Tailoring the Trail to Your Community

Concord Journal
Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Town of Concord has a wonderful opportunity to convert an unused rail corridor into a family-friendly, multi-use trail called the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. Currently there is a debate in town regarding its design. I offer the following advice, but also suggest that the town involve a trail designer to help produce the design that best suits the community’s needs.

To determine what type of trail surface would be best for a community, it is necessary to consider the expected number of trail users, the types of users (i.e. bicyclists, equestrians, in-line skaters, etc.), any additional design considerations, and maintenance needs and costs.  Let me explain further using examples.

The Minuteman Bikeway is a wonderful example of a trail that provides many connections as it passes through the trail communities.  Located in a densely populated area, it permits all non-motorized uses except equestrian, and it was built to encourage non-motorized trip making (as opposed to just recreation).  A soft surface would be inappropriate for this trail because it would eliminate user groups such as in-line skaters and thin-tire cyclists.  Also, because of the high volume of users, a soft surface would be expensive to maintain because it would need more frequent maintenance.

The Massachusetts Central Rail-Trail, as built and maintained by Wachusett Greenways, is an excellent example of a crushed stone trail.  It has been built in a rural setting in the woods in a more sparsely populated area.  It lacks the high user-volume of the Minuteman Bikeway and does not make so many in-town connections.  It has been well built and has no significant design or maintenance problems.  In comparison, the Battle Road Trail in the Minuteman Park is a scenic crushed stone trail that suffers from drainage issues.  I have used it numerous times.  On dry days it is wonderful, but I’ve had difficulty pushing a stroller on this trail after it rains.  Crushed stone surfaces certainly can be wheelchair-accessible, as we have seen on the Massachusetts Central Rail-Trail, but if these trails are not maintained well, then these users will have more difficulty.

In choosing a trail surface, community needs should be considered. What activities do people want to do and what are they not able to do for lack of an appropriate facility?  For example, is there a place where people can safely ride horses or in-line skate?  If there is a desire and need for a certain type of facility, then that will also help determine what type of surface is most suitable.  With the help of a designer, the community can be creative in finding solutions.

The design should also provide for ease of maintenance based on future resources for this function.  Rails-to-Trails Conservancy recently published a maintenance and management report based on 100 rail-trails in the Northeast.  It reviews all the important aspects of developing a management plan including surfaces, design and construction tips for easy maintenance and budgeting information.

Finally, rail-trails offer many benefits to communities.  They are family friendly.  By nature of their design, rail-trails are fairly flat trails, making them easy to use by people of all ages and abilities, from seniors out for a morning stroll, to people exercising before or after work, to parents and children recreating on a trail.  Rail-trails promote healthy lifestyles, economic development in the community, and a higher quality of life. And because rail corridors usually pass through downtown areas, these trails provide needed and beneficial non-motorized connections within communities.

The Bruce Freeman Rail-Trail will be a great asset to Concord residents and visitors.  The trail should be designed to appropriately accommodate the expected numbers and types of users with an eye to easy maintenance.


Betsy Goodrich

Field Representative, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
and Board Member, Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail