Creating regional trail systems in developed areas often is difficult. But across the United States, communities increasingly are providing bicycling and pedestrian trails in response to demand from residents for these amenities. When it comes to such trails, longer is almost always seen as better. But complications abound for established communities looking to add to or extend existing trails.
Local governments in the Sacramento, California, region are evaluating options to work together to create a regional trail network that will stitch together six counties and 22 cities in a bicycle-accessible network.
“Our high-level estimate is that the envisioned trail network would be 800 mi of trail, building off an existing (though fragmented) 450 mi of trail with potential to connect people to where they want to go,” says Victoria Cacciatore, a transportation analyst for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. (SACOG, as the organization is known, is an association of local governments in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba counties as well as the 22 cities located within those counties.)
‘Lots of gaps’
While the region already includes some 30 mi of linked trails along the American River, collectively the 450 mi of existing trailways consist primarily of “disconnected segments” that often extend for just a few miles at most, Cacciatore says. “Many of our communities in the Sacramento region were designed without connecting trails,” she notes.
The city of Elk Grove is one such community. Most of the existing trails in the Sacramento suburb were built by developers to serve individual developments, says Kevin Bewsey, P.E., the capital program division manager for the Elk Grove Public Works Department. As a result, “there’s lots of gaps in the trail system,” Bewsey says. “We have a lot of 1 to 2 mi segments, and then there’s just some sort of gap. It’s challenging, but I think there’s a lot of potential there.”
Evaluating access and goals
As part of its aim to create one holistic network of trails, SACOG has begun evaluating the state of the existing trails in the region as well as possible opportunities for expanding and linking them.
“We have done some initial work on identifying where we have existing trails, where we have planned trails, and where we have gaps,” Cacciatore says.
This analysis not only looked at the locations of existing trails but also who has access to them. “Only 48% of the region lives near a trail of any length,” Cacciatore says. What is more, economic status tends to equate to trail access. “We found that, in our region, if you are lower income, you are 30% less likely to have access to trails than a person having a higher income,” she notes.
The analysis also sought to determine the “shared goals” for a regional trail network among the various local governments, Cacciatore says. Top goals included improved outcomes regarding community health, economic vitality, and environmental justice, she notes.
“There’s a variety of health benefits to trails,” Bewsey says, noting that such benefits increase as trail networks grow in size. “If you have regional trails, as opposed to short trails, you get many more users using it.,” he says. “And so the overall community gets healthier.”
To the extent that a regional trail network is constructed separately from roadways, safety also will improve, Bewsey notes. “You’ll actually see an improvement on overall safety because (trail users) will not be biking adjacent to a vehicle or having to go through an intersection,” he says.
The possibility of using trails as a means of boosting economic vitality locally has taken on new urgency in light of the recent shutdowns caused by COVID-19. “Many of the cities and communities within our region saw a number of their small businesses shutter during the lockdowns, and they’re just not coming out on the other side of the pandemic,” Cacciatore says. As a result, local communities view a more expansive trail network as a means to help residents gain better access to local businesses and provide a more attractive environment for businesses themselves, she says.
Planning and implementing a regional trail network will require overcoming myriad challenges, not the least of which is balancing the different expectations that its users will have for the network. In some cases, residents may view the network as a means of getting from point A to point B — perhaps even as a commuter thoroughfare — while others might view a trail as a destination in itself. “It’s difficult to serve those multiple masters,” Cacciatore says.
The regional nature of the trail network also can create challenges. “A lot of these projects are multijurisdictional,” Bewsey says. “For a regional trail to be truly regional, you can’t just have each agency do their own project and just stop at their boundary. There are certain projects you have to coordinate on.” In these cases, the different jurisdictions have to agree on such matters as who will have responsibility for design and construction and who will handle maintenance. “It takes a lot of effort to figure out those roles,” he says.
Geography also presents its own hurdles. “We do have a lot of barriers that separate trails, such as freeways and rivers,” Cacciatore says. “We’re blessed with a lot of rivers in the region. But that means you also have a lot of need for bridges.” Bridges, of course, mean higher costs for construction as well as maintenance, she notes.
With so many challenges to address, a regional trail network will require a deft touch on the part of its designers. “There are going to be a lot of different creative design solutions that need to come in,” Cacciatore says.
Public outreach will play a critical role in ensuring the successful development of the regional trail network over the long term. “Community engagement on trails is huge,” Bewsey says. “A lot of people view trails as an amenity, especially if they’re planning to use them.” However, residents may take a different view of a proposed trail if it is to be built adjacent to their own property. “Having (trail) users behind your house doesn’t get people really excited sometimes,” he says. Therefore, “having strong outreach is always important so that the community understands and values the benefit of the trail.”
From now until the end of the year, SACOG will work with local cities, counties, and other partners to identify what elements should be included as part of a regional trail network. As part of this effort, SACOG and its partners “will be looking at how to prioritize segments for implementation,” Cacciatore says. “We’re looking at the top tier of projects that we really need to do right away to get the system going, to jump-start it.”
At year’s end, SACOG’s board is expected to approve a plan for the regional network. By spring 2022, the organization will have identified its top-priority projects to be conducted as part of the network, Cacciatore says.
Cost estimates for the network also will be available then, she says.