On the trails of change

As an advocate for better bicycling infrastructure, I was eager to attend the 20th anniversary of the Washington State Trails Conference in Bellingham earlier this fall.

Washington is brimming with all kinds of trails: backcountry hiking trails, urban commuting corridors, mountain bike parks, regional multi-use paths, horse and even water trails. In total, a whopping 12,000 miles of trails!

Bicycling trails and other multi-use trails were not always part of this biennial trails conference agenda. In fact, 2014 was the first year active transportation was highlighted in sessions throughout the conference.

Bicycling holds a unique place in trails conversations.

The bicycle is both a pastime and a utilitarian tool, a vehicle for fun and a vehicle for work. The amalgamation of recreation and active transportation professionals at the conference led me to the realization that we all essentially want the same thing: we want to make it more convenient for people to move.

I see collaboration between the active transportation and recreation spheres as a critical strategy to ensure adequate funding for both, especially when we consider the many instances when recreational trail funding can simultaneously support active transportation and vice versa.

Trails aren’t just dirt hiking paths in the wilderness.

Trails are not just for rugged individuals living out of backpacks for weeks at a time. They can be the centerpiece of a city or small town (just think about what the Burke-Gilman has done for Seattle and what the Cross Kirkland Corridor will do for Kirkland). Trails can define a region, drive economic growth, improve public health, connect people with their natural environment and become avenues for active transportation. They’re becoming more accessible to people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds, and they’re cropping up in a variety of urban, rural and wilderness settings.

We need collaboration. 

Building any kind of trail, of course, doesn’t come without its fair share of bumps in the road, both figuratively and literally. We need all parties supporting each other and working together to push these visionary trail projects forward. Take Bellingham’s South Bay Trail System, for example. Extensive public outreach, a lengthy shoreline permitting process and multiple stakeholders all played into completing each section of this trail. The Washington State Trails Conference was an opportunity to learn about new projects, to share information and strategies for achieving successful results and to envision together the future of trail creation.

The bicycle occupies an important space in this discussion to bridge the gap between recreation and transportation. The Washington State Trails Conference provided a platform to meld the worlds of transportation and recreation: a platform that will help build up networks between the many stakeholders in our state who want to build and maintain our expansive trail systems, and a platform that will propel forward the goals of these stakeholders who can count on one another as allies in the process. As a state, we’re not only expanding our trail networks, we’re expanding our definition of trails to encompass recreation AND transportation.

We’re clear-cutting our preconceptions of what defines a trail. We’re on the Trails of Change...