The home stretch of my trip through Pennsylvania and Maryland followed the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath trails.
Meeting in Cumberland, Maryland, the trails form 325 miles of unbroken, off-street walking and biking paths from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. It was a relaxing finish to a cross-country route marked with close-passing freight trucks, potholed highways, and punishing sun.
Along the trails, I met multiple people on repeat trips of the GAP and C&O. These travelers praised the beauty and serenity of the route, but also the easily accessible destinations along the way. In turn, residents and local businesses also benefit from this increased access through active transportation.
Communities along the GAP and C&O trails, historically grown around the respective train and canal routes, have been enhancing their accessibility for recreational hikers and bikers on long-distance and day trips, which has improved options for active transportation within towns. With encouragement by advocacy groups, communities along these trails provide an example of the economic and social benefits, yet in a rural context, that can come with increased active transportation.
Embracing the trail town role
Along the GAP, as well as other developing rail trails in Western Pennsylvania and Maryland, Pennsylvania-based non-profit The Progress Fund has been running an economic development initiative called the Trail Town Program. It works to harness the economic potential that comes with access to quality outdoor recreation and communicate how walkability can benefit rural and urban communities alike.
The stretch of trails provides access to active travel for a significant number of people – approximately 700,000 people are estimated [PDF] to have used the GAP in 2013. According to a user and business survey [PDF] that Trail Towns conducted in 2014, more than half of the people on the rail-trail were taking multi-day trips, and the number of first timers doubled to 46 percent from three years prior, suggesting an influx of visitors to the towns along the way.
Put into economic context, the benefits of accessible trails and outdoor recreation become very apparent. According to the same survey, 40 percent of all businesses along the GAP indicate plans to expand due to this increase of trail users. According to The Progress Fund, the Great Allegheny Passage has generated about $50 million in income from visitors using the trail.
With so many travel options to reach the Passage, there is a wide potential customer base, and the Trail Towns Program is working to ensure there is a similar abundance of bike- and pedestrian-friendly options in these towns for lodging and eating. Through technical and marketing assistance, the initiative coordinates with businesses to improve wayfinding and bike parking, as well as fosters the expansion of resources for travelers, such as gear shops and campsites, creating a welcoming and attractive atmosphere for active travelers. Connellsville, Pennsylvania, exemplified this with free Adirondack shelters for camping, as well as route suggestions that encouraged me to spend extra time there and explore the restaurant scene.
Having developed around a canal and railway in the 19th century, these towns are uniquely positioned to bring that history to modern users of those routes. Each town I passed through showcased substantive historical exhibits and many promoted active arts scenes. There was a noticeable level of civic pride around what they had to offer travelers.
I also noticed that many more people were walking than in other rural towns I had seen across the country. In the areas that did not have such recreational facilities nearby, anybody traveling without a car, like myself, seemed out of place, and drivers didn’t know how to deal with that presence. With so much development around active travelers, it has worked into the local culture as well , making the roads feel safer and welcoming for visitors and locals. Ohiopyle, Penn., especially seemed to embrace this role. Despite being a tiny community, there were wide sidewalks, green areas, and even bike lanes. The priority that the area gives to pedestrians and cyclists was distinct, with large groups of cyclists gathering at cafes and no cars on the streets in the few hours I spent there.
While each individual town along the two trails is small, they make up a thriving network rich in history that is also developing an impressive set of restaurants, lodging options, and cultural attractions. Such an extensive off-street trail like the GAP or C&O Towpath help promote this vitality while allowing communities to retain their rural identity.
The rise of the Trail Towns Project, and the focus it has brought to active transportation, demonstrates the role that biking can play even in a rural context. An initiative like this in conjunction with trail advocates like the Allegheny Trail Alliance or Rails to Trails Conservancy provides a great example of what is possible around the country to build and promote trails, which in turn connects communities and makes them better places to get around.
Photo, top: People riding bikes and hiking on the Great Allegheny Passage (Jon Dawson, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, a visitors center along the trailpath (Andrew Carpenter).