Improving Access to Urban Trails

Author: Chris Mehl

Urban trail efforts are increasingly focusing on providing equitable access to trails. Trails and parks can create substantial benefits for public health, property values, and quality of life.

Unfortunately, in many communities these resources are inequitably distributed. They can be less abundant in poorer neighborhoods with a larger share of minority residents, which can be exasperated by a history of segregation in public places and lack of racial and ethnic representation in trail and conservation organizations. In addition, in more urban areas, historically minority or low-income areas tend to be more densely developed, leaving less space for building new parks or trails.

The benefit of parks and trails is greatest for those who live closest to these resources, and a disparity in access can have significant health, social, and economic implications, while also exacerbating environmental justice concerns in communities.

More and more, cities are pursuing improved access goal by incorporating the benefits of trails and pathways as part of their planning, development, and revitalization standards—moving beyond trails as a recreational amenity and incorporating trails as critical contributors to goals in public health, climate resilience, and transportation.

Improving park and trail access is also an important tool to help revitalize urban neighborhoods, and relatively new tools like crowdsourcing can help cities collect more accurate and extensive trail user data when measuring performance and future needs.

Benefits of Improving Trail Access

Communities can take a variety of steps and approaches to improve trail access. A study of parks in southern California urban centers, for example, found that parks are used less in high-poverty areas than in low-poverty areas, driven partly by safety concerns; and that parks in high-poverty areas have, on average, eight fewer staff than parks in low-poverty areas.

In Los Angeles County, California, a study that follows a large sample of children over time demonstrated that children who live a walkable distance from parks are much less likely to be obese or overweight. Health benefits can be achieved through formal parks and recreation programs, but also through accessible green space or other small, informal places that encourage play. For instance, children who lived within 500 meters of a park had a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) at age 18, with larger effects for boys than for girls.

How communities assess inequities in access to green space also is important. An equity-mapping analysis found that low-income and concentrated poverty areas have significantly less access to park resources—and that creative strategies to utilize nontraditional public spaces such as schoolyards and vacant lots will be necessary because there is very little available park space in the most underserved neighborhoods.

In Taos, New Mexico lower trail use among Hispanic and low-income residents is likely due to differences in access, not because these residents do not want to use trails. Low-income residents with a park or trail within a 10-minute walk of their house were 50 percent more likely to have used trails during the previous year.

Read More

SF must walk (and bike and bus) its talk on climate

Paris, Mexico City, Cape Town, Auckland, London, Los Angeles: just six of the 15 world cities that have signed a pledge “to ensure that a major area of our city is emission free by 2030.” Notably absent from the list? San Francisco.

The C40 Cities Fossil Fuel Free Streets declaration is part of a set of commitments that global cities are making to combat climate change at this week’s Global Climate Action Summit. Cities that sign on are pledging to “reduce the number of polluting vehicles on our streets” and “increase the rates of walking, cycling and the use of public and shared transport that is accessible to all citizens.” San Francisco may be hosting, but we have yet to make the commitment to increase space for people walking, biking and taking transit. As longtime advocates for biking, walking and transit, we’re embarrassed for our city this week.

Exhaust from cars and trucks is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in San Francisco, a figure that has remained stubbornly static over the past decade. Now, at a moment when the world is watching, we have a chance to be a real leader and make a meaningful commitment to reduce the amount of CO₂ put into our atmosphere.

Imagine Mayor London Breed standing in front of leaders from across the globe and declaring that significant portions of Golden Gate Park will be car-free, or that Better Market Street is on track to break ground in 2019 and will make San Francisco’s main thoroughfare emission-free. There is still a chance for us to be the forward thinking city the world expects us to be, and we are asking our leaders step up to the challenge.

Read More

Why Did America Give Up on Mass Transit? (Don’t Blame Cars.)

Author:

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. Even in New York City, subway ridership is well below its 1946 peak. Annual per capita transit trips in the U.S. plummeted from 115.8 in 1950 to 36.1 in 1970, where they have roughly remained since, even as population has grown.

This has not happened in much of the rest of the world. While a decline in transit use in the face of fierce competition from the private automobile throughout the 20th century was inevitable, near-total collapse was not. At the turn of the 20th century, when transit companies’ only competition were the legs of a person or a horse, they worked reasonably well, even if they faced challenges. Once cars arrived, nearly every U.S. transit agency slashed service to cut costs, instead of improving service to stay competitive. This drove even more riders away, producing a vicious cycle that led to the point where today, few Americans with a viable alternative ride buses or trains.

Now, when the federal government steps in to provide funding, it is limited to big capital projects. (Under the Trump administration, even those funds are in question.) Operations—the actual running of buses and trains frequently enough to appeal to people with an alternative—are perpetually starved for cash. Even transit advocates have internalized the idea that transit cannot be successful outside the highest-density urban centers.

Read More

Cycling Is Key to Safer, Healthier, More Vital Cities

Author Richard Florida

Frustrated by the obstacles to urban cycling in North America, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett traveled with their two kids from Vancouver to the Netherlands in 2016 to take a deep five-week dive into places that do cycling better. Traversing cities in the Netherlands by bike, they found that cycling is not just a better way to get around; when done right, it leads to healthier, safer, more vibrant, more family-friendly communities. They wrote it all up in their new book, Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, which provides a guide for cities and communities that want to do cycling right, and for urban cyclists and families who want to learn the keys to cycling as a way of life.

I spoke to the Bruntletts by phone earlier this month about what they’ve learned and about what cities and people in the United States and Canada can learn from the cycling lifestyle in the Netherlands. Our conversation has been lightly edited for space and flow.

Why did you decide to go to the Netherlands and start cycling like the Dutch?

Melissa: We lived so long experiencing cycling in Vancouver and telling a lot of great stories about what building cities for cycling can do. We felt that in order to really tell that story, we needed to go to the place where that is what people enjoy throughout the country and learn what has made them so successful.

Sometimes critics of cycling say it’s about “yuppies,” “hipsters,” and “the creative class,” and a force for “gentrification.” But your book talks more about the role of cycling for families and in building stronger communities.

Read More

Street smarts:

Every day, about 102 people in the United States are killed in motor vehicle crashes. The majority of the crash-related deaths (which total more than 37,000 each year) occur in rural areas, but these fatalities have been rising in urban areas since 2009. That has spurred more than 30 cities in the U.S. to commit to Vision Zero, with the goal of bringing their road fatalities to zero by 2025.

To make this happen, cities have taken a range of steps that include improvements in street design and stricter traffic enforcement. A new bit of research from the American Public Transportation Association and the Vision Zero Network finds that public transit can be a safety workhorse, too. In cities where public transit trips get taken more frequently, there are fewer road deaths for passengers and pedestrians. The secret? Buses and trains get more people out of their cars. Read up on the research in my latest story:Cities With Good Public Transit Have Fewer Road Fatalities