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Renewing rail lines connects cites—and the people in them—safely and efficiently

Rails-to-trails projects are nothing new, but they have certainly picked up speed in recent years. This overview explains the basics of urban renewal, this history of railway projects, and how to get started on rails to trails projects in your area.

What is urban renewal?

Urban renewal takes formerly underused or abandoned land and turns it into something useful and beautiful. You don’t have to look hard to find successful urban renewal projects—the South Lake Union area of Seattle, Washington, once a 100-year-old neighborhood filled with drab industrial buildings, is now the headquarters of Amazon, a hot housing market, and an innovation hub. In Houston, Texas, the 12-acre Discovery Green was transformed from drab parking lots into a Gold LEED designated green space that is partly powered by solar, sees over 1.5 million visitors to its 600-plus free events each year, and was a catalyst for $1.25 billion in local development.

Urban renewal can also work on abandoned infrastructure, like old railway lines long since removed from service. The High Line in New York City is one of the better-known projects. This 1.45-mile-long (2.3 km) greenway was a freight train line that opened in the 1930s, was nearly demolished in the 1980s, and was refurbished beginning in the mid-2000s. Today, this urban park sees nearly 5 million visitors annually.

Why use rail lines?

The High Line was one of countless rail lines in the US to experience such a decline in use as the popularity of trucking and air transport grew, through the 1960s and beyond. By the early 1980s, the American railroad industry was deregulated significantly, thanks to the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (4R) of 1976 and the Staggers Act of 1980. The 4R Act also had a little-noticed section that created a rail-trail grant program.

In 1983, Congress passed the Trail System Act, which allowed for “railbanking,” a way to circumvent the complicated land rights issues with the objective of preserving rail corridors currently out of service for future use by converting them in the interim into trails. The first application for railbanking was what would become the Sauk Rail-Trail, a 33-mile/53-km corridor in Iowa. Today, there are more than 350 rail corridors in 43 states and D.C. that have been railbanked; 160 trails are open partially or fully on a railbanked corridor.

What is the Rails to Trails Conservancy?

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been busy since the 1980s helping to create a network of trails out of former rail lines. By connecting these trails, it strives to build healthier places and people. In fact, recently, RTC said they thought a coast-to-coast trail across the US was within reach, an exciting prospect. (Those in Canada will know of the Great Trail, formerly known as the Trans-Canada Trail, which crosses the country in a few directions with about 15,000 miles/24,000 km of trail, some of it former rail lines as well.)

The RTC has awarded more than $1.7 million to trail projects since 2008. In 2014, alongside the Partnership for Active Transportation, RTC unveiled Safe Routes to Everywhere, calling for an increased federal investment of health active-transportation infrastructure and policies. The organization is involved in many stages of the rails-to-trails process.

Why transform a rail-trail in my area?

Railroad corridors make perfect trails, since they are flat or gentle slopes, allowing for easy accessibility for all users. Communities have made rail corridors into space for walking, bicycling, inline skating, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, and more.

In some communities, rail-with-trail pathways are created, with pathways running parallel to active rail lines. There are more than 350 of these trail types across the United States, and they can have similar uses, depending on the community. Additional benefits include the connection between non-motorized transportation and public transportation: someone could walk the trail to a connected train station and continue their journey by rail.

Active transportation—that is, transportation by walking, biking, or rolling—is a quick and convenient way to travel that provides substantial health benefits. For example, a 2017 study showed that biking to work burns as much fat as spending 40 minutes at the gym five days a week, while another 2013 study showed people who commute by car every day tend to gain more weight than those who don’t, even if those commuters by car are physically active at other times.

A cheap and clean mode of transportation, active transportation also encourages more people to move to a given city, since a city’s walkability is a top priority for about 50 per cent of U.S. residents when considering where to live, according to a report from the Urban Land Institute. The report also demonstrates that commuter trails specifically have been shown to raise property values: in Dallas, Texas, property values near the highly popular (and longest rail-to-trail project in the U.S.) Katy Trail have increased by 80 per cent since it opened in 2006. Meanwhile, nearby retail vacancies declined by more than 50 per cent following the opening of the Pinellas Trail, another rail trail, in Dunedin, Florida.

Learn more

Rail trails can be challenging projects, but also very beneficial to the communities. RTC offers a Trail-Building Toolbox, which is a great place to start. In addition to the steps involved in acquiring and funding a rail trail, this resource also examines specifics, including trail lighting. Since Sol has lit a variety of rail trails and other commuter trails over the years, we’ve also put together an overview of lighting options available and some examples of the finished product.

>> Learn how to light rail trails and other multi-use pathways

>> Explore how solar lighting can benefit your community

>> Build and price a park or pathway project