ON a balmy Indian-summer Saturday, Tim Sawyer guides his bicycle toward this town's new recreation path. Mr. Sawyer's three-year-old daughter, Talia, is strapped in the back seat, while his wife, Joan, follows with her bike. All three riders are attired in bicycle helmets, and the group is rarin' to go.
It's a fall family outing at the 11-mile Minuteman Trail, a newly paved bicycle and walking path converted from an abandoned set of railroad tracks.
The trail, which winds through the Massachusetts towns of Lexington, Arlington, and Bedford, west of Boston, follows part of the historic route British soldiers used at the start of the Revolutionary War when they marched to Concord.
In addition to its historic appeal, the Massachusetts trail is the 500th recreational path in the United States to be converted from abandoned rail corridors by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a national land conservation group based in Washington, D.C., that has been converting abandoned rail corridors into hiking and biking trails all over the country for the past 25 years.
"I love it," says Sawyer, referring to the Minuteman Trail. "I think it's a tremendous benefit to the country. If people get to use it, they might actually realize the benefit of commuting by bike to work."
From suburban Washington, D.C., to rural Wisconsin, to urban Seattle, rail trails are enjoyed by cyclists, pedestrians, horseback riders, roller bladers, and cross-country skiers. Bicyclists use rail trails as a safe alternative to cycling along roads and highways. For the environmentally conscious, the paths invite commuters to abandon their smog-producing automobiles.
Trail enthusiast Anne Lusk of Stowe, Vt., says such recreational and commuting paths, or "greenways," are visually appealing.
"Unlike looking at cars on a highway, a greenway gives you a mood lift, like looking at birds at a bird feeder. It makes you happy to see a mother and child walking together, or an older man walking with his dog, or two friends out for a jog," Ms. Lusk says. "These greenways get back to America that front porch socializing that was rudely taken away by the car."
Lusk, who helped organize an effort to build a recreation path in Stowe, is working on an East Coast recreation trail that extends from Maine to Florida. (See related article at left.)
In cities, the trails provide a "ribbon of green in a congested, overbuilt urban area," says Peter Harnik, vice president of Rails to Trails. In rural communities, the trails give economically depressed areas a boost. Bed and breakfasts, campsites, and eateries spring up along rural trails.
"City people are willing to travel long distances and spend a fair amount of money to have that positive countryside experience," Mr. Harnik says.
Earlier this month, Rails to Trails held a national celebration in cities all over the country to commemorate the opening of its 500th trail. The organization helps local community groups organize rail-trail projects.
"We're basically an advocacy group ... to help people find the money and overcome the hurdles to make it possible. So most of the rail trails in the country are [maintained as] local, county, or state parks," says Harnik.
Times have changed since the heyday of railroad construction in the early 1900s. In 1916, the US had the biggest system of any country in the world, with approximately 300,000 miles of rail corridor. With wider use of automobiles, airplanes, and buses, rail transportation is no longer as vital. The size of the rail system now is less than 150,000 miles.
Each year, 2,000 to 4,000 miles of rail corridor are abandoned. So far, Rails to Trails has converted more than 6,000 miles of abandoned rail lines into trails.
But it isn't always easy to convert old track lines into trails. Ownership of abandoned railways often includes federal, state, and local governments, as well as private landowners. And landowners do not always want to sell their land or give easements for rail trails, says Harnik. It also takes time to secure funding and get appropriate legal authorization. It took 18 years to build the Minuteman Trail in Massachusetts, for example. Other rail trail projects are simply never completed.
Rail trails across the country have a variety of surfaces. Trails in urban areas, like the Minuteman, are paved with asphalt. In rural areas, trails are often paved with low-budget crushed stone or wood chips.
"In some cases, it's pretty rough, so you have to wear hiking boots or ride a mountain bike with thick tires," says Harnik.
Harnik says rail trails have important environmental benefits. The trails protect wildlife nesting and help preserve valuable prairie land in the West. The group also supports the concept of "railbanking," which allows the trails to be restored to railroad tracks at a future time.
"Rails to Trails Conservancy is pro-train," says Harnik. "We're not doing anything to foster and encourage rail abandonment at all.... Railroad [transportation] is a much more environmentally sound method of transportation than cars."