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Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy president Keith Laughlin on 20 years of rail-trails, and why the urban landscape is the future frontier

Rails-to-TrailsRail-trails were typically synonymous with single-track corridors and spandex-clad bicyclists when Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) began in 1986. Twenty years later, the nonprofit that converts abandoned railroad corridors into community trails has become a powerful advocate for creating healthier places and people.

RTC has achieved remarkable success in terms of mileage--the network of rail-trails across America has rocketed from 250 to 13,400 miles since 1986. RTC's efforts to garner federal dollars for non-motorized transportation has helped to ensure that $4.5 billion is designated for walking, bicycling and trails over the next four years through TEA-21, the federal surface transportation legislation. Together with its partners at the local, regional and national levels, RTC is working to ensure this money is spent wisely to promote active living.

"In the last six to seven years people have been really paying attention to the health benefits," says RTC president Keith Laughlin. "It's more than recreation-it's a form of transportation and there's also a heavy piece related to economic development."

In the 1980s, rail-trails were conceived primarily in rural areas for conservation and recreation, so it wasn't uncommon to drive to designated places to run and bicycle. RTC’s vision has since broadened to create and connect trail networks in more densely populated suburban and urban areas, allowing people to be active in the places they live, work and play.
"We're not just looking at length of trail in miles but the number of people who have access," says Laughlin. "Fifty miles of trails that very few people will use isn't nearly as valuable as 10 miles of trail that a million people will use."

RTC's new goal is that by 2020, 90 percent of Americans will live within three miles of a trail. He sees the frontier of RTC's work to be in low-income and urban areas, creating and connecting trail systems where health disparities are the greatest.

One example is the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which is being developed by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. When completed, this eight-mile greenway will provide residents in economically and racially diverse neighborhoods with a commuting and recreational corridor that connects with a larger trail network in suburban Maryland.

"People are making the connection between access to these kinds of places and the obesity epidemic," says Laughlin. "As the health benefits become a bigger part of the equation, the focus on access is more pronounced."

Among RTC's current initiatives is the Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program [PDF], a $100-million project helping four cities to complete active transportation networks, connecting trails, bicycle lanes, sidewalks, mass transit and more.

"We see it as being a model in investment in creating the kinds of active transportation networks to support everyday physical activity," says Laughlin. "In the end, we're talking about mode shift. These investments will allow people to move out of their cars."

Keith Laughlin has served as president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy since February of 2001. Prior to leading RTC, Laughlin served as associate director for sustainable development on the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. Learn more about RTC at:

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