Growing up in California, my sleepy little suburb had slow streets, bike lanes, and off-street paths that led just about everywhere I wanted to go. But when I grew up and moved into the city, those lanes weren’t there anymore, nor were the slow streets or paths. And there weren’t many bikes.
The number of cyclists in cities has increased a lot since then, but in many US and Australian cities we’re still struggling to put in decent infrastructure. No ingredient of the recipe seems easy to acquire – not the street space, not the political will, not the backing of nearby residents and businesses, not the money. Urban streets are contested and expensive places in which to work. And while streets are critical elements of a full bicycle network, many cities are looking at other, less contested spaces as potential low-hanging fruit. As this blog has shown, most cities have some (or plenty) of abandoned or underused industrial land and urban rail lines – these make for great bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
My PhD research focuses on the potential for urban rail trails to create new kinds of street-like places – not just as transportation corridors but also as public space. I am looking at three cities in the United States – Atlanta, Seattle, and Minneapolis – and how rail trails in those cities are integrated (or not) into the urban fabric of the city.
While rail corridors (whether active or abandoned) are often seen as negative space in a city, with adjacent land uses turning away from the corridor, the implementation of a rail trail can have the reverse effect. As the rail trail becomes a community amenity, business owners, developers, and residents see benefits in turning to face the trail. I will be looking for design and programming solutions that help businesses thrive, allow residents more connections within their communities, and provide sustainable transportation and space for a rich public life.
Along with the benefits of a new community amenity come some familiar risks – gentrification of newly-desirable neighborhoods, increased car traffic and parking issues as the trail becomes a regional draw, and increased pressure and friction in public facilities and places. I will investigate planning and policy strategies that help local governments and organizations stay ahead of these issues and ensure that social and economic equity improves along the trail.
I’ll be doing this first round of fieldwork over the next few months. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, as well as occasional updates here at Cycle Space. I’d love your insights, comments, suggestions, and critique. Come along for the ride!