Making the Connection: A Million Americans Work Together To Create a Joyful Inter-Urban Transit System

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Conventional Notions of Vacation  

One might be well-advised to think twice about going on vacation. Second thoughts are justified not because it is unwise to plan a period away from work: the expectation that one might benefit from a period of respite from one’s job is usually sensible. The problem rather emerges when we are confronted with the reality that our vacation has fallen short of providing the respite which we anticipated.

There are many reasons why vacation may leave one feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps the problem relates to the tendency to conflate vacation with a felt need to travel. The idea that one might benefit from being surrounded by a culture or ecosystem different from the one to which one is accustomed is easy to appreciate: most people can attest to the experience of positive emotions – such as a sense of awe and wonder upon being exposed to natural vistas or a novel habitat, for example, or to having benefitted from learning of a foreign culture’s approach to a social or existential problem. The problem with vacation experience, then, resides not in the idea that a respite from work would be beneficial, nor in the tendency to conflate the wish for respite with a desire to travel.

The problem with conventional notions of vacation rather resides in the fact that they typically involve conveyance to a place where one hopes to have positive experiences (a “vacation destination”), and that such conveyance typically entails travel by car or plane. Such travel often requires days, or even several days, at a time.  Insofar as the costs of travel typically involve an outlay of significant quantities of money as well as time, travel can sometimes feel not only counter-productive but downright absurd: The car and plane travel required to reach one’s destination typically entails exposure to stress for a significant portion of the period set aside for the purpose of achieving respite from stress. Such an understanding probably understates the problem, insofar as it doesn’t account for experiences that are not only unpleasant but downright distressing – e.g., significant traffic delays, setbacks, and the variety of logistical problems and stresses that often accompany travel by car or plane.

Other Immeasurably High Costs

Yet the expectation of enduring a finite period of costly unpleasantness as a means of getting to a more positive place is perhaps the least problematic aspect of our conventional notion of vacation.

A more serious problem resides in the notion’s insouciance: travel by car and plane typically entails an attitude of indifference to the catastrophe of climate change. The prospect of participating in and contributing to an avoidable catastrophic event poses a serious problem if the potential traveler is interested in experiencing  herself as a responsible and ethical person. The car or plane traveler may feel guilty for participating in systems that are destroying the planet, or the traveler may avoid such feelings by pretending that the behavior is not destructive. If the latter approach is taken, the fact that such travel is “normal” can be used to support the pretense. The two approaches are often adopted together, such that feelings of guilt are typically mitigated by avoidance.  Either way, there is no getting around the fact that conventional notions of vacation travel imply exposure to a significant degree of unhealthfulness for oneself and everyone else.

While one might still decide that it is reasonable to pay such costs, the fact remains that going on and getting to vacation generally implies exposure to a prolonged period of negative mental states.

Must vacation travel inevitably entail costs to our mental health and biosphere?

In the Beginning there was Only a Simple Idea

A million Americans are hard at work creating structures that will help move us to a healthier paradigm. These visionaries imagine a holiday that begins the moment one steps out the front door. They look forward to vacations that are as uncomplicated and enjoyable as hopping on a bike. Such vacations take the traveller through bustling cities, sleepy suburbs, tranquil farmland, and across pristine lakes, forests and mountains. Riders might stop along the way at natural vistas, or culturally or historically important landmarks. The traveler might decide to take a swim or skate at a pond or lake on the way. At day’s end the traveler eats, drinks, and sleeps at a trailside inn that caters to those who, like the vacationer, see time spent traveling to ones’ destination not as something to be endured, but as something to be enjoyed.

While the joy that would be expected to accompany such a trip may sound compelling, the vision is perhaps most remarkable for what it excludes: hours spent in traffic or airports, exposure to  – and sometimes competition with – anxious crowds rushing through airport and highway mazes, and collusion with systems that undermine one’s health as well as that of the planet at-large. In short, the vision does away with long days spent contending with frustrating, dysfunctional and destructive systems.

Birth of a Movement

While the above-described vision has roots that are about 60 years old, much of the infrastructure upon which the vision is based was constructed more than a century ago. The vision is largely based on re-purposing infrastructure that remained after this nation abandoned its railroads in the 1960’s and 1970’s. An abundance of empty corridors were left in the wake of the decline of railroads. The potential to convert these corridors into greenways – paths that could be used for non-motorized transport such as bicycling – was quickly recognized by individuals and small groups across the country. According to Peter Harnik, a leading visionary and co-architect of the vision who authored a  history of the movement (The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network, University of Nebraska Press, 2021), bicyclists provided “muscle” for early efforts to convert rail corridors to paths for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles. According to Harnik, these “simple ideas…snuck through like magic.”

Although many people loved the idea of transforming rail corridors into greenways, the movement that developed was initially unsuccessful in creating any paths. Harnik points out that almost none of the first trails succeeded.

If a network of greenways was to be created, and if the network was to use abandoned railroad corridors for many of these greenways, it made sense to study the creation of the corridors upon which railroads were built. Harnik began by immersing himself in the study of railroad history.

1976 was key year in the history of the movement. A Senate Commerce Committee staff member named Tom Allison, posed a simple question: Why not have a program that finds all the railroad corridors in the country to determine which one might be good as trails?  Congressman Phil Burton from California created a trail banking statute that enabled abandoned rail lines to be preserved for future and used as trails in the interim. The pilot program that came out of this question led to the construction of nine paths.

These nine paths that were created were successful and highly influential. Successful ventures in places like Wisconsin and Missouri showed not only that the vision could be realized – i.e.,  that non-motorized transit arteries could be well-used – but that non-motorized paths could also become economic engines for the communities that hosted them.

Cracking the Code: A Model that Works

Harnik and his fellow visionaries learned that victory came from what they called the “Rails to Trails triangle”. Successful development of non-motorized transit paths required:

Rails to Trails triangle

Over the past 60 years, rail-trails have evolved from a simple idea to a national movement. Greenways are now “an irrevocable place in the American landscape”. Most American cities now boast infrastructure specifically designed to carry non-motorized transport, and it is now possible to travel through many regions of the country by way of seamless connections between local and state-wide non-motorized paths.


The movement has recently grown exponentially. Much of this growth is attributable to the fact that paths have consistently demonstrated their capacity to drive economic growth. Several victories added to the movement’s momentum:

  • Successful path development is cities like Seattle showed that a non-motorized transit artery could be created in an urban area. Cities such as New York, Boston and Cambridge, Washington DC, and Portland Oregon now feature extensive infrastructure that is specifically intended to facilitate travel by bicycle.
  • The High Line in NYC, a massive aesthetic and economic success, engendered a new way of thinking about transit: The High Line demonstrated that the paths themselves could be become beautiful and inspiring destinations. It showed that the experience of travel could involve being in a place rather than just moving through space.

The Future of Joyful Transit: Connecting the Country with An Interstate Greenway System

Ideological strife and other forms of destructive divisiveness that have beset the United States have not impeded construction of joyful infrastructure. A project called “The Great American Rail Trail” embodies the hope that Americans can work together towards a common goal. The infrastructure is 52% complete as of this writing. One million people are working together to create a path to connect 145 paths that already exist.

The Favorite Trail

To enshrine one’s destination as the goal of one’s efforts is to privilege the future over the present. This tendency tends to degrade the quality of experience, insofar as it reduces experience to a means by which a desired end is to be achieved. Joyful transit effaces this distinction by facilitating holidays that begin the moment one steps outside one’s door.

Other hindrances to joyful transit relate to a culturally conditioned tendency to “consume” experience. Recent developments in the travel industry and internet encourage us to treat potentially wondrous places as consumer goods to be assessed and rated according to one’s preferences, much like a pair of pants, a bottle of soda, or a detergent. We are routinely asked to judge the places we visit under the assumption that such judgments might be useful to other “consumers” of travel experience.

Yet even the most thorough review of the latest travel blogs and websites won’t ensure that we experience joy or other positive mental states during our breaks from work.  There are many reasons why positive experience is unlikely to be delivered by a consumeristic perspective: the tendency to compare attractions necessarily implied by such a perspective is antithetical to the experience of wonder, curiosity, vibrancy, and joy that might otherwise arise.  Harnik captures the essence of this fact when, in a recent interview, he was asked to identify his “favorite trail”:

“I think about this all the time, but the truth is, whenever I’m out on a rail-trail with the breeze blowing through my hair and my legs spinning in an even cadence, that trail becomes my favorite.”

Making the Connection

While the creation of a non-motorized path across the continental United States is an enormous achievement, the aims of the movement are even grander: the path is designed to encourage the rapid replication of regional trail networks across the country. The next MODEL THAT WORKS featured on will focus on an example of such efforts: the creation of a joyful inter-urban transit system in Massachusetts and surrounding states.


Harnik, Peter. From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Movement. University of Nebraska Press. 2021.

Kapp, Amy. “Peter Harnik: The Making of the Rail-Trail Movement”. Rails to Trails. Spring/Summer 2021.

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