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Trail Infrastructure’s Role in Equitable Economic Development

In 2019, ESI worked with engineering firm NV5 to complete “Investing in Our Future” a study of the impacts of the East Coast Greenway on the Greater Philadelphia region. ESI Senior Vice President Gina Lavery (GL) recently caught up with Matt Ludwig at NV5 (ML) and Niles Barnes of East Coast Greenway (NB) to talk more about demand for trail infrastructure and the role of trails in equitable economic development.

 

Gina Lavery, Senior Vice President & Principal: There’s been a lot of talk about the increase in use of trails and outdoor space during the pandemic. Niles, what have you seen along the East Coast Greenway?

 

Niles Barnes, Deputy Director, East Coast Greenway: In 2020, during the pandemic, the East Coast Greenway became the most visited park in America. Over 50 million runs, rides and walks were hosted on completed segments of the trail between Maine and Florida. As Mitchell Silver, NYC Parks Commissioner put it, “The value of parks after this pandemic is going to elevate. This is not just a ‘nice to have,’ but now an essential and vital part of our civic infrastructure.”

GL: Taking it a little more local and thinking post-pandemic, Matt, what are you seeing in terms of demand for commuter trails within the Philadelphia region?

Matt Ludwig, Senior Engineer, NV5: It’s pretty well known that trails in major cities like Philadelphia are used not only for recreational purposes, but also for daily commuting and utility purposes, such as going to get groceries or going out to a restaurant by bike. Trails act like the “active transportation arterial system” in our cities; it is vital that we build out a complete network and reduce conflicts with automobiles, so that folks can travel quickly and efficiently by foot or bike. However, what we are seeing, especially through the pandemic, is that the same is true in the suburbs. A survey we conducted in Montgomery County, PA along a specific trail corridor, found that only about 15% of respondents said they would use the trail for commuting at least once a week, but a surprising 40% of respondents said that they would like to use the trail for commuting, but there is no connecting trail to their workplace or school. There is clearly a lot of pent-up demand in our cities and suburbs for well-designed networks of trails.

GL: ESI has done research in numerous locations that looks at the property value premium associated with proximity trails and open space. So, we’ve understood that dynamic for a while from an analytical perspective, but the demand we saw for trails and open space resources in the last year provided a real confirmation on the work we’ve done on the topic. I saw a survey issued by the National Association of Realtors that emphasized growing demand for walkability and access to outside space.

So, with the pent-up demand that Matt mentioned earlier, we’ve seen an increased use of recreational trails and a growing interest across communities for commuter trails. How can communities actively further invest in transportation infrastructure?

NB: As recently covered in Bloomberg Citylab, “‘Greenway Stimulus’ Could Bring Boom in Bike and Walking Trails“, there is a huge opportunity right now to invest in greenways and trails. Over 200 organizations have signed on to the vision of a Greenway Stimulus which would accelerate the development of active transportation infrastructure across the country. We encourage communities to sign up for Greenway Stimulus and get involved in the efforts to help secure the funding needed to plan, design and construct this biking and walking infrastructure.

ML: Communities need to start planning now. If your community doesn’t have an active transportation plan, work with local advocates and elected officials to help fund one. If you do have one, work with those same folks to identify the two or three most important projects to implement. Start small and build momentum. Reach out to a wide coalition of stakeholders to build support. That way, when funding comes in from state and federal sources, you are ready to act.

GL: There’s a lot of focus on how the American Jobs Bill might fund infrastructure projects across the US. How do trails fit into the mix and how do they contribute to regional economic development?

NB: We [East Coast Greenway] are encouraged by the proposals from the Biden administration to invest in active transportation infrastructure and we know the administration understands how valuable and high the return on investment is. What we need to see even more of, is them getting out in front of this issue in a stronger way. As Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, said recently “I know we think trains, planes and automobiles, but what about bikes, scooters, wheelchairs … Look, roads aren’t only for vehicles. We gotta make sure that pedestrians and individuals and bicycles and businesses can all coexist . . .”

ML: I read an interesting quote from House Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio last night: “In the last 27 years, 30,511 new freeway lane miles (have been built) in the hundred largest urbanized areas. That’s an increase of 42%. The cost of congestion during that time period has gone from $25 billion to $166 billion. We have to begin to look at alternatives.” He is right…we cannot motor our way out of congestion in our cities and suburbs. We also can’t afford it. Trails and other active transportation infrastructure projects are relatively low-cost projects that get high returns on investment. They move more people per square foot of space, increase livability and safety of local communities, reduce emissions, and encourage healthy activity, and also spur development. All of the new major developments in Philadelphia are located along the Schuylkill River or Delaware River Trails right now.

GL: The cost of congestion is really notable—you think about additional emissions, lost work hour, and so on.

Of course, we know from ESI’s work in Philadelphia that transportation policy and equity are linked. There’s a huge equity component to identifying and developing trails networks across regions and we’ve seen equity as a major priority in Secretary Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation. In what ways do you see trails supporting equity and inclusion goals within a community?

NB: Equity is a core component to this work and the future we want to see. As we look toward recovery in 2021, our nation needs to make visionary infrastructure investments that spur strong economic recovery and a healthy, equitable future. Our country needs to put people to work through $10 billion in infrastructure investment for safe, active transportation that connects all 50 states across America from our biggest cities to our smallest towns, from our cultural heritage corridors to our national parks. The resulting people-centered and equitable transportation network has the potential to change lives for the better.

ML: It is exciting to see that this administration is focusing on racial equity in the $1 billion in RAISE funding it will send to local communities later this year. I think you will see a lot of transformative trails on the final list of projects once they are announced this fall. There has also been a lot of talk in the trail planning community about how we can make sure that we create inviting spaces for all users, and understand that people use and view active transportation differently. In the Philadelphia area, the William Penn Foundation has done some spectacular work to try to understand the barriers to getting those in Black and Brown communities on trails.

Gina Lavery, Senior Vice President & Principal lavery@econsultsolutions.com

Gina Lavery is Senior Vice President and Principal of Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI). Ms. Lavery has led a range of projects for ESI, primarily focused on urban planning, real estate, transportation, higher education, and public policy—particularly where these areas intersect with economic development.

 

Niles Barnes, Deputy Director, East Coast Greenway

Niles Barnes is a champion for sustainability and developing walkable and bikeable communities. Niles first joined the East Coast Greenway Alliance team in 2013 and serves as deputy director.

 

Matt Ludwig, Senior Engineer, NV5

Matt is a licensed civil engineer and certified planner with over 13 years’ experience on a wide variety of transportation projects, which includes specialized expertise in the planning, design, and management of bicycle and pedestrian facilities such as trails, complete streets, and multimodal projects. He has worked for NV5’s Philadelphia office for five years, where he manages active transportation projects throughout the region.

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