Happy trails

Want to get to the post office in a hurry? The nearest bike trail may be the best way.

Retired warehouseman George Redman loves to hit the trail - the asphalt ribbon that runs only a few blocks from his house in East Providence, R.I. Year-round, the 79-year-old grabs his trusty 10-speed Schwinn, the one with the saddlebags on the back and an additional bag in the front, and takes a daily spin, often 20 miles or more along Narragansett Bay.

Besides offering ample fresh air and exercise, the bicycle rides connect Mr. Redman to people and places in a way that nothing else does.

He explores towns, stops to read a book or buy a bottle of water, and frequents his favorite sandwich shop, the Café la France in Bristol, R.I., with its outdoor tables and bike rack.

Unlike traditional bike paths, the trail Redman uses isn't strictly recreational. It is utilitarian. Instead of just passing through lovely scenery, it takes him and others to useful places, illustrating what some experts see as the future of trails.

In the past, recreational trails were typically located outside cities, says Richard Killingsworth, director of Active Living by Design, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "This didn't allow them to connect destinations of interest. But now we're entering a new kind of paradigm, looking at how trails can be used as transportation corridors, located in dense residential areas where they connect people to places they want to go."

The shift is an acknowledgment that trails must integrate with everyday lives. Otherwise they serve a relatively small constituency of Lycra-clad cycling enthusiasts and suburbanites out for Saturday fun or exercise rides, which begin by driving to the trail.

Nowadays, the idea is to make it easy and attractive to think the way Europeans do, who are more inclined than Americans to cycle during their daily rounds.

Certainly Redman is a pedaling billboard for the benefits of regular trail use. And Rhode Island, where he rides, is an excellent example of the networking that is increasingly connecting scattered, local trail-building efforts.

The East Bay Bike Path runs 14-1/2 miles through towns and hamlets, eventually making a connection that leads into Providence, where the plan is for several trails to converge and link to the ambitious East Coast Greenway, a 2,600-mile work in progress.

When completed, possibly by 2010, this interurban, firm-surface equivalent to the Appalachian Trail will run from the Canadian border in Maine to the Florida Keys.

It's being pieced together - like a massive quilt - sometimes in high-visibility areas. Last year, for example, one stretch was designated that runs along the Mall in Washington, at the heart of the nation's capital. Another metro trail runs to Washington National Airport.

Major trails, such as the East Coast Greenway, are like tree trunks from which many branches (local trails) grow.Mark Fenton, a cycling advocate and host of the PBS program "America's Walking," says that creating numerous connections is the key to the increased usage public trails have begun to experience.

This is evident in Seattle, which has set itself apart with bike-friendly initiatives, including the Burke-Gilman trail, a granddaddy among urban trails. "Much of what has happened there," Mr. Fenton says, "is not at all glamorous. It's [a network of] little neighborhood connectors - maybe the cut-through at the end of a cul de sac that allows you to access a trail from a neighborhood that connects to a school or a playground or something like that. It makes all the difference in the world."

Trail connectivity is a challenge, especially in built-up areas. This is where unused or abandoned railroad corridors and canal towpaths have come in handy.

The rails-to-trails movement converts out-of-use railroad rights of way to trails. In doing so it has become increasingly important to developing urban trail infrastructure, since rail corridors often run through the middle of towns and are ready-made and mostly flat.

The US has 12,648 miles of rail trails that serve about 100 million users a year, and many more miles are under development or under consideration. When available rail corridors run out, many communities are marking off bike lanes at the sides of streets. (The East Coast Greenway, when completed, should be 20 percent on-road.) [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the number of bike trail users in the US.]

Indianapolis is going even further with its bold plan to build the Cultural Trail, a downtown greenway that would use existing traffic lanes to connect five designated cultural districts.

One lane of the center city's wide thoroughfares would be co-opted for a multiuse, 6-1/2-mile landscaped trail. Approval seems almost certain for this $15 million to $20 million project, which aims to enhance the city's appeal to both residents and visitors. If built, it would also connect with the very popular Monon Trail and create a circuit for cafe- and theater-hopping.

"Probably 70 percent of the time you'd be seeing something beautiful, and every five or 10 minutes you could stop and find a restaurant, a gallery, a store, or park," says Brian Payne, president of the Indianapolis Foundation, a major supporter of the project.

Tourists might also be able to use the path. New smart-card technology could be employed to automate bike rentals at various points.

There's mounting evidence that municipalities and homeowners like bikeways and trails. Homeowners see them as a popular neighborhood amenity that often enhances property values, and civic leaders view trails as green infrastructure that links open spaces and creates alternative transportation routes.

Still, building trails can be a long, arduous process, which may bog down over jurisdictional, design, and approval issues. For example, the Minuteman Bikeway, which stretches 11 miles between Cambridge and Lexington, Mass., took 18 years to complete.

In Michigan, the GreenWays Initiative is helping to stimulate faster action and foster greater regional cooperation. A program of the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, the initiative has created a $75 million financial incentive for greenway development in a seven-county area that includes Detroit.

In three years 53 grants have been made to local trail developers, and more groups are "lining up," says GreenWays director Tom Woiwode. "By having a time line, we're trying to create an urgency to get these plans done and projects started."

Some of the most exciting plans involve Detroit, where a three-mile riverfront trail could stimulate development of a citywide network, fanning out from the banks of the Detroit River to every neighborhood.

Roughly a half-dozen subregional trail coalitions have been formed among neighboring communities. In addition, Mr. Woiwode says, what began as a movement of bicyclists and hikers has now grown into a movement of community activists, with architects, planners, public health advocates, and businesspeople all joining in.

After a trail is finished, there's often a need to acquaint people with the trail. "The first users you're going to see on the trail are the hard core from the local walk and biking clubs," Fenton explains. "Then you'll see groups and families, dads and moms with the kids. Over time, more routine use by individuals will become common." At that point, the trail has arrived.

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