching more than 500 miles across the entire state, ultimately connecting St. Louis and Kansas City. Very cool.

    So what's happening now?

    Ameren Missouri, the utility company that owns the corridor, is weighing up a number of bids for the corridorours among them. We are not certain when they will make their decision, but rest assured that we will let you know as soon as they do.

    Meanwhile, the people of Missouri are super excited for the benefits that such a destination trail system would bring to their communities. Mike Hendricks' story in the Kansas City Star yesterday offers a unique insight into how much Missouri businesspeople and leaders have riding on the proposal: "It's a great, great opportunity for Missouri," says Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.

    Whether no news is good news, at the moment we can't say. What we can say is that it is because of the people that contributed to our Rock Island Line campaign and our thousands of supporters that we are able to maintain a legal and trail assistance staff that can respond to opportunities like this one, and fight to preserve rail corridors for trail development nationwide.

    Stay tuned. And breathe. But keep those fingers crossed.

    Top photo courtesy Vicki Gibson via Flickr


    Jake Lynch is RTC’s marketing and media relations specialist. Born and raised in the wilds of rural Australia, Jake now helps tell the story of America’s rail-trails, from big cities to one-horse towns and everywhere in between. 



  • Great Adventures on the GAP: Memoirs of an 11-Year-Old Bicyclist

    RTC is shining the spotlight on the state of Pennsylvania during September. When it comes to trails, Pennsylvania is doing it right! Check back throughout the month to learn how unique collaborations and forward-thinking agencies are coming together to help communities realize their trail visions and make Pennsylvania a leader in the trails world.

    We want to extend a special thank you to Mae Nagel and her father David for this very heartfelt and very candid peak at their recent bike trip through part of the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania!

    When my dad told me we should take a father-daughter bike trip along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), I wasn’t really sure what to expect. First, we realized that I needed a new bike because my other one was too small, so we went to a bike shop. I was so excited about getting a shiny, brand new bike!

    On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 5, at 4:15 p.m., after a piano lesson we were late to (and missed), we set out. We got to Café Bruges in Carlisle, Pa., around 6:30 p.m. for dinner. I had corned beef for the first time, and their Belgian fries were delicious! We also had delicious chocolate mousse for dessert. Then we set out for the Lodge at Chalk Hill in western Pennsylvania where we would begin our adventure. 

    On Wednesday morning, we woke up to cold, rainy weather. We thought to ourselves, Oh no! It can’t be raining. We were very disappointed. I guess singing “Rain, rain, go away, don’t come back until…Sunday!” really works because the rain stopped, and the sun came out. Hooray! We were so relieved. We drove to the start of the GAP in Connellsville, where we loaded up our bikes with panniers, sleeping bags, a tent and luggage of all sorts. The best part was putting my teddy bear, Beary, in my pannier with his head sticking out so he could watch the scenery.

    At the very beginning of the trip, the trail was paved, so it was easy riding and smooth. After about a mile, the trail was flat with packed gravel. I was really excited, but after about nine miles, I was surprised we had only gone that far. We kept plugging away, but after a while I was really anxious to get to our midway point in Ohiopyle. I was wishing I had a super power that would make me be in Ohiopyle—right then and there.

    Experiencing Challenges

    After that, when I thought we’d gone three more miles, my dad checked his odometer and realized we had only gone one. “Ugh!”  It wasn’t that bad, though, because we had snacks and played games like 20 Questions and This or That while we were riding, which made the time pass more quickly. Along the way we saw waterfalls that were pretty and picturesque. The trail was peaceful, and there were nice overlooks. Thinking back, though, we were like Dory in Finding Nemo, singing, “Just keep swimming; just keep swimming.”  I learned to just keep going.

    Finally, we arrived in Ohiopyle, where we decided that going the additional 11 miles to Confluence would be just too far. I admit I was a little upset, because we didn’t have our car, and the town was unfamiliar. We had lunch and ice cream, but that didn’t help much.  

    We realized we needed to book the campsite for one more night (we were originally going to stay in Confluence for one night), so we asked around and finally found the park office. My dad called Ohiopyle State Park and asked if we could have a campsite for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, instead of just Thursday and Friday, and fortunately we could. The woman at the trail office directed us to where it was. We found the path to the campground, but it was a quarter mile of steep rockiness, and after a long, hard day, you don’t think anything can get worse, so that was hard. 

    We finally found the check-in office at the campground, and the lady was very nice. She gave us cookies. Then, we heard thunder and felt a gust of wind, and it started to pour. Now things really couldn’t get worse! Fortunately, the nice lady let us stay under the porch, and my dad pulled out some jellybeans! Yummy! When the rain stopped, we went to set up our tent, and everything felt better that evening.

    Brighter Days Ahead

    The next day, the ride back was a TON easier. Maybe it was because the route was slightly downhill, and we didn’t have our panniers—we left them at the campground—but we went eight to 10 miles per hour! I was relieved that we had gone halfway so quickly. I had so much fun, and the trail was beautiful.   

    It was really fun to watch the river and hear the train go by on the other side. There were lookouts and waterfalls, and benches at which to stop and have a snack. We arrived back in Connellsville in two hours and 20 minutes. It was a breeze! We got our car and drove back to the campsite. After that, we went to some natural water slides at Ohiopyle, and we stayed two more days.  

    On Friday morning, we visited Fallingwater, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, and in the afternoon we went to Cucumber Falls at the campground and enjoyed the nice water. The next morning, we packed our bags and headed back to Philadelphia.  

    Now that I know what to expect, I’m excited to go on my next biking trip. 

    For me, the 17 miles there and back were a big accomplishment, and all in all, it was an excellent adventure that I’d highly recommend.

    Just don’t forget the jellybeans! 

    Photos courtesy David Nagel


    Mae Nagel is an 11-year-old from Pennsylvania. With her father David, she completed her first bike trip along the Great Allegheny Passage this August.

  • Pennsylvanians Pitch In: Maintenance on PA Trails Is a Community Priority

    RTC is shining the spotlight on the state of Pennsylvania during September. When it comes to trails, Pennsylvania is doing it right! Check back throughout the month to learn how unique collaborations and forward-thinking agencies are coming together to help communities realize their trail visions and make Pennsylvania a leader in the trails world.

    Maintenance. It’s the least flashy part of the trail world, but it is one of the most important aspects of the work being done by trail organizations, municipalities and agencies across the country.

    How different trails are managed and maintained reflects the variety of the trails themselves, and for trail organizations in Pennsylvania, leveraging local resources, tapping into dedicated volunteer pools and partnering with municipalities have been the tickets to the successful maintenance of the trails that Pennsylvanians know and love.

    Taking the First Step

    The first step toward effective maintenance is prevention, and proper design and construction up front make a huge difference down the road. “We put a lot of effort on the design to minimize maintenance needs,” reports Darla Kirkpatrick, president of the Redbank Valley Trail Association (RVTA). Measures were taken to “build it right,” with considerable forethought given to trail surfacing, vegetation management and drainage to lessen the need for costly maintenance in the future.

    Couldn’t Do It Without ‘Em

    Dedicated volunteers are the lifeblood of the maintenance force for the Montour Trail, and fortunately for the Montour Trail Council, finding qualified volunteers has not been a problem. Experienced and steadfast volunteers, many with extensive construction backgrounds, lend their hands, equipment and knowhow on maintenance projects of any size. 

    Occasionally, the Montour Trail Council contracts municipal maintenance crews for assistance;  the National Tunnel paving project is a great example. 

    Numerous trails around the state have Adopt-a-Trail programs, where volunteers sign up to patrol their section of trail once a month and take care of minor issues—reporting larger issues to local managing organizations. Adopt-a-Trail programs depend on the donated time, equipment and passion of those loyal volunteers.

    And, did you know? The Lower Trail in Western Pennsylvania has a secret weapon when it comes to maintenance—that of Retired Navy man Nelson Horton, who now volunteers as a maintenance supervisor. He makes maintenance decisions (under the purview of the board), coordinates related projects, and organizes and trains volunteer groups—all on donated time. Awesome.

    The commitment to trails is evident when you examine how many volunteer hours Pennsylvanians log on trails annually, and trail groups have gained tremendous insight into effective volunteer management to make those hours count. 

    For Gil McGurl, Montour Trail Council board member, the main lesson one can learn about working with volunteers is the importance of gratitude. “When they are done, right or wrong, you say thank you,” he affirms.

    According to McGurl, fostering the energy and enthusiasm that volunteers bring to maintenance projects is important in order to keep them coming back. He states, “We have a lot of volunteers that are out there because they love the trail and love what they are doing.”

    While many users don’t think twice about what it takes to keep their favorite trail passable, safe and beautiful, others, like the countless volunteers of Pennsylvania, are pitching in their time, tools and know-how to ensure their trails are in working order. 

    It is a successful model that is working for the state and an inspiring example for trail enthusiasts across the country!

    Top photo courtesy Redbank Valley Trail Association; right photo courtesy Dennis Sims; left photo courtesy Chris D'Alessandro


    Katie Harris is a member of RTC's communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.

  • How One RTC Grant Will Unlock Florida's Latest Long Distance Rail-Trail

    It's not easy, getting rail-trails built.

    All over America, advocates, business people and community leaders are working tirelessly to provide safe pathways for biking and walking where they live.

    RTC's job is to help them. We do this in a number of ways: by providing technical assistance, clearing funding and process hurdles, mobilizing local and state support and fighting for policies that support these local efforts.

    And sometimes we do it by just handing over some cold, hard cash! It was our great pleasure recently to provide some funding to enable trail advocates in Florida to buy a section of a disused rail corridor and build new miles of rail-trail in their community.

    The Palatka Trail, through Putnam County in the northern part of the state, is part of a grand effort to connect a trail system between St. Augustine and Lake City. Our latest Project Support Grantfunded by the Coca-Cola Foundationis making possible the short extension of the Palatka Rail Trail west to U.S. 17.

    By itself, it is only a short section of trail. But it is a significant link in the bigger effort, driven by Putnam County, the City of Palatka and Putnam Blueways and Trails, to connect to the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail to the west and to the Palatka-to-St. Augustine State Trail to the east. And what a network that would be!

    Now if only I had one of those giant checks...

    If you live in the region and want to get involved with this terrific local trail building effort, contact Putnam Blueways and Trails at putnambluewaysandtrails.org.

    Or learn more about RTC's effort to support trail building in Florida at railstotrails.org/FloridaCampaign.


    Ken Bryan is the Florida field office director for RTC. He frequently writes about pedestrian and bike-related infrastructure issues in the Sunshine State. 



  • Putting It All Together: How One Pennsylvania Agency Is Turning Community Trail Visions into Reality

    This month, RTC will be shining the spotlight on the state of Pennsylvania, which holds the title for the most rail-trails in the country. Additionally, there are great folks working tirelessly to maintain their trails, advocating for new connections and building out trail networks that will connect many communities in and around the Keystone State. In short, when it comes to trails, Pennsylvania is doing it right!

    Check back throughout the month to learn how unique collaborations and forward-thinking agencies are coming together to help communities realize their trail visions and make Pennsylvania a leader in the trails world. There are too many great stories for just one month, but we’ll do our best to bring you the highlights!


    For many, government agencies represent a land of endless bureaucracy, where dreams of new trails wither, bogged down by mountains of paperwork and red tape. Not so at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which has played a key role in creating new trails for over two decades. To date, Pennsylvania has more than 1,700 miles of trails. 

    So what makes Pennsylvania a leader in the trail community?

    Sure, DCNR is staffed with knowledgeable, energetic staff willing to help build new trails, but it takes a number of elements to complete a trail—particularly funding. While most states rely heavily on federal funding for trails, the additional state-generated funding for trails—Pennsylvania is one of the few states that allocate such funds—allows DCNR to complete numerous trail projects each year. This historical commitment originated with voters in the 1980s, who wanted more access to the outdoors and a higher quality of life. Funding for trails has continued ever since, most notably in the form of the 1993 Keystone Fund for outdoor recreation. 

    Often, it is a group of interested citizens or a municipality that is first interested in building a new section of trail. With the necessary funding in place, DCNR is well poised to respond to and meet this local community interest. 

    Vanyla Tierney, recreation planner for the Pennsylvania DCNR’s Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, credits the tenacity of local trail groups and volunteers who work year-in and year-out to achieve their visions for trails in their neighborhoods. 

    In the beginning of the rail-trail movement, trails groups often were met with distrust in their communities, but that story has changed, according to Tierney. As trail users began to understand the health and economic benefits of having a trail nearby, the desire for trails gained traction, and today, trails are one of the most requested projects at DCNR. Now, with the help and involvement of DCNR, trail segments are being connected into larger systems.

    “DCNR gets groups interested in trails and helps them build capacity," states Tierney, adding that DCNR staff also help groups effectively navigating the bureaucracy associated with trail development.

    To respond to requests, DCNR also frequently cooperates with other agencies, particularly the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT)—a refreshing change in a sea of isolated agency operations. Of the various initiatives on which they partner, the most notable is their collaboration to fund projects under the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP)—the largest source of federal funds for trails, walking and biking. Twenty years ago when TAP (then called “Transportation Enhancements,” or “TE”) was first created, leaders in both agencies recognized the benefits of working together to fund walking and biking projects, and they have done so ever since. DCNR tackles the planning phase of projects with state funding sources, and PennDOT handles the construction phases with federal TAP funds. In this way, federal and state funding sources work together to create great trails, which are enjoyed by Pennsylvanians and visitors alike.

    In many ways, DCNR’s commitment to trails is a direct response to citizen demand. In surveys conducted by the agency to develop the 2009-2013 Pennsylvania Outdoor Recreation Plan, more than half of respondents said they wanted more trails, and state park visitors overwhelmingly indicated that building trail connections, within state parks and to nearby communities, should receive top priority. 

    “This is what people want,” Tierney says. 

    Pennsylvania voters have continually backed their desire for access to the outdoors with the funding to build facilities, and the pieces of the trail-building puzzle come together at DCNR.

    Put it all together and it’s easy to see why Pennsylvania is a winning state for trails.

    Top photo courtesy Zachary Marsh; right photo, on the Great Allegheny Passage, and bottom photo, on the Path of Flood Trail, by RTC


    Leeann Sinpatanasakul serves as advocacy coordinator for RTC's public policy team. She focuses on generating grassroots support in America for state and federal trail funding.

  • California Approves $43 Million for Trail Projects in First Round of Active Transportation Program

    Twenty trail projects in California got good news in August when they were funded in the first round of Statewide and Rural projects under California’s new Active Transportation Program (ATP). The funded trails reflect a range of urban, suburban and rural projects and include some rail-trails, such as the Humboldt Bay Arcata Rail-with-Trail and the East Bay Greenway (Oakland). The Napa Valley Vine Trail, which RTC has enthusiastically supported, also landed in the winner’s circle, securing $3.6 million for the six-mile Oak Knoll District segment, connecting the City of Napa’s existing “Crosstown Commuter Trail” at Redwood Road to the existing Vine Trail section in Yountville.

    Competition was stiff for ATP funding, reflecting enormous pent-up demand for bicycle, pedestrian and trail improvements across all regions of California. In total, there were more than 700 applications seeking more than $1 billion in funding, with only about $360 million available for programming in this round. Of the 700-plus applications, 132 represented trail and pathway projects. The Statewide results just announced represent 60 percent of the $360 million pot; the remaining 40 percent is the Regional share, to be awarded by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in November 2014.

    The upwards of $43 million approved for trail projects represents 19.4 percent of total funding awarded. See the full list of funded projects here.

    Safe Routes to School projects also fared well, with 94 funded projects including components of this program. The ATP also prioritizes investment in disadvantaged communities; a total of 86 percent of all funded applications benefit disadvantaged communities in whole or in part.

    RTC’s Western Regional staff was closely involved in shaping the legislation that created the ATP last year—consolidating existing federal and state trail, bicycle and pedestrian funding streams into a new statewide program designed to increase biking and walking trips while improving safety. 

    The ATP recognizes the importance of active transportation as an essential part of the statewide strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage sustainable, healthy communities. Another important goal of the program is to ensure that disadvantaged communities share in the benefits of active-transportation investment, and this year, applications exceeded expectations.

    This substantial investment in trails and other active transportation will be a big step forward in creating the active, healthy and sustainable communities that we all want to live in.

    Photo above courtesy Napa Valley Vine Trail


    Laura Cohen is the director of RTC's Western Regional Office. She specializes in creating and managing strategic partnerships and initiatives that further active-transportation in the western states.

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

    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?”

    With 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 of PedNet, 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.”

    Photos courtesy Columbia Parks and Recreation

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


    Katie Harris is a member of RTC's communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.

  • Why Rail-with-Trail Is Critical to Florida's Future

    Followers plugged in to RTC’s blog and Facebook feeds lately may have seen that we are in the midst of campaigning for a “rail-with-trail” to be included in the All Aboard Florida high speed train project.

    But maybe you've found yourself asking more than once, “What exactly is a rail-with-trail?”

    Simply, a rail-with-trail is a trail alongside an active rail line. Flipping the script on what we traditionally think of as “rail-trails” (repurposing disused rail corridors), rails-with-trails combine a number of transportation, recreation and safety benefits in one linear space. In more densely developed urban areas, in particular, collocating rail service with pathways for walking and biking makes tremendous sense, and is a creative and efficient solution to some of our most pressing transportation and environmental problems.

    The two characteristics of rails-with-trails that most often surprise people are—

    1. There are so many of them. There are more than 217 rails-with-trails in America, which means that more than one in every 10 rail-trails actually parallels an active line at some point. They are in our wide open rural spaces and through the heart of our biggest cities. Just like traditional rail-trails, all sorts of people use them for all sorts of reasons.

    2. They have a remarkable safety record. We’ve studied activity on rails-with-trails over the last 20 years, and in all that time, there have been only two serious accidents involving a trail user and a train. Rail-with-trail has been proven to be infinitely safer than trails alongside roadways, partly because the movement of a train is so predictable.

    A third characteristic, and this is where it gets interesting for people in Florida, is that rails-with-trails help rail transit systems function better by helping more people get to the stations without the massive costs and impacts of more parking and more traffic congestion. 

    That’s why pretty much every new transit system being built these days is incorporating biking and walking pathways into it; planners know that people these days get around by using a combination of modes, and increasingly, that doesn’t include a car. Innovative and forward-thinking systems like Miami’s M-Path, the West Line Rail in Denver, Colo., the Beltline in Atlanta, Ga., and the groundbreaking Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Ore., were all designed so biking and walking pathways connect to transit stations and from there connect to local neighborhoods, shops and employment centers.

    If the All Aboard Florida project does not include a rail-with-trail system, unfortunately the result will be a transportation system of the 1950s rather than one suited to the Florida of the future. A $2.5 billion infrastructure project that will be out of date the minute it opens doesn’t seem like a great use of public funds, public land or public infrastructure.

    On the other hand, the inclusion of a parallel pathway for walking and biking immediately improves the efficiency and capacity of the system, makes it serve a much broader population and mitigates a whole host of anticipated negative impacts, from traffic congestion to the division of neighbors and the deterioration of green space.

    Not to mention, most of the communities along the route already have plans in place for biking and walking trails along the corridor!

    This is why RTC believes a rail-with-trail is a must-have, and not an optional extra, for All Aboard Florida.

    How about you?


    Ken Bryan is the Florida field office director for RTC. He frequently writes about pedestrian and bike-related infrastructure issues in the Sunshine State. 

  • Building Trails, Building Lives: Kids Are Connecting in Sheboygan, Wis.

    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. Each week during the month of August, we will highlight one of these communities, focusing on the lives that were positively impacted by NTPP. Check out the previous installments, including our look at SPOKES in Minneapolis and the Cal Park Hill Tunnel in Marin County.

    For school kids in Sheboygan, Wis., trails are about connections. And thanks to the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, a nearby trail, completed in the fall of 2013, provides connections of all kinds.

    Once a vacant field, the new trail allows students and their families a much more direct and safe route to and from the elementary school—as well as a vehicle to encourage and embrace long-term healthy, active lifestyles.

    Connecting with Nature

    Around 700 students, grades K-4, attend Sheboygan Falls Elementary School, and for many of those students, the trail is somewhat of an outdoor classroom.

    Principal Lynn Bub says bringing kids closer with nature is the greatest benefit the trail provides the school, helping teachers redefine what nature is. She states, “It’s not somewhere you go—somewhere you have to make a trip to visit. Instead, we are trying to teach our students that nature is everywhere around us.” 

    According to Bub, exposure to the outdoors—regularly provided by teachers—allows the elementary school kids to see that time immersed in nature can be included in their daily lives. 

    “The trails helps us change the way students perceive and interact with nature,” Bub states. 

    Connecting to Health

    A morning walking program, hosted by a handful of Physical Education teachers, encourages students to take a stroll before the school day begins. The walking program is voluntary, but the teachers have set up a ticket program to reward participation and occasionally hold a raffle for the student walkers, as well. Bub says the program allows kids to move their bodies, use their energy and get their blood pumping before being asked to concentrate on school work. Additionally, the trail provides leaders and participants a safe, separated path on which to run their morning program.

    Connections to the Community

    Kindergarteners, in particular, use the trail to walk to a senior center near the school to engage in activities with older residents. Forging these connections with the community is important for the leaders at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School, and the trail has opened up more of these opportunities. 

    “This wouldn’t have been possible without the trail,” Bub states. “We would have had to bus the kids over there, but now they can walk, they can be outside, and they can get some exercise.” 

    Some argue that children today are less active and less connected with nature. But it is places like Sheboygan that prove there is an antidote to sedentary, disconnected ways of life, and trails and other types of infrastructure that support walking and biking are integral parts of that equation. 

    Photo header courtesy of Gottfried not Bouillon via Flickr


    Katie Harris is a member of RTC's communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.

  • Here Comes the Tweetsie Trail! Local Tenacity Built Tennessee’s Newest Rail-Trail

    Be the first to set foot on the trail at the grand opening Tweetsie Trail Trek on Aug. 30! Can’t make the event? Plan your visit to the trail via Traillink.com


    A brief history of the Tweetsie…

    The 10-mile stretch of corridor between Johnson City and Elizabethton—located on the historic East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (ET & WNC) line—had not had any rail traffic since 2003. The line was no longer profitable, and its owner, Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., began to weigh its options.  

    Local hikers, bikers and outdoor enthusiasts were among the first to imagine something great when they saw the unused railway. By the fall of 2006, Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden had initiated negotiations with the railroad owner to obtain the corridor. Local trail advocates had long been fans of the famed Virginia Creeper Trail, a rail-trail that meanders through Grayson and Washington counties in Virginia, and thought that Johnson City should have a rail-trail too. Led by trail development consultant Dan Reese, Friends of the Tweetsie Trail was organized in 2007. The group encouraged people in the region to write letters and send emails to local government officials in favor of a trail. Ultimately, the group submitted a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to Mayor Darden and city commissioners  of Johnson City, Tenn. “This is an opportunity that could be one of the best things to happen for Johnson City, Elizabethton, Carter County and the region,” Reese is quoted as saying in a 2007 Johnson City Press article.

    In 2009, when the ET & WNC informed the Surface Transportation Board of the railroad’s intent to abandon the corridor, RTC—through its Early Warning System—quickly notified dozens of local officials and trail advocates in Tennessee.  Mayor Darden and Johnson City commissioners were in an ongoing dialogue with the railroad and well poised to begin the railbanking process (which allows for trail development in out-of-service rail corridors until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service). Soon, they submitted a bid for the rail property, cooperated with its owners, the Genesee and Wyoming Railway, and successfully railbanked the corridor in April 2011. 

    Johnson City invested $600,000 to acquire the trail, having followed federal railbanking procedures. In 2013, the city formed the Tweetsie Trail Task Force—headed by Dr. Dan Schumaier—and sought donations and in-kind services from local municipalities, businesses, families and trail advocates from across the region to fund the construction of the trail.  

    Alongside officials from Carter County, Johnson City and Elizabethton, as well as local trail supporters, the Task Force eventually raised $475,000 for the construction of the first 4.5 miles of the trail!

    Cut to present day…

    The first of three segments (with seven overpasses safely boarded and provided with railings!) is complete and ready for its first visitors.  On Aug. 28, the ribbon will be formally cut, and on Aug. 30, the surrounding communities will celebrate with a Tweetsie Trail Trek. This family-friendly event will have live music, food vendors and a bike give-away. A 4.3-mile run/walk/bike ride on the new trail—beginning at Lions Field in Elizabethton and ending at Memorial Park Community Center in Johnson City, where all the festivities are planned—will serve as the marquee activity. Bicyclists will begin their nearly 10-mile out-and-back ride at noon.  All proceeds will go toward the maintenance and development of the new trail. 

    The Tweetsie Trail Trek will culminate years of hard work by a visionary and persistent cross-section of supporters, including local elected officials and community advocates; the entire region is abuzz about the event!

    Looking to the future…

    According to Dr. Schumaier, the final two segments of the Tweetsie Trail could be completed in 2015-16. When all 10 miles of the trail are constructed, it will run from Stateline Road in Elizabethton to Alabama Street in Johnson City, and connect with Johnson City’s greenway to East Tennessee State University. This will make it the longest rail-trail in Tennessee and push the state’s total rail-trail mileage past the 100-mile mark.

    Welcome, Tweetsie Trail!

    All photos courtesy Tweetsie Trail


    Kristen Martin is a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a former intern for RTC. She is currently studying land use with a concentration in urban planning.  

  • An Engineering Wonder, a Bike Commuter’s Dream: The Cal Park Hill Tunnel

    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. Each week during the month of August, we will highlight one of these communities, focusing on the lives that were positively impacted by NTPP. Check out last week’s post on Minneapolis, here.


    Christina Toms’ commute is the definition of multi-modal. From her front door in Fairfax, Calif., she hops on her bike and cruises down to the Larkspur ferry terminal. From there, she catches the ferry that brings her across the bay to the city of San Francisco. 

    That commute is possible in large part to the Cal Park Hill Tunnel, an engineering triumph that makes the vital connection between San Rafael and Larkspur in Marin County, Calif. 

    According to Toms, the Cal Park Hill Tunnel is connecting communities in ways that were never possible before. “The tunnel has made it so much more feasible to ride,” affirms Toms. “It’s far more direct, and it’s so much safer than before.” 

    The Cal Park Hill Tunnel opened in 2010, but its story began more than a century earlier. Built in 1884 and widened in 1924, the structure helped the railroads move freight along the 300-mile-long corridor between Tiburon to the south and Eureka to the north. During the lumber boom in Northern California, the railroad, and the tunnel that brought goods to its southern terminus, was used heavily. While lumber was certainly a large part of the railway’s load, trains carried a variety of freight over the years, but the railroad ended all service in 1985, and the tunnel sat empty. In the late 1980s, a partial collapse at the south end signaled the tunnel’s disintegration, and after a fire in 1990, approximately 20 percent of the tunnel was collapsed, with the remainder in various states of disrepair. It was time for the tunnel’s renaissance

    A pivotal point in the structure’s recovery came in 2001, when bike and pedestrian advocates, led by the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC), fought off a proposed parking lot for the Golden Gate Bridge to be constructed in front of the sealed tunnel entrance. This was a major victory, because it validated the efforts that had been undertaken up to that point. The vision of resurrecting the Cal Park Hill Tunnel was strong, and nine years and a tremendous amount of work later, on a foggy day in December 2010, the tunnel was reopened. The excitement was palpable as the dream was finally realized.

    “It is amazing that we were able to retro fit and reuse this piece of infrastructure,” Toms says. As an engineer, Toms has an appreciation for the tunnel retrofit, particularly because of California’s geotechnical conditions. It is a huge undertaking to rehabilitate a partially collapsed tunnel; it is an additional challenge to make it seismically safe in a state known for ground-rattling earthquakes. 

    Before the tunnel was accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, Marin County resident Carlos Rico says he traveled to work on segments of road on which he felt unsafe. “The traffic is pretty scary on those stretches, even for an experienced rider,” explains Rico. But with the tunnel in action, he can avoid those dangerous segments. “Yes, the tunnel saves me time, but far more importantly, it is a much safer route,” he says.

    It is undeniably an asset to bike commuters, but according to Toms, the Cal Park Hill Tunnel serves more subsets of the community than just those who ride to work. “Every day, I see the whole range of people using the tunnel,” she reports. From speedy commuters in spandex on carbon fiber bikes, to folks in jeans and sneakers on their way to work, to people who use the path for fitness, Tom says more people discover and use the connector each day. “I see lots of pedestrians, strollers and families on the way to the movies or the farmers’ market,” adds Toms.

    Andi Peri, advocacy director at MCBC, explains that the diversity of users is not limited to their mode of travel. Many people of Mexican and Central American descent use the structure daily to get to work, exercise, or spend time with their families. Rico echoes this sentiment. “The tunnel is used by a diverse and wide variety of people, for both work and play,” he says.

    A safe, multi-modal commute for many Marin County residents is now a possibility, but the structure is unique in the other mode it will accept—that of light rail. The tunnel was specifically constructed in anticipation of the inclusion of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART). While the walkers, bikers and other non-motorized users will share the same structure with SMART, the tunnel separates the user groups completely, a “tunnel within a tunnel,” of sorts.

    While SMART is not yet ready to bring service through the corridor, the planning has been done and the capacity is in place. It is just one segment of Marin County’s multi-modal vision, but to users like Toms and hundreds of others, it makes all the difference.   

    Top photo courtesy of Streetsblog USA; right photo of Christina Toms on the San Francisco Bay Ferry courtesy Christina Toms; left photo courtesy MCBC. All photos used by permission.


    Katie Harris is a member of RTC's communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.

  • Goat Maintenance: The Kids Are Hungry in Red Mountain Park

    Acres and acres of overgrown thickets of invasive plants: It is a land manager’s worst nightmare, but a goat’s ultimate dream. It’s time these two were introduced.

    Ian Hazelhoff, natural resource specialist at Red Mountain Park, is overseeing a goat-browsing project to evaluate the effectiveness of goats on invasive species removal. Fifty goats are feasting on foliage at the park outside of Birmingham, Ala., this week.

    What do these goats eat? According to Hazelhoff, everything, so he does recommend caution when one is considering making use of the enthusiastic eaters.

    “In an area where you have both native and invasive plants, goats might not be an ideal management tool, because they’ll eat just about anything,” he explains. Hazelhoff adds, however, that in the 3.5 acres in Red Mountain Park where goat maintenance is currently taking place, the two main culprits, kudzu and Chinese privet, have outcompeted nearly all other plants—"requiring a heavy hand from a management perspective." For this particular plot of land, the goats fit the bill.

    If the goats weren’t munching away, what would be the solution for removing these invasive species? 

    “Most of the time for this part of a restoration project, we have to use heavy machinery. We can clear roughly the same plot of land in about a day’s work, but it has some negative aspects,” explains Hazelhoff, adding that the machinery requires diesel fuel and leaves biomass such as sticks, leaves and seeds that can propagate and allow the invasive plants to return, despite all of their work. “With the goats, there is no problem of leftover biomass; they don’t leave anything in their wake. Goats eat all of that, and there is much less site preparation as the restoration moves forward,” says Hazelhoff.

    Creating innovative solutions and sustainable management practices are important goals for the folks at Red Mountain Park, and the goat-browsing project satisfies both objectives. Hazelhoff cheerfully reports on the goats’ progress after a few days of their buffet: “I’m quite pleased with the volume and speed at which they’re clearing the plot!”

    Red Mountain Park isn’t alone in their goat-grazing ways; land managers in Bozeman, Mont., have used goats at a local trailhead to deal with invasive plants. Weiser River Trail in Idaho has integrated goat grazing into their noxious plant management plan. But it’s not just trails and rural areas that are benefiting from goats’ appetites. Even Boston, Mass., is jumping on the goat bandwagon! And the city of Wilsonville, Ore., uses goats to control the English Ivy in a municipal park.  

    Invasive species removal is a major task for many trails and conservation areas around the county, and solutions like Red Mountain Park’s goat grazing pilot project will inform other land managers for future projects. But for now, graze on, goats, graze on!

    Want to learn more about other management techniques used on trails across the country? Check out our management and maintenance toolbox pages for a bevy of helpful resources!

    Photos courtesy Solomon Crenshaw Jr. from AL.com. Used by permission.


    Katie Harris is a member of RTC's communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.

  • Elly Blue: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy

    Elly Blue knows a thing or two about bikes. In fact, she’s been riding, talking and writing about them for most of her adult life. Her most recent book, “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy,” is a thoroughly researched, straightforward and skillfully written look into the role bicycles are playing within the economic state of affairs in America. 

    In addition to writing, participating in the Portland Society (which she co-founded) and traveling for her Dinner & Bikes tour, Blue also runs the Wheelwomen Switchboard, an online community for women interested in bicycling. 

    Recently, I caught up with Blue to talk about her book, investments in bike infrastructure and equity within the bicycling world. 

    Q: You discuss equity and access for bicyclists quite a bit in your book. Why did you choose to dig into these topics?

    [In her book, Blue writes, “Bicycling didn’t cause the gap in equity in this country; rather, it reflects the problems of broader society. But bicycling does represent an opportunity for change. Today, there is a myth that people of color do not like bicycling and do not want the sort of infrastructure changes that make cycling more appealing. Despite a long history of discrimination and unequal access, this has never been widely true, and today the barriers are coming down rapidly, thanks in part to the growing inclusivity of traditional bicycle advocates, but in much larger part to the efforts and leadership of a growing number of grassroots social and advocacy groups.”]

    A: I’ve been writing about the economics of bicycling since 2010; I wasn’t the first to write about it, [however], I have helped make economics more of the standard frame for talking about bikes in our society. But I have some misgivings about how the economic frame works in reality. 

    Not only is equity really important, it’s the most important piece of all of this. We are trying to create a more equitable world, and I see bikes as a tool to help with that.


    Q: Why is it important for you to make the economic case for bikes in today’s society?

    Because the economy is terrible! In fact, the economic case has very little to do with bicycling. It has to do with our energy economy and how we have built our cities in the past century. Bikes are not the end all, be all, but they are a way that people are taking back public space, and it is a way to show how powerful we can be when we organize around bikes.


    Q: In your book, you also discuss the myth—believed by some Americans—that those who ride bikes are freeloaders; they benefit from the infrastructure but don’t pay for it. How has this myth become so pervasive, and why is it important to dispel it?

    A: It is an interesting historical question to see how the myth has become so pervasive. Rugged individualism has something to do with it, and the desire to own the status quo, to own what we have. But what we have is supremely broken. Our Highway Trust Fund is in rough shape. The gas tax has not been raised since 1993, our deficit is emense, people are driving less and yet we’re still building out a highway system that we won’t be able to afford. 

    It’s important to bust the myth [that bicyclists are freeloaders], because whenever you look at a budget that’s in trouble, you have to find the actual cause. 

    Bicycling is the only form of transportation that doesn’t just break even, but brings wealth into the community. Bike infrastructure was once seen as a boondoggle; now its absolutely necessary. 


    Q: Some people ask how the federal government could spend money on bike projects when the country is so strapped financially. But research has shown that the return on investment for bike and pedestrian infrastructure is incredible. How do you think it is possible to reconcile these two ways of thinking?

    A: By looking at the math. The mayor of Indianapolis [Greg Ballard] put it really well; he said that when governments are spending money on roads and cars, it is an expense, and it’s an expense that requires more spending in the future. But when you spend money on bicycle infrastructure, you are making an investment.

    The housing crisis at the personal level is a good analogy for the infrastructure crisis at the civic level. We are agreeing to make payments that are beyond our budgets, either for bigger houses on a personal level, or mega-highways on the civic level.

    In fact, if we took the advice of any personal finance blogger when it came to transportation funding, then every city could be as bike friendly as Portland. When people look at the actual numbers, it really is common sense, and the case for investing in bike infrastructure is clear.

    [This is the case for recreational trails as well. In her book, Blue uses Iowa as an example. “In the last two years, the state has spent less than $3 million a year on recreational bike trails and seen a $21 million-a-year increase in sales tax revenue along those trails...”]

    Q: Why is it important to get more women on bikes, and what is the best way to do that? 

    A: It’s not only about getting women to ride bikes. There is a gender gap in bicycling, and it all comes back to the equity discussion. What factors influence that gap? 

    In terms of advocacy, has the focus been too narrow? 

    Listening is the first step to closing the gap. Advocacy can be inclusive when the concerns and needs of everyone, not just the traditional groups, are part of the larger narrative. 

    Photos courtesy Elly Blue


    Katie Harris is a member of RTC's communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.

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