Mapping Rail Trails with GIS

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As the need for sustainable transportation in communities increases, so does the demand for non-motorized multi-use pathways. A product of this is the rail trail, or the conversion of an unused railway into a paved multi-use path. Rail trails are typically designed for walkers, runners, bicyclists, and sometimes horse riders.

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, rail trails began appearing in the Midwest in the 1960s. As the consolidation of the rail industry began to take place, tracks of excess rail corridors were removed.  Soon, people on foot began to naturally use the open trails for both transportation and recreation. Locals began calling the corridors ‘rail-to-trails’ and as the name spread, so did the concept. Slowly, the idea grew nationally and even seeped into the budding environmental movement.

Today, there are approximately 15,000 miles of rail trails in the US that receive over 100 million visitors per year. Not only can a rail trail be found in every state, but many communities even have multiple rail trails. Consequentially, there is a pressing need for an up-to-date public geographic database of rail trails.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne rail trail in Gainesville, Florida is a 16 mile long multi-use trail. Credit: Florida State Parks.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne rail trail in Gainesville, Florida is a 16 mile long multi-use trail. Credit: Florida State Parks.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is one of the most prevalent rail trail supporters in the US. They help communities plan and build rail trails, market rail trails, and actively maintain a geodatabase of all rail trails. When the non-profit began in 1986, there were less than 200 rail trails. Today, the organization has contributed to building and documenting over 1,600 trails.

RTC utilizes both GIS and GPS to gather trail information. RTC takes GPS units on the trail site to document both the location of the trail and features along the trail, such as restrooms, parking lots, and drinking fountains. Recorded data is then overlaid with aerial photography to check for accuracy, and afterward saved to a public-accessible geodatabase.

 

Attributes on a RTC map. Credit:

Attributes on a RTC map. Credit: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Rail trail information is available for free on TrailLink.com. TrailLink, sponsored by RTC, is a website that allows users to search for trails close to their location, organize a hiking travel itinerary, and review trails. TrailLink users can also rate trails, submit photos, and even add new trails.

In 2010, RTC teamed with Google to become an official content provider: the organization donated its complete trail database to Google Maps. Additionally, Google also utilizes RTC’s multi-use trails database in their biking directions tool.

 

Google Maps displays the Bizz Johnson Trail in Susanville, CA. The 30 mile Bizz Johnson Trail was voted the best rail trail in the USA by Travel and Leisure magazine.

Google Maps displays the Bizz Johnson Trail in Susanville, CA. The 30 mile Bizz Johnson Trail was voted the best rail trail in the USA by Travel and Leisure magazine.

Although RTC has an extensive rail trail geodatabase, they do not have a complete database of every multi-use trail in the US. This data collection will be their next large endeavor.   Though RTC one day hopes to map every trail in the US, this project is specifically focusing on trails within urban areas. Those interested in contributing can submit a new trail with GPS data or draw a trail using TrailLink’s interactive mapping tool. Any other undocumented trails are welcome as well. Users can visit TrailLink here to submit a trail.


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