Keith Laughlin is the president of Rails to Trails Conservancy, which transforms unused rail corridors into vibrant public places—ensuring a better future for America made possible by trails and the connections they inspire. I spoke with him in advance of Strong Towns' Bike Week to find out more about his organization and the work they're doing to improve bikeability across America—work that now goes far beyond just rail corridors.
Rachel: What is the focus of your organization?
Keith: Rails to Trails is a 30-year old organization this year and our primary mission is to convert abandoned rail lines into multipurpose trails for walking and biking. When we began, there were about 250 miles of existing rail-trails and there are now more than 22,000 miles.
Now we’re not just doing rails but also a lot of other kinds of trails, with a focus on knitting together trail systems.
Rachel: What initiatives have you worked on lately?
Keith: Recently, we created and are beta-testing a new GIS analytical tool to measure connectivity of “low stress bike networks.” We define that as three types of infrastructure:
- off-road trails,
- on-road physically separated bike lanes, and
- low-volume residential streets with a speed limit of 25 miles or less.
Our tool can measure the extent to which residents of a given city can reach a majority of a market basket of destinations using a route composed of only those types of infrastructure.
We did this in Seattle, WA, Miami, FL, and Arlington, VA. And we’re beginning to do it in Milwaukee and Racine, WI.
Rachel: When you begin creating a trail, do you have an idea from the outset about whether it will be a recreational trail or a transportation trail, or does that happen organically after the trail is built?
Keith: It happens organically. Sometimes you end up being surprised by how the trails are used. If the trail connects two destinations, it can be a utilitarian transportation trail. If it’s a scenic trail in a beautiful place, then the trail itself can be a destination.
We have a project right now called the Route of the Badger to create an interconnected regional trail system in the seven counties of southeastern Wisconsin. In Milwaukee and Racine where we’re doing those studies, a lot of that use will probably be local use for transportation purposes, whereas in western Racine County, we have some opportunity to fill in gaps in existing trails in a very rural area. There's potential for creating a 70 mile loop pretty close to the border with Illinois—there are cyclists in Chicago that might come up to ride that trail. This could increase tourism in small towns in that area.
Rachel: How much would a rails to trails transformation cost? If a community wanted to accomplish this, where would they get the funding?
Keith: It’s a huge range. It depends on what exactly you’re purchasing. If you actually have to acquire land it can be quite expensive—in the $10 million range. If the corridor is already in the public domain, then it’s just a matter of putting on a surface: crushed stone or asphalt to make sure that it’s easily used.
Money comes from a combination of sources. Since 1991, there has been federal money available for bike/ped projects, and also specifically rail-trails. A little over $8 billion has been spent since 1991 on bike/ped and trail projects. That’s federal money. It used to be called the Transportation Enhancements Program. Now it’s called the Transportation Alternatives Program.
Rachel: $8 billion sounds like a lot, but stretched over several decades and compared to that amount we spend on road every year, that’s a pretty small number.
Keith: Yes. We spend about $40 billion a year on roads. To look at it in another way, we typically spend $0.80 of every federal transportation dollar on roads, $0.18 on transit, and just $0.02 goes to bike/ped
Rachel: What advice would you give communities or individuals hoping to increase bikeability in their town?
Keith: I think you just have to have a really good understanding of the local culture and local politics. There are some places that are really ripe for this and others that aren’t. There’s so many places that demand our attention and want it, so we don’t gravitate to those places where we’ll face a fight. We want to create models for how this can work […] so we go to those places and hold them up as models.
The demand for this is growing hugely at the local level. This is the kind of the transportation people want. Even beyond the transportation, there is a lot of demand for improved quality of life in terms of alternative transportation and access to outdoor recreation.
Rachel: What do you think is driving that?
Keith: I think some of it is generational. Among millennials, there is interest in being able to get to places without having to drive and having access to nature. We’ve also gotten to the point where we have enough of this infrastructure down that people see it and want more of that. We [haven't encountered] much NIMBYism; we actually have the opposite. Bike paths have increased property values. It’s a placemaking strategy.
Thank you to Keith Laughlin and Rails to Trails for this interview and for the fantastic work they are doing to improve bikeability in towns and cities across the country.
Read more from Strong Towns' Bike Week.
(Interview edited for length and clarity. Top photo by Joe Gall.)