Where the Sidewalk Ends: Finding Gaps in the Trail Network
Putting a focus on trails and other ways for people to safely move around urban areas can make for a stronger trail system and a healthier community. Having nature nearby is one thing — but getting to it safely is another. A new state effort is working to eliminate gaps that make it hard for walkers, bikers or wheelchair users to get around.
A trail system is only as strong as its weakest link. Hikers in the backcountry know this — if a bridge washes away, suddenly a continuous route of double digit miles can be cut short, along with all the connector trails and loop options.
The same is true for pedestrian routes in the frontcountry. Just as there are trail systems in the backcountry, we have trails systems in urban areas — and they face their own challenges. In these situations, it’s often a lack of sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes that can interrupt a journey. Paved paths have the potential to form a vast network that can be used to reach parks and greenspaces, or get around for essential travel, but that network is not as continuous as it should be.
The term "active transportation" is a catch-all for the many non-motorized ways people get around, including travelling in a wheelchair, walking, cycling and running. in the best case scenarios active transportation users have safe and convenient corridors for travel such as a paved bicycle path or a pedestrian bridge over a busy road, but that's not always the case.
The new Active Transportation Plan (ATP), released by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) looked at active transportation opportunities across the state. The plan surveys the current network and lays out a framework to increase human-powered travel by making sure these routes are safe, accessible and equitable.
According to the plan, the benefits of active transportation include, “low-cost and flexible access to services and opportunities … improved personal and community health … reduced greenhouse gas emissions …” and others.
WTA’s The Trail Next Door campaign aims to make sure people have access to trails in parks and green spaces close to where they live. We believe the physical and mental health benefits of getting outside should be easily available to everyone. Having a safe means to access those green spaces is an important piece of the puzzle.
Finding the Gaps
For hikers without a vehicle or for those who prefer to go without a car, the sidewalk and shoulder of the road become part of their hike. WTA emphasizes the importance of being safe while hiking, but all that caution and common sense is overshadowed if the most dangerous part of a hike is getting to the trailhead.
The ATP identifies "gaps" as one of the main areas of focus. Gaps are places where pedestrian or bike infrastructure gives out (a sidewalk ends, a bike lane fades into busy traffic or a busy intersection has no crosswalk), leaving travelers with the impossible decision to brave a dangerous stretch of road or take a lengthy detour. The plan details a system for identifying these gaps and making them safer.
Gaps don’t just show up on the ground, they show up in our culture in terms of who has access to safe means of transportation. Areas with more pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure tend to have more walkers and cyclists, and in turn lower emissions and healthier residents, but those walkable neighborhoods are not equitably distributed.
The plan states that, “inequities in available transportation infrastructure connecting people to jobs, housing, food access, etc. have their roots in a history of residential segregation. This included policies such as ‘redlining.’” This underinvestment in pedestrian infrastructure is underscored by the fact that residents in these same neighborhoods rely more on active transportation because they are less likely to have a vehicle.
The ATP emphasizes an approach that identifies these inequities and tailors investments in improvements accordingly. In order to address these gaps, the plan uses data to identify the needs of each individual community. That information can help answer important questions to improve access to green spaces. What needs to change for communities to be fully connected to the benefits of local green spaces? What does it look like when communities have nature in reach?
If you Build it, they will come
The pandemic created experimental conditions that give a glimpse of what society would look like with higher rates of active transportation. During the pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in pedestrian and bicycle travel and a decrease in vehicle commutes, which has cut down on congestion and pollution in urban centers. And programs like Seattle’s Stay Healthy Streets, which limit vehicle traffic on some residential streets, have created safer corridors for pedestrians and cyclists.
An increase in safe travel options for pedestrians and cyclists will lead to more people seeing this as a viable option. More sidewalks, bike lanes and continuous routes means more people choosing non-motorized transportation. The plan highlights that, “about half (47 percent) of all trips taken in the U.S. are less than 3 miles long and could be completed in a 15-20-minute bike ride, yet the vast majority of short trips are made by automobile.” An investment in active transportation could help convert some of those trips away from automobile travel and increase all the benefits of active transportation.
For hikers, this might mean a trip to a local trail could be completed door to door without the use of a personal vehicle.
The Road Forward
WTA is working to increase access to parks, trails and greenspaces through The Trail Next Door campaign and our advocacy work. Our pilot programs have already helped bring trails and greenspaces to Vancouver, Bellingham and soon the North Highline neighborhood in the Seattle area.
Having those greenspaces is one thing, but getting to them safely is another. That's why we are a partner of King County’s Trailhead Direct program, which connects people via bus to trails along the I-90 corridor outside of Seattle.
WTA's is also a member of the Leafline Trails Coalition, which is working to create a connected trail network throughout King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties. The Leafline Trails Coalition imagines a region where people can get around on an interconnected system of paved paths that are closed off to cars.
This new Active Transportation Plan looks forward to a time when more Washingtonians can safely travel throughout our cities and rural areas, whether they are commuting to work along a regional trail, getting to the bus stop or taking a trip to their local park. WTA is working to make sure parks and trails are part of that network.