What do Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Houston have in common?  Answer: They’ve each invested heavily in a network of urban trails, and seen a payoff in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Can San Diego follow their lead?  Circulate San Diego – the new organization created from the merger of WalkSanDiego and Move San Diego – is betting that we can.

More than a simple multi-use pathway, an urban trail borrows space from the street to create a bike/ped and storm water collection system that beautifies, calms traffic, , and serves everyone from cyclists to wheelchair users.  Planners have long observed that streets dominated by cars are often underutilized public space.  Many streets have excess pavement that can be repurposed, and this is the best idea we’ve seen to make use of it.  It’s worth understanding first what other cities are doing.  Let’s look at just three examples.

Indianapolis Cultural Trail

Although limited to downtown, Indianapolis has created the most exciting Urban Trail network so far.  The 8-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail connects museums and City Hall, sports venues, hotels, and nearby neighborhoods, and links to recreational trails outside the urban core.  Its use of materials, public art, landscaping, signage, historic markers, and branding set it apart.   The trail was developed by taking existing right-of-way from streets with excess capacity.  The cost was $63 million, $27 million of which was donated by private sources, and the private sector has responded with over $200 million dollars in trailside redevelopment.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is an instant icon.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is an instant icon.

Atlanta BeltLine

The BeltLine aims lower aesthetically than Indianapolis, but  is far more ambitious in its reach.  When completed in 2030, it will include 33 miles of multiuse trails converted from abandoned rail lines, and 22 miles of light rail service.  Access to parks is a major emphasis.  Although not complete, the trail has already attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in redevelopment.

The Atlanta Beltway is the most ambitious urban trail system in the U.S.

The Atlanta Beltway is the most ambitious urban trail system in the U.S.

Memphis Hampline

You may recall the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park vs. Volpe, which saved Memphis’ 340 acre Overton Park from highway construction.  The Hampline, now under construction, is a 2-mile protected pedestrian/bicycle cycle track right through the heart of Memphis that will connect the Overton Park Trail with the popular Shelby Farms Greenline trail.  Three non-profits raised the $4.5 million funding, and intend the Hampline to set a new U.S. standard for beauty, utility, and safety.  (They have long way to go to top Indianapolis.)

Memphis' Hempline, while only 2 miles, aims to set a new design standard.

Memphis’ Hempline, while only 2 miles, aims to set a new design standard.









Urban Trail Application to San Diego

San Diego boasts a number of off-road multi-use trails, either completed or in the works, including the Bay Shore Bikeway, the Inland Rail Trail, and the San Diego River Trail.  The Urban Trail concept fills a slightly different need, providing a safe and fun experience for short as well as longer trips, and serves a greater variety of users.  Circulate San Diego’s Urban Trails Committee is pursuing several relevant projects or ideas:

Downtown Complete Streets Mobility Plan

Civic San Diego is in the midst of developing an innovative Complete Streets plan.  Circulate is advocating for an Urban Trail system that would extend like the spokes of a wheel emanating  from Downtown and connecting to adjacent neighborhoods and beyond.  The Downtown portion would serve as a prominent spine, and receive the highest design treatment possible.  Innovative private developments with high level pedestrian/bike design treatments, such as that planned for the IDEA District in East Village, could connect directly to the Urban Trail. 

Extending from Downtown, the trail could be built less expensively, and upgraded over time once it is fully embraced by each community it serves.

Bay to Bay (Trail) Link

The Bay to Bay Link was a proposed canal mentioned in the City of San Diego’s 1926 General Plan.  It would link San Diego Bay with Mission Bay via the San Diego River.  The idea was championed in the 1990’s by then-San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, but it died when financial troubles hit, and faced enormous environmental hurdles.  In 2011, developer Gary Levitt (Sea Breeze Properties), a Circulate San Diego board member, suggested reviving the Bay to Bay Link as a multi-use trail rather than a waterway.  As luck would have it, the Midway/Pacific Highway neighborhood is undergoing a community plan update, which includes linear parks along busy roadways – an idea compatible with the urban trail concept.

Other Neighborhoods

While the concept can and should be pursued in any of our urban settings, we’re focused on those connecting to Downtown for now.  A key segment in the pipeline is SANDAG’s Uptown Bike Corridor, designed to provide “low-stress” bikeways from Downtown through Hillcrest to Mission Valley, as well as east-west from Mission Hills all the way to La Mesa.  Both projects include pedestrian enhancements and traffic calming.

In North Park, a linear parkway is imagined along either Oregon or Idaho Street, connecting three schools with neighborhood parks.  Southeastern San Diego’s draft community plan update includes cycle tracks and pedestrian amenities along Market Street, a corridor that’s long needed a facelift and has ample space for creative treatments.

Looking northward, Pacific Beach is the newest hotbed of urban innovation.  The non-profit Beautiful PB and its PB Eco-District initiative are grassroots planning initiatives that include proposals for urban trail-like street redesigns.

Preventing Death by Planning

An important aspect of our Urban Trail concept is implementing it as quickly as practicable, without multiple studies, detailed traffic analysis, lengthy environmental reviews, and waiting years for funding to accumulate.  Rather, we envision a Tactical Urbanism-style process like that in New York City, San Francisco and elsewhere, in which portions of streets were repurposed as pedestrian plazas, protected bike lanes, or public art installations.

Copenhagen streets like this one are transformed over a weekend, avoiding business losses.

Copenhagen streets like this one are transformed over a weekend, avoiding business losses.











Borrowing from Copenhagen’s approach, in New York, streets were identified with the help of community groups and user interests, and then paint and temporary materials were installed virtually overnight.  The idea was to minimize construction disruption and learn from the installation.  The City pledged to return the street to its original form if the project failed to produce the desired results or generated unacceptable unintended consequences.  Over time, permanent materials were installed.

As New York learned, street users are highly adaptable (diverted traffic and/or parking was only a minor problem), and the projects were quickly embraced by the community. Recent and continuing CEQA reforms (AB 2245, AB 417, SB 743) hold promise of reduce lengthy environmental reviews.

New York's successful Tactical Urbanism approach transformed Times Square.

New York’s successful Tactical Urbanism approach transformed Times Square.












Lessons from Urban Trail Projects

 By studying examples elsewhere, we’ve learned that:

  • Urban trails can be transformative for the neighborhood economy and induce couch potatoes to become active, at a huge savings to everyone.
  • Urban trail networks are not accomplished overnight and need firm, steady leadership that must be handed off as elected office-holders turn over.
  • Mayoral leadership is particularly critical.
  • There is no silver bullet for funding; multiple sources must be tapped.  But the payoff is huge, so money tends to appear when the Return on Investment becomes apparent.
  • Finally, there must be a willingness to take space away from motor vehicles, but that too is becoming less radical over time.  (A recommended best practice for measuring the value of street space for different uses is New York’s 2012 publication, Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets.)

If you care to join our effort to transform San Diego by implementing an urban trail network, please contact me at andy.hamilton@sdcounty.ca.gov.