From the "Smart Growth Speaker Series"
Trails and Greenways:
Connecting People and Communities
Address by David Burwell, President Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Smart Growth Speaker Series
National Building Museum
April 12, 2000
Thank you for this opportunity to present the argument for trails and greenway networks as a central organizing strategy for the promotion of smart growth objectives. While smart growth advocates have made a strong case for taming our gray infrastructure of roads and highways in pursuit of smart growth goals, the affirmative case for creation of a green infrastructure of bike paths, trails and greenways as a necessary corollary to this strategy has not yet been articulated.
In my talk, I will address four questions:
First, the question put to me by a potential donor when I first sought funding for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy 14 years ago was, If rail-trails are so great, why don't they just happen? In other words, if trails and greenways are such great assets to a community, why aren't they already part of our urban infrastructure?
Second, Why does transportation investment drive urban form in the United States, whereas, in Europe, land use policy guides, if not dictates, the selection, location and design of transportation infrastructure? I will explore some historical reasons for this situation and its effect on trail and greenway development in America.
Third, What new developments provide unique opportunities, after almost 100 years of neglect, to create trail and greenway systems on a regional scale?
Fourth, What is the connection between trails and greenways and smart growth, and how can the two movements work together to advance their mutual goals?
Why Don't Trails and Greenways Just Happen?
In answer to the first question, Why don't trails and greenways just happen? the answer is they do happen, but only with great difficulty. The average rail-trail project still takes between 5 and 10 years to complete. The challenge presented by the smart growth movement, however, is even more difficult. That is, How can we build and manage urban trail and greenways systems in a manner that will have a detectable influence on the location and nature of development on a regional scale? In short, our challenge is two-fold: we must make trail and greenway projects happen, and we must be able to weave them together into regional systems, to have a detectable effect on urban form.
So, what do we have to work with? At RTC we track rail-trail development and funding, so let's start with this resource:
Today, there are 1030 open rail-trails totaling almost 11,000 miles and another 1,200 rail-trail projects totaling almost 18,000 miles. Thirty-seven percent of a coast-to-coast, totally off-road, totally protected, multiple-use trail is already open, and another 30 percent is in public ownership.
What about Transportation Enhancement funding for bike/pedestrian projects? We all know about ISTEA and TEA-21. The actual funds spent for bike/ped projects under this new law through 1997 total more than $1.5 billion. While funding is growing, the program itself is growing faster--$440 million to $640 million. This year, the Clinton Administration has asked for more than $700 million for TE. Rail-trails and other greenways are securing 65% of the bike/ped funding.
Still, the going is rough. The Capital Crescent Trail here in the nation's capital was first proposed in 1986 and still has four of its eleven miles to complete. It took $22 million to purchase and would have been lost except for the eleventh hour intervention of Kingdon Gould (ironically, the great-grandson of railroad baron Jay Gould), who put up several million dollars to prevent its abandonment and disintegration. It is now the area's most popular non-motorized transportation and recreation corridor and we can't even imagine our community without it. So why didn't this trail just happen?
The problem is that, despite the many benefits of trails and greenways, there is no
delivery system to make them happen. By this I mean a process to decide such
questions as: who is going to own them? Who designs them, and for what uses?
Who develops them? Who funds them? And who manages them? All of these
questions have been asked and answered for our highway program, but not for a
green infrastructure of trails and greenways. Ownership can be public or private,
or distributed among several agencies at different levels of government. For
example, the section of the Capital Crescent Trail located in the District of Columbia is owned and managed by the national Park Service, but the section in Montgomery County, Maryland is owned and managed by the county transportation agency. Funding sources vary between projects, and are derived from everything from bake sales to gas taxes.
These delivery system questions change when we try to develop trail and greenway systems at a regional scale. Here, new questions arise, such as, How do projects connect across political boundaries? What common standards are needed for the operation of a system? Who plans, approves and implements the system? And, how are projects staged across jurisdictions so the system emerges in some coherent form? Again, these questions have been asked and answered for highway projects-through Transportation Improvement Programs (TIPs), regional planning processes, five-year and ten-year highway action plans, and a whole book of rules allocating planning, funding, management, design and maintenance responsibilities across various levels of government. Nothing similar governs regional green infrastructure development.
Faced with such daunting challenges to the implementation of regional trail and greenway systems, combined with the diffused nature of the benefits of trails and greenways to any one agency or interest group, it is pretty obvious why trails and greenways don't just happen.
Yet, there is another powerful reason why trails and greenways don't happen
The market intuitively understands the economic argument for walkable and bikable communities. Why is the average price of a townhouse in Georgetown over $1 million while you can still buy a mansion in the outer suburbs for about $250,000? Because, as pointed out in the latest cover story of Washingtonian Magazine, people want to live in neighborhoods that are walkable and bikable to shops, restaurants, workplaces and other common destinations. With the price of owning a car now averaging over $7,000 a year, the demand for walkable and bikable neighborhoods will only increase.
Unfortunately, the existing transportation service delivery system is not market-oriented. It is a big, bureaucratic, public works program based on a policy of subsidizing our road system at the expense of all other modes of travel. Highways are provided as an essentially free good to the user (meaning they aren't tolled, and the variable cost of driving is low), thus lowering the cost of access to land. This pushes the cost of driving down and the value of land up-a perfect formula for sprawl.
Economics 101 teaches us that, if you lower the price of any good, it will be used more. If you make it free, it will be used wastefully. Most existing transportation demand models do not reflect this simple economic principle. If the price of access to land is reduced by building a road, there is no way for present models to calculate how much more traffic will be generated, referred to as latent demand. Therefore, the models conclude that the way to solve congestion is to build more roads, when the economists tell us this will only generate more traffic.The result is wasteful consumption of land.
This concept of latent demand is equally applicable to trails and greenways and provides a powerful argument for adoption of aggressive, region-wide trail and greenway programs as a smart growth strategy. Just as new road construction generates more car traffic, new trail construction generates more trail traffic. However, since trail-traffic is non-motorized, the effect on land use is reversed. While more roads will generate sprawl, more trails will stimulate density as people relocate to be able to access the trail on foot and bicycle. The Capital Crescent Trail has the same problem Yogi Berra had with Coney Island. He said, Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded.
So, even though the market, defined by the price people are willing to pay for bikable and walkable communities, values trails and greenways highly, the transportation delivery system is not responding. That's another reason why trails and greenways don't just happen.
What would happen if transportation agencies did respond to the market by creating more trail and greenway systems? Pittsburgh is a good example. In the 1970's and 1980's, Pittsburgh lost more than 50 percent of its population as steel mills closed and highway development attracted people to the suburbs. Now, Pittsburgh is stabilizing its population through the creation of a riverfront trail network that is attracting people back down town. It is also using trails to promote dense, mixed-use development in neighborhoods, as small businesses crop up to serve trail users. Finally, it is connecting the individual projects together to significantly improve non-motorized access on a regional scale. All this is happening without the help of the state transportation agency. It is a city initiative implemented almost entirely through the will of Mayor Tom Murphy, without state help.
In conclusion to the question of why trails and greenways don't just happen, the answer is because, despite significant funding, there is no delivery system at either the project or regional level, and there is no will within transportation agencies to create such a system. Also, the models used to plan transportation systems don't come up with trails, greenways or bike paths as answers to transportation problems. In fact, until recently, the data used to model transportation needs didn't even count bicycling and walking as transportation trips that needed to be served. As a result, trails and greenways aren't built without significant grassroots advocacy.
Transportation Technology as Land Use Destiny
Second question: Why does transportation technology drive urban form in America while in other developed countries, land use regulates the selection, location and design of transportation systems?
In my view, the answer is because the concept of intentionally using transportation investment to shape land use has never been an accepted role of transportation policy in the USA--for roads, transit, airports or trails. To the contrary, the transportation/land use connection has been, until recently, intentionally ignored by transportation planners. Efforts to influence the location and scale of land development through transportation investment was considered by the industry as social engineering at its worst. We're civil engineers, not social engineers was the easy excuse for ducking the issue.
First, there is the problem I mentioned with the models--modeling the transportation/land use connection is very difficult. Second, most transportation decision-makers are engineers, and engineers tend to be problem-solvers, not policy wonks. Indeed, until the mid-1980's, the chief federal transportation representative at the state and regional levels was, in name and title, the district or regional engineer.
Third, the entire point of our transportation program was to open up land access by getting us out of the mud. The essential lesson of NEPA--that government policy should conserve resources, not consume them--was lost to transportation decision-makers.
Why this disconnect between transportation and land use policy? I believe the origins are geographic and historic. Geographic, because America simply has so much open land. Historic because, in Europe, the land was already occupied when transportation technology advanced from non-motorized to motorized modes. Thus, in America, the new motorized transportation technologies drove land use, while in Europe such technologies had to conform to existing land use patterns.
Whatever the reason, the failure of transportation planners to consider land use yielded the policy field to technology. Indeed, if you look at the land use footprint of most U.S, cities you can easily see that the shape of the central urban area is a direct function of the transportation technology that was dominant at the time of its primary growth. Thus, the dense downtown street patterns of Boston and Philadelphia reflect the dominance of the maritime trade in the 18th century which concentrated land development around natural harbors. Chicago, by comparison, emerged first as a railhead in the late 1800's and grew up around its rail terminals. New York City still reflects the land pattern set by developers who opened up Long Island through private transit and trolley to accommodate wave upon wave of immigrants arriving early in the 20th century. And, of course, the ultimate argument for transportation technology being land use destiny is Los Angeles.
Trails and Greenways During the Automobile Era
However, technology is not necessarily land use destiny. The idea of guiding urban form through intentional regulation of land use preceded the automobile. The concept was imported to America from England over 100 years ago by Frederick Law Olmsted who was so taken by the wild English countryside that he replicated it in his Emerald Necklace plan for the Boston Back Bay area. Other influences included the garden in the city concept, best reflected by the Tuileries of Paris, and the Italian villas with their terraced gardens.
I'm neither a landscape architect nor an historian, so I won't go into the specifics of these European influences on the American urban landscape. My point is simply that (1) the idea of using landscape design to influence urban form was well established in Europe more than 100 years ago (2) efforts were made to transfer some of these ideas to the United States and (3) Olmsted and his sons made a particular effort to use trails and greenways as a shaper of the urban landscape. These various influences gave rise to what was known as the City Beautiful movement in America, which flourished well into the 1920's.
Then what happened? The automobile happened and technology took over. Cars are a huge consumer of land, not only because of the development patterns they stimulate, but simply by the amount of pavement they require to move around. Soon the bikes and horses were pushed off the roads, even though the cyclists were the primary lobbyists for the first Good Roads program. Then the trolley lines evaporated. Finally, when the existing road structure proved inadequate to accommodate cars in the cities, new space was needed. Parks, particularly urban linear parks and stream corridors, were available and legally unprotected. Highway agencies, with their power to condemn property for new roads, simply gobbled them up.
It should be noted that the car was not the exclusive driver of land use, only the primary driver. Cars quickly monopolized public roadways, then took over private transit-ways, then occupied linear park and stream corridors. However, this new demand for traffic space was stimulated, in part, by modernist views of planning that separated land uses among retail, commercial and residential uses, thus requiring longer trips by people needing to access all three types of land development. While the intent behind such zoning techniques was admirable (reducing unhealthy living conditions in dense, mixed-use areas) clean industrial technologies have sharply reduced the rationale for such land use patterns. Unfortunately, land use patterns, once set, are hard to retrofit.
A Second Chance: New Opportunities for Trails and Greenways
Third Question: What are the new opportunities to change history, to help make transportation the servant of community development, not its master, through the creation of regional trail and greenway systems?
To answer this question, we must make a quick trip back to 1966. In that year Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act which declared (Section 4f) that historic sites and parks should be protected and could not be taken for other public uses unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative to their use. In 1968, in the Case of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park V. Volpe, Justice Thurgood Marshall held that feasible and prudent meant that, from an engineering standpoint, no alternative was feasible. This turned the tables on the engineers since, with enough money and big enough equipment, almost anything is feasible from an engineering point of view, including tunneling under the park.
Section 4(f) and the Overton Park case provided some protection to parks and greenways from further destruction from our national road program. However, they did nothing to revive the idea that trails and greenways could be pro-active shapers of the urban landscape.
In the interest of time, I am skipping ahead almost 30 years. What has happened over that time to move from defense (keeping roads out of Overton Park) to offense (using linear parks as shapers of urban form)? Four things:
Together, these four developments (1) environmental laws that pushed new highway construction out of cities and cleaned up urban rivers, (2) railroad deregulation which open up major urban railroad corridors for adaptive reuse, (3) the Railbanking Act, which provided a mechanism for protecting these corridors from disintegration, and (4) major new funding for trails, greenways and non-motorized transportation generally give us one last chance to recapture the vision of the Olmsteds and create a complete and useful system of connected greenways in our urban areas.
This opportunity won't come around a third time, so we better make the best use of it. The White House picked up on this issue recently when deciding how best to celebrate the Millennium. Its theme for the Millennium was honor the past and imagine the future. Seeing all the trail and greenway projects underway around the country, the White House established the Millennium Trails Program in partnership with the Department of Transportation and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to encourage trail-building in every community across America. The First Lady announced the Millennium Trails Program on the B&A rail-trail outside of Annapolis in October 1998. The goal is to designate, and eventually create, 16 National Millennium Trails, 50 state Legacy Trails and at least 2,000 Community Millennium Trails throughout America. This program is well underway and will hopefully further stimulate our cause.
In short, these developments create a golden opportunity to build regional trail and greenway systems everywhere. The laws are in place, the money is available, and, even though we don't have a delivery system in place, the transportation industry is rapidly changing and could be an ally in the process. The Millennium Trails Program, for example, is run out of the US Department of Transportation and USDOT Secretary Rodney Slater rarely passes up the opportunity to personally announce another grant for a trail or bike path. We have one last chance to realize the Olmsted vision for America, and the Smart Growth movement may provide the political clout to actually pull it off.
Benchmarking: The Key Link Between T&G and Smart Growth
Fourth Question: How do we engage the Smart Growth movement in this effort to our mutual advantage? How do we use the Smart Growth movement to recapture the Olmsted vision?
The Smart Growth movement provides the political clout to accomplish what the highway program interrupted 80 years ago. I believe this deeply. The reason lies in the multi-dimensional nature of Smart Growth in terms of its definition and community-based benefits. The Smart Growth movement focuses on diffused benefits-or quality of life indicators-as the fabric of what it means to be a livable community. So do trails and greenways. Green infrastructure amplifies these Smart Growth indicators. In fact, it is impossible to think of a Smart Growth community that is not walkable and bikeable. This has lead some to call bicyclists and walkers the indicator species of Smart Growth. If they are there, you have a healthy community. If they are not, you don't.
Think of modern suburban land use patterns as rocks in a jar, with each rock representing the footprint of a big land development projectbig box retail, industrial park or residential subdivision. Some smart growth projects give up trying to change these patterns, preferring to develop ideal, mixed-use communities on vacant land far from city centers. Trails and greenways attack the rocks themselves. Just as the jar of rocks looks fulluntil you add the pebbles, sand and watertrails and greenways occupy the interstices of these big land projects to soften their impact, connect the various uses by bike paths and walkways, and amplify smart growth values. Gradually, the big box footprint erodes (sometimes through intentional conversion to life-style malls with connecting green space and walkways) and options for developing true communities emerge. The point is: don't give up on the rocks.
Some specific Smart Growth indicators, or benchmarks, that are promoted by trails and greenways include:
These are just some of the attributes of Smart Growth communities that are promoted by trails and greenways. And I have not mentioned the transportation benefits of trails and greenways, both in their own right and as the connective tissue of a combined on-road and off-road non-motorized transportation network.
While such an integrated network presents some significant design challenges to accommodate different uses (walkers, joggers, skaters, strollers, bicyclists and even horses), the new bicycling facility guidelines propose detailed design ideas for accommodating these various uses and go a long way toward resolving these problems. Hopefully, they will also bury the irrelevant distinction between recreation and transportation uses of trails and greenways.
In summary, Smart Growth is about benchmarking--identifying attributes of communities that work, figuring out ways to measure those attributes, and tracking the results over time as a gauge of community health. In almost every attribute you can think of that measures how smart a community is growing, trails and greenways help improve the score.
Scaling up: Going to Regional Networks
The full benefits of trails and greenways won't be realized, however, unless you
can make them happen at a regional scale-across political boundaries. Smart Growth happens at a regional scale, not a project scale. Also, the ability of connected trail and greenway systems to attract growth--to act as magnets drawing people back to urban centers or creating mixed-use neighborhoods--is much higher if they are designed and created as systems.
Smart Growth advocates today talk about the 3 D's of a balanced transportation system-design, density and diversity. Designs should be flexible (context sensitive is the buzzword), dense, meaning that transportation systems should support the densities needed to allow for redundancy and choice, and diverse, meaning they should support a variety of alternative modes and uses. Trail and greenways can add the 3 D's to a regional transportation network-combining context-sensitive design, attracting denser land use patterns, and supporting a diversity of uses and purposes. But how do we do this on a regional scale?
Believe it or not, Detroit is about to become a leader in the effort to capture the benefits of a trail and greenway system built on a regional scale. Detroit is about to celebrate its 300th anniversary and a coalition of public, private and non-profit actors have recently come together to identify a plan of regional scope and ambition that will significantly improve the quality of life not only in Detroit, but the seven-county area of Southeastern Michigan. They thought a long time about the alternatives and have selected the Southeast Michigan GreenWays Initiative as their plan of action.
The idea proposed is exactly what trail and greenway advocates have been
promoting for some time: creating a system of inter-connected trails and
greenways across county lines that incorporate river corridors (Rouge River,
Huron River, Clinton River and the Detroit River), with rail, utility and road
corridors into a single regional network. The design calls for a system of hubs
and links that concentrates human activity in the hubs while providing
transportation, recreation, and natural amenity through the links. The entire
system, when complete, will encompass more than 2,000 miles of trails, rivers
and greenway corridors.
Another exciting aspect of this Southeast Michigan GreenWays Initiative is its buy-in among the business community. The project will be governed by an advisory committee of non-profit, public and private sector leaders including representatives of all three major automobile companies. In fact, Ford Motor Co. CEO Bill Ford Jr. has agreed to serve on this council. Public sector oversight comes from the fact that projects must be approved by both the committee and the public sector co-funders.
Finally, the scale of the project is breathtaking. The goal is for the private sector (foundations and businesses) to raise up to $25 million over five years among themselves in support of the plan. In turn, these funds will leverage up to $75 million of public funds --TEA-21, state transportation funds, and conservation funding-in support of the effort. This is a scale never before attempted for trail and greenway development.
Will it work? Time will tell. However, this is the first time that a group of public and private leaders have looked about for a project that can significantly improve the quality of life for their communities at a regional scale and selected a trail and greenway system as the answer. If it works in Detroit, it can work anywhere. And it will prove the effectiveness of trails and greenways as a Smart Growth strategy.
I'll wrap this up with a piece of advice from Will Rogers that you have probably all heard: Buy land, they aren't making any more of it.
This is particularly true in our urban areas where open space is at a premium. However, due to some quirks of history that won't be repeated, we do have one last chance to save urban land--linear open spacein rather large chunks and weave them into a connected system of trails and greenways. Through another quirk of history, the Smart Growth movement has come along at exactly the right time to provide the political clout needed to overcome the significant obstacles to actually creating such a system. It is an opportunity we can't afford to miss.
# # #