The Potential of Urban Trails

The whole time I’ve lived in Cleveland (more than 10 years), people have been talking about the construction of an urban trail system. The Towpath Trail was the big one, which runs along the historic path of the Erie Canal all the way down to Akron.

I never paid much attention to the discussions honestly. It just seemed so far off. Like it would never happen. 

Now, just in the last two years — pop, the whole thing has happened. But not just that. There are two additional segments that branch out and happen to run sort of right by where I live and — conveniently for me — my son’s school. Every week, they are cutting the ribbon on a brand new section of trail. I was riding one of them yesterday and I was just blown away.

A. The execution is beautiful

B. It opens up whole parts of the city to me that has previously been hidden. The Towpath in particular runs along our industrial valley, with breathtaking views of both downtown, the riverfront and our steel mill.

C. Having the opportunity to ride on a trail almost daily is a huge quality of life and health boost, both physically and spiritually. 

I almost feel guilty to have been endowed with so much great trail infrastructure (and I’ll talk a little more about that later on.)

As I was riding the other day I was thinking about the potential of urban (and suburban) trails. Sometimes trails do encounter NIMBY resistance. But to me, they seem broadly popular. Cleveland’s new urban trail system takes advantage of freight and highway right of ways and the waterfront, so you don’t have to interact with traffic almost at all.

An overlook at our functioning steel mill. 

I also had the opportunity recently to be a judge at Cuyahoga County’s Trails and Greenways Conference. And learn about all the trail work happening across the county where I live. This is the second year I’ve been a judge and I always find it really inspiring.

As an example, there’s a suburb here — not a particularly walkable one, called Orange — where a developer built a lifestyle center type mall recently. As part of the deal the municipality was able to negotiate the developer paying to build a trail system for the whole suburb. What a cool idea! It’s interesting to imagine trails helping make unwalkable suburbs function a little differently. 

Anyway, I know other urban areas have ambitious trail plans. One place that comes to mind is Houston. And I wonder how much potentially facilities like this have to change the way we travel, and give normal people alternatives to driving (or even just more opportunities to be active and outside). 

I was on a panel recently with someone from Rails to Trails in Baltimore, where they are working to build a 35-mile urban trail system. They are also thinking hard about equity — and how to ensure these kinds of investments don’t lead to displacement. 

For Cleveland’s trail system, as much as I love it, I think everyone acknowledges there’s a big drawback. Right now the neighborhoods that are best served are whiter and better off than most of the city. I hope and expect the next phase will be connecting more diverse neighborhoods to the system. And I hope the groups that stepped up initially to build and fund these projects will be willing to do so elsewhere.