There's a group based out of D.C. called the Rails to Trails Conservancy. They work on converting old rail lines to trails across the country, and also help to maintain those trails and raise interest in their use and protection.
Here in the Pittsburgh area, we're blessed with an abundance of these type of trails - Montour, Panhandle, and Three Rivers Heritage just to name a few. The Heritage trail (left) is used as a commuting route for many people. I run on that trail at least twice a week and have done so for over a year now. Mark uses the Panhandle frequently, and we both have used the Montour before. I even had my first half marathon there. Those are just three that are within the metro area. Go out a little further and they are everywhere.
Which makes it even more ironic that recently, it was Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania who proposed an amendment to the Preserving America's Transit and Highways Act that would eliminate funding for the Transit Alternatives Program (TAP). TAP is the largest dedicated funding source for walking and biking infrastructure, and it would seriously jeopardize the trail system in this country that many rely on for recreation and fitness.
Thankfully, the Rails to Trails Conservancy rallied ordinary citizens as well as civic groups in PA to lobby the senator to withdraw his amendment. And he did. TAP funding is safe - for now.
This is yet another example that community activism and calling your representatives can work. (I wish I would have known about this before he withdrew the amendment or I would have added it to my list of letters to write this year!) I'd venture to guess as a Pennsylvanian, he's probably been on a converted rail trail before, for one thing or another. Many races and community events are tied to the trails - there are too few parks in the city to accommodate them and the trails help to do that.
These trails are really important, especially in a city center like ours where there wouldn't be many places to run, walk and bike outside of traffic. While we do often mix up our routes with combinations of trails and city on the weekends, it's nice to have dedicated places to go where no matter what's going on traffic-wise, you can just GO. It encourages people to walk, run and bike when they know they can do it safely.
And while any scenery gets boring when you're running 16 miles, our trails are quite lovely, too. Not a lot of areas of the country where you can mix city scapes, riverfronts and forested areas. The trails conserve and expose people to nature, as well, serving as an oasis from the urban sprawl.
To find rails to trails near you, visit Trail Link, a service of the Rails to Trails Conservancy. It's also a handy tool if you're on vacation or camping and need to find a place to fit that run in! But if you live in Pittsburgh and haven't made use of the trails, do it. Start with the riverfront near the stadiums and you'll get hooked on the view. (And if you see a short brunette huffing and puffing by you in the early morning, that's me. Say hi and offer me water. :) )
Photos from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and Panhandle Trail in Pittsburgh and the W&OD Trail in Virginia.