Great American Rail-Trail resurrects coast-to-coast pathway

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Great American Rail-Trail Bridge in IowaAs we look back at our American History on this 4th of July holiday, we must recontextualize historical events and acknowledge their negative impacts. In this way, we can create a more equitable future.

151 years ago, the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed. This was a revolutionary infrastructure project that connected the western states to the eastern U.S. rail network. It transformed the West by reducing travel times for people and goods and provoking development of new towns along its corridor. However, it had negative consequences as well, including the forced relocation of Native Americans and the destruction of habitat for bison.

Moving forward

We are in the midst of another transcontinental infrastructure project related to the railroad, and we can choose to do better this time. The Great American Rail-Trail converts former railroad corridors to safe, scenic and seamless trails people can use for walking, biking, and other recreational activities. This is an incredible reuse of old infrastructure to serve modern needs.

Over half of this 3,700-mile trail, which connects Washington D.C. to Washington state, is already complete. It has sections that roll through Pittsburgh, Omaha, Casper, and Seattle. These cities promote an outdoor lifestyle and prioritize walkable development. The trail leads to economic investment for nearby business districts and recreation opportunities for users of all ages. The sections of trail between these origin and destination communities are for the sightseers, the tourists, the long-distance travelers. These more rural sections of the trail have different highlights like wildlife viewing and uninterrupted training routes.

Done right, this transcontinental trail can honor the people whose land it crosses. It can also drive economic growth, community pride, and improve health outcomes.

Great American Rail-Trail logoMy experience

I haven’t personally ridden on the Great American Rail-Trail yet, but I am a bicycle enthusiast. I rode my bike across the country in 2007 with Bike & Build. I rode with 29 of my peers, 1 laptop, 1 printer and 0 smart phones. Each night we pulled out the only laptop, inserted a CD-ROM, launched a route planning tool, typed up directions, and printed a quarter sheet for each rider. These cue sheets were our only guidance, so…we got lost. Every. Single. Day. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world; it led to some of the most spontaneous moments, forced us to learn patience and forgiveness, and we joked it was extra training for the next day’s hills! But if I were to ride across the country again, the Great American Rail-Trail would be at the top of my list. It follows idyllic landscapes, crosses beautiful old bridges, and I would definitely not get lost.

The significance of the Great American Rail-Trail

Our infrastructure needs to accommodate the growing interest in outdoor recreation. There has been an increase in people biking to work and using public transit as a more sustainable alternative to personal cars, and cities are working to meet the demand for safer accommodations. Similarly, there is a demand for green spaces, and the Great American Rail-Trail can meet that need by taking advantage of infrastructure that already exists.

I don’t think I’m alone in romanticizing a long ride on this trail. I think we will see a lot more people choosing to ride in general, and these trail segments will definitely see more visitors. We are already seeing bike sales go through the roof because anxiety over public transportation and a desire to exercise has sent the demand surging. Plus, new developments in electric-assist bicycles is making e-bikes more affordable and more attractive for all kinds of riders. New moms want them so they can keep riding with the extra weight of kids, aging adults want them so they can keep riding or so they can bike when they stop driving, and working people want them so they can extend their commuting distances. Because of increased bicycle sales and e-bike technology, I expect there will be a profound increase in the popularity of our bike trails for both local and long-distance riding.

Where are we now?

The task of repurposing a defunct railway can be lengthy, including negotiation with railroads and environmental concerns, not to mention funding, planning and maintenance. But the finished product will be worth it: a safe trail that connects communities and cities, providing space for walkers, runners, bicyclists, wheelchair users, cross-county skiers and more.

Today, about 52% of the Great American Rail-Trail is complete. There are 1,900 miles of beautiful and enjoyable trails, accessible to all levels because rail lines were designed to follow the contours of rivers and mountains while they connected origins and destinations. This trail is ideal in its flatness and separation from vehicular traffic. As segments continue to develop into one long, transcontinental trail, we are reminded that the segments are extremely valuable in their own right: it will be a rare treat when someone is able to ride the entirety of the Great American Rail-Trail. But it is on my bucket list, to be sure!

Does the Great American Rail-Trail travel through your state? Visit the Rails to Trails Conservancy to see where you can hop on the trail and join a system connecting millions of people across the country.


Molly North

About the Author

Molly is a progressive transportation leader with a unique mix of technical, policy, communication, collaboration, and planning skills. She believes active transportation is integral to addressing environmental racism, the climate crisis, and declining health outcomes. She and her husband co-founded Majestic Collaborations to directly participate in community resilience work, focusing on emergency preparedness. Molly lives in Denver with her husband, two kids, and two dogs. They like to play games, cook, visit National Parks, and prank one another.

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