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All Aboard the Rail-to-Trail Movement

Converting rails to trails is reshaping America

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The rail-to-trail movement has created scenic walkways like the Truckee River Bike Trail.

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From bustling urban centers to isolated farming communities, the rail-to-trail movement is leading Americans down a path to a healthier, greener lifestyle. In the process, it's revitalizing communities with new economic vigor.

Rails-to-Trails: The Atlanta Experience

Atlanta is a city founded by railroads: It has no oceanic harbor and sits on no wide, navigable river. But since World War II, the city -- like most of North America -- has been consumed by an auto-centric culture.

As a result, Atlanta's railroads had fallen into disuse, and for years were overgrown with weeds and strewn with broken bottles, garbage and homeless people. Unfortunately, most American cities were a lot like Atlanta in that regard.

But several years ago, an enterprising graduate student named -- perhaps fittingly -- Ryan Gravel wrote his Georgia Tech thesis on renovating Atlanta's railroad corridor, according to the New York Times.

Somehow that proposal made its way into the hands of a city councilwoman who knew a good idea when she saw it. And when she became city council president, Cathy Woolard got to work making Gravel's idea into a reality.

And now, a two-mile corridor of the trail has been landscaped with trees and other amenities. Not only is it filled with joggers and couples promenading, the foot traffic has been a boon to local businesses.

One local shopkeeper said business has increased tenfold since the trail opened. "It's unreal. We used to worry about homeless people back there, and now it's like a boardwalk," he told the Times.

Eventually, boosters hope to complete an entire 22-mile loop around Atlanta, making it one of the most ambitious rail-to-trail projects in the country.

Rails Across America

Atlanta isn't the only city that has realized the immense potential of skinny, abandoned, weed-choked tracts of land that once were home to railways. New York City's High Line now hosts about 4 million visitors a year.

Similarly, Chicago is renovating an elevated rail track into a three-mile pedestrian pathway. Thirteen miles of Seattle rail track will soon be turned into bike trails.

And outside big cities, small towns and farming communities -- which are notoriously deficient in safe places to walk, run or bike -- are also getting behind turning rails to trails. The Hudson Valley Rail Trail stretches along an abandoned part of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Line. When completed, the trail will connect a 6-mile lane to a crossing over the Hudson River.

Benefits of Rails-to-Trails

The rail-to-trail movement has an effective advocate in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Since the organization got its start in 1986, they've grown to an organization 150,000 members and supporters, with an impressive network of some 20,000 miles of rail-trail development throughout the United States. According to the group's website, rail trails deliver many benefits:

"They encourage healthier, more mobile lifestyles by making possible places to walk, bike and more. They develop healthier economies by promoting tourism and local businesses, and increasing property values. They support a healthier climate and environment by making active transportation a viable alternative to the automobile. They contribute to healthier, more vibrant community interaction, connecting people to the places they live, work and play. Rail-trails create a healthier future for people of all ages and abilities, all across America.

But don't just take their word for it: Science has determined that walking, biking or any other outdoor activity has several advantages over indoor exercise, even after just a few minutes.

To find a rail-trail somewhere nearby, check out the listings of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

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