Perils for Pedestrians

TV talk about people who walk

Transportation Right-of-Way Use by Pedestrians

Transportation Right-Of-Ways

Because they have to connect places, transportation right-of-ways are long and continuous. This is true whether you are moving cars, trains, boats, natural gas, electricity, or pedestrians.

Since pedestrians need the same sort of long, continuous right-of-way that other transportation modes use, there can be opportunities for pedestrians to share the right-of-way (ROW) by including a paved trail.

Doubling up use on an existing ROW is usually easier and cheaper than creating a new pedestrian ROW from scratch, and therefore can be a wise use of scarce resources when pedestrian funding is limited.

There are many examples where pedestrians use ROWs created for other purposes.

  • Roads. Local streets commonly include sidewalks for pedestrians so they can share the ROW. However, trails can also be built along Interstate Highways.

    Martha Custis Trail.The Martha Custis Trail shares a ROW with Interstate 66 in Arlington, Virginia. The same things that make I-66 nice for through automobile traffic - no intersections or driveways - are also nice features for bicyclists and pedestrians going beyond their local neighborhood.

    Gallery of Interstate Highway Trails

  • Rivers. Riverbanks are frequently reserved for parkland because they are subject to flooding. They often have flat areas suitable for trails running parallel to the river.

    Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
    A trail in the Tom McCall Waterfront Park follows the west side of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. A second trail runs along the east side of the river, connected by sidewalks on the bridges.

  • Towpath Canals. The towpath canal era lasted from the 1820s to 1840s, with thousands of miles of canals built in the United States. The towpaths can easily handle pedestrians instead of mules.

    Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath.Historic mule towed barge on the C & O Canal.

    The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal runs 184 miles along the Potomac River from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD. The old canal towns benefit from the tourism dollars spent by long-distance hikers and bicyclists using the towpath.

  • Irrigation Canals. In many parts of the country, irrigation canals are part of the landscape. The service road on the berm along the canal can also serve as a trail.

    Las Cruces irregation canal trail.

    Mesilla, New Mexico, and Las Cruces have many irrigation canals. If the service roads were all made available for trails, pedestrian access to green spaces would be dramatically improved.

  • Levees. The thousands of miles of earthen levees in the United States are ideal for trails. They provide a flat route with no intersections or driveways.

    Big Papio Creek levee trail. A concrete trail sits atop the Big Papio Creek levee in Nebraska. A paved trail on the levee provides all-weather access for maintenance vehicles, and provides some hardening of the levee in case of minor overtopping during major floods.

    Gallery of Levee Trails

  • Abandoned railroads. Over 20,000 miles of abandoned railroads have been converted to trails in the U.S. With no steep grades or sharp turns, they are great for pedestrians and bicyclists.

    Capital Crescent Trail.
    The Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Maryland was originally a B&O Railroad branch line. The CCT gets heavy recreational use from the surrounding neighborhoods, but also serves bicyclists commuting into Washington, DC.

  • Rails With Trails. There are over 1,400 miles of trails sharing the ROW with active rail lines in the U.S. A good trail provides an attractive and safe alternative to walking on the ballast and ties of the tracks, which is where people often walk when there is no trail available.

    Burnham Trail. The Burnham Rail-With-Trail forms part of the trail network in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Bicyclists, pedestrians, and trains share a green corridor through the urban area.

    Gallery of Rail Trails.

  • Transit Lines. Dedicated ROWs for buses and trams are usually routed to connect numerous destinations along a corridor. In addition to neighborhood access, trails in transit ROWs can improve access to the transit stops.

    Transit Line Trail
    Bicyclists and pedestrians use the sidewalks along a light rail line in Barcelona. The grass clearly distinguishes the pedestrian area from the track area.

  • Pipelines. Water, sewage, natural gas, petroleum, and other liquids and gases travel in pipelines that criss-cross the continent. With the pipeline buried, the surface is available for a trail.

    Swamp Rabbit Trail.
    The Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, South Carolina, runs parallel to a large pipeline. The trail and the pipeline share a bridge over the Reedy River.

    Gallery of Pipeline ROW Trails.

  • Power lines. High-tension power lines often have wide ROWs that have been cleared of trees. A wide clear-cut area gives trail builders a great deal of flexibility to design around natural and man-made obstructions in the ROW.

    Washington & Old Dominion Trail.The Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Falls Church, Virginia, runs close enough to touch the pylons holding the power lines. Since the power lines are high in the air, the surface is available for a trail.

    Springwater Corridor Trail.

    The Springwater Corridor Trail shares a ROW with both a rail line and a power line in Portland, Oregon. In 1903 the Olmsted Brothers produced a park plan for Portland that included scenic boulevards and trails. The proposed trail system has grown with the city, and now uses many types of ROWs to create a network.

    Gallery of Power Line ROW Trails.

Almost every ROW either runs between population centers or leads to a population center. And they go past many communities and places of interest. That makes them natural transportation routes for pedestrians, connecting people to destinations.

Some ROWs are flat, like canals, levees, and railroads. Others, like power lines, go up and down hills rather than around them. But even power line ROWs have relatively few stretches where insurmountable cliffs block any possibility for trail use. If part of a ROW is not suitable for trails, you just don't use that part.

Some ROWs are shady or could be shady with a bit of tree planting. Levees and power lines have few trees, so trails will be in full sun. However, the ROW probably goes close to community parks or other places suitable for shady rest stops with benches or picnic tables.

Some ROWs are not owned by the company, but are just an easement limited to one use. The need for additional land rights adds difficulty and expense to putting trails along those routes. However, if it goes someplace pedestrians want to go, and there are no convenient alternatives, it might still be easier to acquire additional rights for the existing corridor than to create an entirely new ROW from scratch.

picnic tables

A small neighborhood park provides a shady spot to rest and eat next to a pipeline ROW trail in Olney, Maryland.

There are some areas of concern when putting trails in a ROW.

  • Liability. Will the owner get sued if someone gets hurt on the trail? Every state has a Recreational Use Statute that protects land owners who allow free recreational use of their land.

  • Property Damage. Who will pay if a trail user damages something? The people who do the damage should be held accountable, but in case they are not caught, contracts can be written to provide for insurance, either through a paid policy or by the jurisdiction taking responsibility and self-insuring.

  • Illicit Activity. Will the trail attract illicit activity? The ROW without a trail is the sort of deserted place that attracts vandals, vagrants, drug addicts, dumping, and teenagers hanging out to smoke and drink. Building a trail will bring more people into a place, which has been shown to drive illicit activity away from the place.

  • Sabotage. Will terrorists use the trail to blow stuff up? Every pipeline and utility is already accessible and vulnerable every place it crosses a highway, where anyone could stop on the shoulder with a full truckload of explosives. However, the usual danger to pipelines is from careless people with shovels and backhoes. A paved trail over a pipeline will protect the pipeline from wayward posthole diggers.

  • Private Property. Aren't these ROWs private property? While transportation and utility corridors are private property, they have different origins than a typical real estate lot. It takes special powers of condemnation to create a continuous corridor across hundreds of miles. The public has not asked for much back in return for granting these special powers. Maybe the public should start getting something back.

How does a trail benefit a utility company?

  • Paved trails give utilities a free access road for their maintenance trucks.

  • Trail users act like a volunteer security patrol, discouraging illicit activity like vandalism just by their presence.

  • With laws and agreements shielding the utilities from any liability and costs for the trails, there is virtually no down side.

  • "In our 35 years of planning, designing and constructing trails, we have always found the utility companies around here to understand that the trail users constitute unpaid "eyes and ears" to deter vandalism. Further when we design trails we often facilitate their use by the utility companies for maintenance of their lines. With a good trail, restored or replacement bridges and the like, the companies realize their cooperation will save them money." Bob Thomas, Campbell Thomas & Co., Philadelphia PA

With trails providing mutual benefits to both the public and the utility companies, why do some utility companies embrace trails, while other utility companies with identical ROWs oppose them?

Simply put, the main obstacle to building trails along power lines is the attitude of the utility company. See A Simple Request for a Trail for one example.

If the utility company sees the public as friends and neighbors, and it wants its ROW to be a positive amenity for the surrounding community, it will find a way to allow trails to be built. It will take full advantage of its state's Recreational Use Statute. It will reach out to local governments looking for opportunities to build trails along the ROWs, and actively negotiate agreements that protect and benefit all sides. Trail inclusion becomes the default condition, instead of being the rare exception.

If the utility company sees the public as a threat, or it just doesn't care about the surrounding community, it will find an endless list of objections to building any trail. Opportunities will be squandered. Sadly, its ROWs will be as attractive as living next to a state prison, with nothing but No Trespassing signs to greet you.

Opportunities For The Future

Right-Of-Ways are precious resources for society. They are difficult to assemble, involving substantial expense, disruption, and condemnation through eminent domain. So it only makes sense to get the most out of the ones we have. Fortunately, paved trails for pedestrians are compatible with ROWs for other uses. Where trails have been built, they have provided valuable transportation and recreation opportunities for local residents and visitors alike. The existing examples can inspire more trails to be built in the future, so that the pedestrian network becomes as extensive as the entire transportation and utility network.