Do We Really Need Trails?
This trail blog post is in response to a post on the Great Plains Trail website titled Are Long Distance Trails Necessary? It’s a good question, and the blog post already covers the more existential issue of “what do you consider necessary.?” But I’d like to approach the same topic from a slightly more general viewpoint regarding whether any trails are necessary. So to begin this discussion, let’s ask another pertinent question:
Are Roads Necessary?
Judging by the amount of money we spend on them and how much they are utilized, I’d say that most people would probably argue that they are necessary. Many political campaigns are based heavily on improving “infrastructure” with a huge percentage of that infrastructure spending going towards roads. So that brings us to the next question: What are roads good for? Fortunately, the answer to that question is all too simple and can easily be summed up in one word: transportation. That’s it in a nutshell. Roads provide transportation… period… full stop.
Are Trails Necessary?
So then we move on to the question du jour. Are trails necessary? Well if those trails are solely for recreation, many people would argue that they are not necessary. They are nice. They are scenic, they are fun. But they aren’t all that necessary. Instead they are convenient or enjoyable. But are trails solely for recreation? Those of us who are avid trail advocates know that they are indeed a great form of recreation, but they provide much more than just recreation; they also provide exercise and… in many cases… transportation.
Are Trails Used for Transportation?
Not only are trails used for transportation, but they were the original transportation infrastructure worldwide. They may also be one of the most efficient modes of transportation from numerous standpoints. First of all, they are available to literally everyone. Trails do not require expensive vehicles, licenses and fuel consumption. So trails are available to 100% of the people, unlike roads that generally require some form of vehicle in order to navigate them safely and efficiently. Secondly, trails provide an environmentally sound form of transportation, unlike roads. The vast majority of trails are navigated by walkers and bicyclists. These trail users do not cause pollution nor do they require the burning of fossil fuel. Third, trails provide exercise while simultaneously providing transportation. The ultimate example of poor time management is when people get in their cars and drive to the gym for a workout. It makes so much more sense to combine exercise and transportation by walking, running or bicycling to a destination, whether it is to work, the grocery store or your local coffee shop. And a huge argument in favor of using trails for transportation is the safety factor. Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year. That comes to an average 3,287 road deaths per day. I would be glad to share the statistics for trail deaths but, as with most trail-related topics, no such comprehensive data exists for two reasons. Nationwide and worldwide trail data is not compiled by anyone. And trail deaths are nearly non-existent compared to road deaths. Trails are simply much safer than roads. And finally, for those who look only at monetary output as the sole arbiter of worth, trails are substantially less expensive to build and maintain than roads/highways.
How to Make Trails a Vital Part of the Transportation Infrastructure
Connectivity– We need to do a much better job of connecting trails to both important destinations (cities, towns, schools, businesses, etc.) and to other trails. We have way too many “trails to nowhere.” This might be fine for trails that are solely recreational. But if trails are to become a vital part of our transportation system, then we need to start connecting them.
Inclusiveness – It is fairly elitist and non-inclusive to limit vital trails to only one or two user groups such as hikers and bicyclists. This is one of the reasons trails are seen as only recreational rather than as a mode of transportation. Trails should be much more inclusive and welcoming to such user groups as equestrians, electric bicyclists (See Trailsnet post about Electric Bikes on Trails.) and other (non-internal combustion engine) personal transportation vehicles (stand-ups, etc.)
Communication – When it comes to making trails an important part of our transportation system, one of the biggest changes that needs to happen is in the realm of communication. Most people don’t even know about the wonderful trail system we already have. The trail support groups are too disparate and splintered. There is no single clearinghouse for trail information and communication. Instead we have websites and organizations that promote rail-trails, mountain bike trails, backpacking trails, running trails, urban trails, long-distance trails, equestrian trails, hiking trails, park trails…. But no one clearinghouse for ALL trails. United we stand, divided we fall. Or in the case of trails, divided we fail to prosper.
So Are Trails Necessary?
The answer is simple. They should be. But currently, they aren’t viewed as necessary by the powers that be. We can change that, if all trail groups unite and make our voices heard. Once trails are viewed as necessary.. for recreation AND transportation AND the environment AND for exercise/health… then funding will follow and trails will be built and trail use will increase and trails will be connected and we will live in a world where trails are an integral part of our overall infrastructure. That should be the ultimate goal of all trail enthusiasts and supporters.