Trails of all kinds offer layers of benefits, an often overlooked one is the opportunity to educate its users. Providing signage, programs or events that present information about natural resources, the history of the area, or cultural resources along the trail or a specific site enriches the personal experience and can encourage further exploration or increase awareness and stewardship.
Expanding on the theme of the community identity and civic pride is social capital. Social capital is the effective functioning of social groups in a place through interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, and a shared understanding that leads to a positive product, benefits, or outcome. It is similar to financial capital but within a group of people or community – it’s personal. Trails function to bring people together through shared experience and therefore generate and enhance an area’s social capital. Having adequate social capital can be very beneficial when a community is met with a challenge requiring collaboration, cooperation, or common action among residents.
Rail trails have been called the 21st century’s “town square”, representing meeting places to socialize, exchange ideas, and get to know their neighbors. In this way, trails can capitalize on the social capital that they create and enhance community communications and interactions.
Rail trails are linear greenspaces with all the expected and traditional conservation benefits of open space. They help preserve important natural landscapes, provide needed links to create wildlife corridors between fragmented habitats, and offer important opportunities for protecting plant and animal species. Rail trails that lie along watercourses (like the HRTCP) are also assets in the preservation and protection of wetlands and the improvement of water quality. When used as transportation alternatives to the auto, as noted above, trails can also help with improved air quality. In addition, they can allow humans to experience nature with minimal environmental impact.
Providing opportunities for people to experience and interact with nature fosters appreciation for natural resources and increase the likelihood of those people supporting efforts to preserve and sustain those resources. This support can then be leveraged for environmental stewardship activities.
A rail-trail, with its easy-to-cycle grades and off-road character, is an excellent transportation option with several transportation-specific benefits. As a transportation corridor, the trail provides accessible and safe routes for people to use for work trips or errands, trips to community facilities like local parks or the library, to go to school (primary, secondary and post-secondary), for some shopping trips, or for visiting friends.
Trails are community connectors, within communities and between communities. Rail trails, due to historic alignments that typically went through the middle of towns, offer easy mobility into town centers. This facilitates the exploration of nearby towns without the use of cars.
Pennsylvania has the 24th highest adult obesity rate in the nation and the 14th highest obesity rate for youth ages 10 to 17 a clear indication that Pennsylvanians (and Americans in general) don’t engage in physical activity as much as we should. In fact, only 50% of adults in the United States meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended guidelines for physical activity: 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, or its equivalent.
By contrast, physical activity, such as walking, running or cycling on a trail, can prevent the development of chronic disease or the progression of existing health conditions.
Along with reducing the risk of disease, physical activity has also been shown to improve individuals’ sleep, functioning and overall wellness. A single instance of physical activity can decrease blood pressure and anxiety symptoms while improving sleep, insulin sensitivity and cognition throughout the day the activity is performed.
Rail trails are non-discriminatory towards people, they benefit people of all ages, abilities, gender, ethnicity or race and are free! They are particularly suitable for families to exercise together, being accessible and safe for children. As attractive places to walk and bike, they are desirable to use and studies find people are more likely to exercise on a scenic trail giving them the added benefit of being in touch with nature. Trails provide a cost-effective way to exercise and provide a place for people to see others doing physical activities – a visible social support, which researchers have found to be an effective tool to encourage participation in physical activity.