It was exactly 50 summers ago that Congress approved, and President Lyndon Johnson later signed, a law for “instituting a national system of recreation, scenic and historic trails” in the United States.
In a speech that by today’s standards seems quaint in its hopeful public spiritedness, the president said, “We can and should have an abundance of trails for walking, cycling and horseback riding, in and close to our cities.”
This was the National Trails System Act of 1968, part of which established the concept of “railbanking.” Congress had been watching with growing alarm over decades as railroads abandoned precious rights of way, which were then snatched apart by developers and adjacent landowners. The answer was railbanking, which allowed abandoned rights of way to be acquired by local governments and nonprofits to manage for recreational purposes until such a time as the railroad service is restored.
In 1968, the only real vision of this future was in Wisconsin — the 32-mile Elroy-to-Sparta Trail, which opened in 1967 just two years after the track was abandoned. It was such a good idea that over the next 50 years, local governments have, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, opened 31,000 miles of trails. One of the nation’s largest chunks (2,100 miles) is in Minnesota. The Munger, Paul Bunyan, Gateway, Cannon Valley, Cedar Lake, Luce and the Midtown — all are among those on reclaimed rail beds.
It’s important to note on this 50th anniversary that not everyone is celebrating. From the start, less egalitarian interests have coveted this land. After cyclists, the next busiest group has been real estate lawyers. In 1983, with the courts busy with conversion opponents, Congress passed a Rails-to-Trails Act Amendment to the Trail Systems Act to strengthen local governments’ ability to protect the rights of way for recreational trails. In 2008, Minnesota established its own state railbank “for the acquisition and preservation of abandoned rail lines and rights-of-way,” for future public use.
If you think those laws were unnecessary, check out rails-to-trails property rights opposition groups such as the National Association of Reversionary Property Owners and, worse, a sect called Freedom for All Seasons, whose website prominently, even joyfully, features photographs of bicyclists being run over by cars. The Supreme Court in one case weakened the act.
A lot of people would feel more confident if Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. James Oberstar was still alive, and in Congress. By most accounts he did more to fund and advance the case for human-powered transportation than any other public official. And no one seems to have stepped forward to assume his work advancing and defending cycling against its commercial and philosophical foes.
So here, in the spirit of the 50th anniversary of the rails-trails era, is a question for any of the many U.S. Senate, congressional, state legislative, or gubernatorial candidates you meet in this busy political year:
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy says Minnesota currently has 228 miles of abandoned rail rights of way that could be reclaimed for recreational use. What exactly are you going to do about it?
• Intriguing research of the month: A think tank called Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. studied “the impact of bike-share programs on traffic congestion” in that city. Conclusion No. 1 was that a bike-share dock reduces traffic congestion by 2 to 3 percent in its immediate vicinity. Conclusion No. 2 was, “we also find evidence of a potential spillover effect, in which (bike-share) docks increase congestion in neighboring locations, perhaps as they lead drivers to find alternative routes to avoid bicycle traffic.” (Cars avoiding bikes?) Conclusion No. 3: “Further research is necessary.”
• “The Comeback,” a new book by Daniel de Vise, uses Greg LeMond’s 1989 victory in the Tour de France — by eight seconds, the tightest in race history — to detail the arch of LeMond’s life, from his unprecedented assent in cycling, to the sanctuary he and his family found in Minnesota, to his battles with Lance Armstrong, to his ultimate emergence as a revered, truth-telling icon of the sport.
The book’s detail is enormous, not least this fact about LeMond’s final come-from-behind ride through Paris to win by a whisker that day: He averaged 33.5 miles per hour. It was at that time the fastest time trial in the race’s 86-year history.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His column appears the second Friday of the month. Reach him at mplsbikeguy.com.