Let’s get a few things out of the way for starters– first, contrary to the Globe’s spin, Rail Trails are not just bicycle paths. They have many uses, including jogging, roller-blading, cross-country skiing, walking, pushing a baby stroller and hanging out. If you doubt this, take a walk on the Minuteman on a sunny afternoon.
This post, based on my previous Daily Kos diary on the subject, reviews arguments for and against Rail Trails.
Reducing Fossil Fuel usage: For me, this is one of the strongest arguments for Rail Trails. Anyone who is walking, bicycling, etc is not driving their car. Some Rail Trails can be used for commuting, which can lead to a lot fewer cars on the road. Rail Trails are less dangerous to bicycle along than roads, and tend to be straight and well-routed (being former rail-road routes).
Even when Rail Trails are used for recreation, it is a carbon-free form of recreation. I have been told (but do not have a link) that studies show that most people who use Rail Trails live within 2 miles of one, which indicates that people won’t drive far to get to one.
Supplement to public transportation: Having a Rail Trail go to a public transportation station expands the number of people who can use that station (especially without driving). And it is a lot cheaper to build a Rail Trail than a road or a subway. Commuters may also choose to buy a folding bicycle (which costs roughly the same as driving 5 miles per day each way for 3 to 6 months); these can be brought on many forms of public transportation, and then ridden along a Rail Trail without fighting traffic.
Public Health: As we know, the country is in the midst of an obesity crisis, largely due to lack of exercise. According to this article, one RAND study found that “Other risk factors aside, people in densely populated places graced with sidewalks and shops had the lowest rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke. And the rates rose steadily as communities became more spread-out and less walkable.” Its generally much easier to build a Rail Trail than to redesign an entire city or town. And people who live near Rail Trails tend to use them, for walking, jogging, etc. This promotes health a lot more than, say, watching TV.
Community: Parks promote community simply by providing gathering places for neighbors to congregate; Rail Trails, a linear park, can do much the same. They offer a place for senior citizens to walk together, kids to learn to bike, parents to push babies in jogging strollers. Such places are increasingly absent from our mall-filled lives.
They sound great. What’s not to like?
Despite the many advantages of Rail Trails, opposition to building them can be intense, as the Globe Article notes. Almost always, the strongest opponents are abutters of the trail (however, it is usually not true that most abutters are opponents). The typical pattern, seen in one Rail Trail after another, is that a core group of abutters vehemently opposes a trail before it is built, but gradually grows to like it after it is built.
Here are a few common objections to Rail Trails.
Property values: A Google search reveals numerous studies on the effect of Rail Trails on property values of abutters (e.g., this one). Most studies show that Rail Trails slightly increase the value of abutting properties, while a few show they have no affect. Virtually none show they have a negative affect.
Crime: It is sometimes claimed that Rail Trails will lead to increased crime. This assertion appears to be evidence-free. As one local Rail Trail FAQ notes:
There is no evidence that rail-trails cause an increase in crime. In fact, trail development may actually decrease the risk of crime in comparison to an abandoned and undeveloped rail corridor. And, several studies show that people prefer living along a rail-trail rather than an abandoned corridor. Typically, lawful trail users serve as eyes and ears for the community.
Local Environmental Issues: An old abandoned railway line can often harbor unusual species. A Rail Trail might disturb this (although a heckuva lot less than the old Railway did). For that reason, they may sometimes be opposed by people who consider themselves environmentalists. (Incidentally, I’ve poked around on the web site of groups like the Sierra Club, and every mention I’ve seen to Rail Trails appears to be highly favorable.)
Personally, I find this amazing. It is one of the only examples I am aware of where “environmentalists” oppose a something that reduces carbon emissions. (This is especially difficult to understand since Climate Scientists have been saying for years that Global Warming will lead to mass extinction.)
Rail trails provide many advantages at the local and state level, including reducing fossil fuel usage, enhancing public transportation, promoting public health and combating obesity, letting people get outdoors to enjoy nature, and promoting community.
It is gratifying to read that the state is encouraging their construction with both moral support and real money. Although the push for Rail Trails comes from citizens’ groups, local government, and many different state-government agencies, a build-out of rail trails could one day be seen as a lasting legacy of the Patrick Administration.