• Such facilities encourage healthy, active living at a time when obesity is overtaking tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death in America.
• Biking and walking are transportation alternatives with no detrimental side effects on our environment.
• People out and about in the community are a positive means to promote public safety and deter crime.
• Multi-use trails and greenways have well-documented economic impact on local economies. Across America, cities near trails report expanded tourism, incremental spending with local businesses and increased sales tax revenues. One Connecticut trail saved a failing historic downtown, created 250 new jobs and generated more than $200 million in local spending over 10 years.
• Proximity to a trail has a proven relationship to increased property values. In a 2000 survey, the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Homebuilders ranked multi-use trails second among 18 factors influencing a property's marketability.
• Given their financial impact, greenways and trails are the most economically viable way to preserve our precious natural resources, historical landmarks and cultural identity.
As often happens when a community first explores a rails-to-trails project, some local property owners worry converting the existing railroad to a trail will encourage criminal activity there.
While such concerns are not uncommon, they are unfounded. Extensive studies have shown multi-use trails are among the safest places in America, with crime rates far lower than other areas.
In 1998, the National Park Service commissioned a study of 372 trails across the United States. With input from trail managers and local law enforcement, they concluded, "Compared to the abandoned and forgotten corridors they replace, trails are a positive community development and crime prevention strategy of proven value."
The study surveyed major and minor crimes, across urban, suburban and rural settings. In every case, the trail crime rate was very low compared to national crime data. Of 256 rural trails surveyed, with 5,282 miles of trail and 26 million annual visitors, only three trails reported a burglary against nearby property. By contrast, national crime statistics for that period showed rural areas experienced 687 burglaries for every 100,000 residents. In all settings, trails were substantially safer.
The Park Service study included letters from local chiefs of police and sheriffs. One police chief wrote, "We have found the trail brings so many people that it has actually led to a decrease in problems we formerly encountered."
Another police chief was initially "concerned for the safety of citizens, due to the remote area." But, he then went on to say, "I am very pleased to report crime incidents along the walkway are almost nonexistent. I attribute this to several factors. Primarily, the high volume of use by families along this walking path has created a community ownership of the path. Police also regularly patrol the path, but it's unlikely anyone will travel the path more than a quarter mile without coming into contact with another path user."
But, never mind studies, you can see for yourself. Visit the Silver Comet Trail in Cobb, Paulding or Polk County some weekend. I've biked that trail from Smyrna to Anniston, Ala., and back, never encountering a single vagrant, vandal or drug dealer. What I have seen are young people exercising, elderly couples walking the dog, touring cyclists seeking a place to shop or eat, parents pushing a baby stroller or towing a toddler in a bike trailer, scout troops and church youth groups on an outing and school children on a field trip. These are the folks we want out and about in our community.
That's why I encourage our county and city officials to move ahead. Trails are safe and good for our health. They keep the green in our environment, and they also put green in our pocket books.
Maurice Carter is the president of the Covington Conyers Cycling Club.