Rail-Trail Effect: On the Success of the Minuteman and Other Bike Paths

April 14, 2014
The Rail Trail Effect
Ryan SmithThe author bikes along the the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway.

Just outside of Boston, the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway runs 10 miles from the quiet suburban town of Bedford to the bustling edge of Cambridge. I ride the length of this paved rail-trail nearly every weekday to work and back again—more than 6,000 miles to date, and counting. Beneath shady woods, alongside tranquil meadows, past landmarks of the American Revolution, the journey is a daily highlight—and one enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

In many ways, this multiuse path, and my activity on it, exemplifies the tremendous power of the nation’s more than 20,000 miles of rail-trails. Beyond exceptional recreational resources, rail-trails are economic engines for local communities. They reduce traffic, cut global warming emissions, improve public health, and protect green corridors of car-free tranquility and wildlife.

In short, rail-trails come close to being an absolute good. It’s a fact demonstrated in communities across America, and one that has driven significant rail-trail growth in recent years. Yet rail-trails often remain a secondary consideration in regional planning—a nice but non-essential add-on to America’s car-centric culture—rather than an integral and hugely beneficial component of transportation infrastructure that planners should embrace and expand.

Let us count the reasons why this attitude should change.

The Minuteman Bikeway
Rail-trails follow the routes of former railroads, transformed from tracks and ties to packed earth or smooth asphalt for walking, biking, jogging, and any number of other self-powered activities. The Minuteman Bikeway was once the route of the Middlesex Central Railroad, which chugged commuters from Bedford into Boston from 1873 until 1977. It became the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway in 1991, and in 2008 it was one of the first trails inducted to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a national nonprofit advocacy group.

My regular journey along the Minuteman starts in Bedford at a restored railroad depot (complete with parked rail car alongside). Here I leave the world of automobiles behind and quickly roll beneath the sheltering boughs of oak and maple trees. I soon enter neighboring Lexington, where the bikeway travels the length of the town. Along the way, I pass through the town center, alongside buildings that predate the Declaration of Independence, and within eyeshot of the Lexington Battle Green, where colonists faced off against advancing Redcoats at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

“There is no other bikeway through the American Revolution,” reflects Peggy Enders, who chairs the town-appointed Lexington Bicycle Advisory Committee. “And here in Lexington it’s a beloved, popular trail. It’s the spine of the town.”

The Money Rolls In
The Minuteman is popular indeed. During the warmer months, Saturday trail counts in Lexington Center have routinely documented more than 4,000 trips (or “user visits,” as the parlance goes) and around 2,000 on weekdays. Add in neighboring Arlington and Bedford and annual estimates for the entirety of the trail easily approach at least a half-million trips—more than six times the combined population of the three towns it passes through en route to Cambridge. It’s easy to imagine how such visitation can boost the local economy as trail users spend money on food, drinks, souvenirs, and other offerings.

This positive effect has been thoroughly documented elsewhere. Consider the D&L (short for Delaware & Lehigh) Trail in eastern Pennsylvania. Mostly complete, the trail runs 165 miles from Bristol, just east of Philadelphia, to Wilkes-Barre in the state’s northeast corner. Like the Minuteman, it’s popular—a 2012 RTC study estimated 282,796 annual user visits to the trail. The total economic impact of these visits? Just over $19 million in 2012, of which $16.3 million was directly injected into the local economy.

For smaller towns, especially in areas with otherwise limited economic activity, this effect can be significant. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a much-visited, 150-mile rail-trail that runs from Cumberland, Md., to downtown Pittsburgh, is a prime example. According to estimates by the Trail Town Program, a GAP-specific initiative designed to help local communities maximize the trail’s economic benefits, the GAP annually hosts more than 800,000 trips. Over $50 million in direct annual spending is attributed to trail users. As a result, says Keith Laughlin, president of the RTC, “a lot of the towns along the route are self-designating as trail towns. They’re using the trail as the centerpiece of their economic development strategy.”

No robust economic study has been done for the Minuteman Bikeway, but its effects are readily apparent along Massachusetts Avenue, the primary artery through Lexington’s town center. Here the Ride Studio Cafe, a hybrid bike shop and coffee bar, has occupied a prominent storefront since 2010. “So many people come up here because of the bikeway,” says coowner Patria Lanfranchi. “Economically it’s awesome. Most businesses are extremely in favor of it. It was definitely a factor in setting up shop here.”

That’s a sentiment reinforced by a novel experiment in summer 2013, when the town temporarily converted two street-side parking spaces along Mass. Ave. (a stone’s throw from the bikeway) into the state’s first “parklet.” A protected enclosure, the parklet featured shaded tables, flowers, and room for approximately 25 bikes. It proved extremely popular, and a follow-up study by the Lexington Economic Development Office revealed a 5 to 10 percent increase in sales from local businesses while the parklet was in place.

Beyond the direct benefit to local businesses, rail-trails can also play a crucial role in attracting new companies to the area. It’s easier to entice potential employees, especially skilled younger workers, when the surrounding area features amenities that give employees increased options for off-road biking, exercise, and commuting. “Rail-trails become somewhat of a talent magnet,” Laughlin explains.

All told, the powerful effects of rail-trails are clear, Enders concludes. “The more bike-friendly you are, the more economic benefits you stand to gain.”

Cars and Carbon…Reduced
Rail-trails provide another substantial benefit, especially in densely populated areas such as suburban Boston. They reduce the number of cars on the road. By providing residents and visitors with a car-free transportation option, they lower congestion and traffic, save commuters money, and eliminate the carbon emissions that would otherwise be generated from the exhaust pipe.

Consider the sum of my bike commutes over the past two-plus years as a microcosm of this effect. By biking, I eliminate the 24 pounds of carbon dioxide produced for every gallon of gas I would have burned by driving. Here’s how the math adds up: 6,000 miles of cycling vs. 6,000 miles of driving. Gallons of gas burned: 0 vs. 200. Money spent on gas: $0 vs. $700. Global warming emissions: 0 vs. 2.5 tons of CO2. Cars on the road: Minus one.

While most trail users don’t routinely commute such long distances, it’s safe to say that more than a half-million self-powered trips on the Minuteman reduces miles driven, gas burned, and CO2 spewed into the atmosphere. Multiply those positive effects over the 20,000-plus miles of rail-trails across the country, and it all adds up to a lot fewer cars, a lot less carbon, and a lot less traffic on U.S. roads.

These benefits are on display and growing throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. These two regions, already home to more than 5,000 miles of rail-trails, are seeing a steady increase in paved rail-trail commuting corridors. In Rhode Island, for example, the 14.5-mile-long East Bay Bike Path between Bristol and Providence will soon connect with the 48- mile Blackstone River Bikeway, a route that will ultimately link Providence with Worcester, Mass. Similar examples can be found in Washington, D.C. (Capital Crescent Trail), Philadelphia (Schuylkill River Trail), and Portland, Maine (Eastern Promenade Trail).

Health and Quality of Life…Improved
Arguably the greatest benefits of rail-trails are the ones hardest to quantify. Health benefits, for instance, are the most easily overlooked, Laughlin says: “It doesn’t require a lot of physical activity to get additional health benefits, and railtrails encourage people in those communities to get more active.” By providing safe, convenient venues for exercise, local residents are more likely to stay healthier and thus reduce the amount of health-care costs they require, Laughlin explains. “When it comes to benefits, this is the biggest in terms of dollars,” he says.

By the same token, quantifying an improved quality of life is all but impossible. Yet survey after survey has shown communities’ appreciation for the recreational opportunities, conveniences, and safe travel corridors that rail-trails provide.

Removing Roadblocks to Progress
It wasn’t always this way. Twenty years ago, when rail-trails first began to appear in rising numbers, many communities feared the worst. “When they were new, we heard lots of horror stories about how they would lead to increased crime and decrease property values,” Laughlin says. “But it turns out the opposite is true. And as more trails have been built and more people have a personal experience with them, the horror stories melt away. These days we spend much less of our time fighting opposition and more trying to meet the demand for help. Everybody wants them now.”

Everybody might want them, but towns, states, and the federal government have been hard-pressed to effectively answer the call. “Budgets have been in decline for infrastructure investment at a time of pretty serious fiscal constraint, and we’ve seen that trickle down to state and community levels as well,” Laughlin notes. “But, at the same time, I would say you can do a lot more with available dollars by investing in rail-trails rather than by expanding existing roads. You get a lot more bang for your buck, and at a fraction of the cost.”

Laughlin remains optimistic that the myriad benefits of railtrails will become steadily more appreciated over time, and ultimately result in greater support and funding for their growth and maintenance. “As the benefits of rail-trails have grown, so too has the base of support for them,” he concludes. “The railtrail movement is getting more exciting every day.”

It’s a sentiment I share every time I ride the Minuteman— a profound appreciation for the healthy and deeply satisfying lifestyle that this rail-trail, like so many others across the country, makes possible. It is, without doubt, an absolute good in my life, and a potent symbol of how rail-trails across the nation are helping to build a more sustainable future for us all. Ride on.


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.