It was terrific to read recently of the strong local interest in building a public bike and pedestrian pathway along a disused section of rail corridor in Townsend.
As a national, member-supported nonprofit that promotes the development of multi-use trails, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy constantly sees that better biking and walking infrastructure is good value for towns like Townsend. All across America, communities that provide systems for walking and biking regularly have the most resilient local economies, the most robust real estate markets, sustained population growth and the highest quality of life indicators. Supported by solid and consistent research, the connection between trails and economic improvement is now beyond debate.
Residents' demand that their local government thoroughly examine the fiscal and organizational pros and cons of such infrastructure projects in these uncertain economic times is certainly fair and justified.
But what is concerning about the debate regarding the proposed Squannacook River Rail Trail is the return of the long discredited and disproved claim that trails bring crime and public safety concerns to nearby properties.
In RTC's 25 years of helping to develop trails in both urban and rural areas, small towns and large cities, we have found that all of the anecdotal and statistical evidence directly counters the perception of some residents that such pathways encourage or increase incidents of vandalism, assault, vagrancy and theft.
In fact, the opposite is true. Time and time again we see new multi-use trails bring human activity and a level of ownership and care to areas once abandoned and neglected. It's the basic premise of all "neighborhood watch" programs: the regular surveillance of residents and businesses is often the most efficient deterrent to antisocial behavior.
Although the claim that a new trail will increase crime and vandalism is sometimes heard at public meetings early in the process, we are not aware of a single instance where, once the trail is built, this actually occurs. The impact of the trail is more often than not felt in increased land values and demand from potential residents, driven by the availability of easily accessible recreation and transportation options.
Last year, a meeting of the Woodside Civic Association in Silver Spring, Md., where a small group of residents oppose plans to extend the Capital Crescent Trail, heard the testimony of Chief of Montgomery County Park Police Darien Manley, who stated that trails do not bring crime to neighborhoods.
Chief Manley stated that typically there is less crime on a trail than in the neighborhood that the trail passes through. He pointed to studies by the National Park Service and others that show the nationwide experience is similar to what he has experienced in Montgomery County: that crime is generally low on trails. This is one example of many which demonstrates the positive impact of converting a disused, neglected space into a treasured community asset.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy recently produced a groundbreaking video on the perception and the reality of crime and safety issues on urban trails, in which residents in areas once plagued by crime and vandalism offer similar testimony - the trail and its traffic had a noticeably positive impact. I would encourage the people of Townsend interested in this subject to watch it when they have a moment. (www.railstotrails.org/urbanpathways)
Though the Squannacook River Rail Trail project should certainly be debated and considered based on real and actual concerns, that it would increase crime and vandalism is not one of those and only serves to confuse what is an otherwise valid debate.
Anyone interested in resources about funding, building and maintaining rail-trails, or in learning more about rail-trail projects across America, is encouraged to get in touch with myself or any of our experienced staff.
All the very best of luck with your trail ambitions,
Manager of Communications
Washington, D.C. 20037