Book Review of From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network

by Peter Harnik

This book covers the political, cultural, transportation, design, and land-use issues that have shaped the rail-trail movement.

by Jim Schmid

I’ve read thousands of trail books and publications over my forty-year career of developing and enjoying trails. The majority of these publications fall into four categories: trail guides, trail memoir/adventure narratives, trail construction, maintenance how-tos, and trail studies. During the last few years, we’ve seen an added category—books exploring the history of what many call the “nature of trails” or the “trails movement.” They expand our trail knowledge to this fifth category—delving into the history of where trails and organizations began, how they began, and where they, as well as us, are heading.

Peter Harnik, a longtime environmental activist and avid bicyclist joins this last category with his new book that covers the political, cultural, transportation, design, and land-use issues that have shaped the rail-trail movement. Harnik with David Burwell established the Rails to Trails Conservancy in 1986. He left in 1995 to become director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land. Now retired, Harnik has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.

I may have missed it but I didn’t find a definition of “Active Transportation” in Harnik’s book. He may assume that folks who pick up his book would be familiar with the term. I found an article on the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s website that discusses using the term “active transportation” as a more positive way of referring to walking and bicycling on trails instead of the term “non-motorized activities.” It will be interesting to see if the agencies that manage backcountry trails pick up on this term or if it remains in use to describe activities on urban trails.


You can’t have a rail-trail if you don’t have an old railroad line.

—PETER HARNIK, From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network, 2021

While reading Harnik’s book I discovered the AMC 2011 to 2016 television series “Hell on Wheels” which combines fact with fiction in the telling of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad after the Civil War. When you think of the early days of railroading you think of the so-called “railroad barons” that ran roughshod over the economy and politics to get their rail lines built. Colm Meaney plays a fictionalized version of Thomas Clark Durant who was vice-president of the Union Pacific Railroad when it met with the Central Pacific railroad at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory on May 10, 1869. Each company received 12,800 acres of land and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track built. In one scene Durant fires his head engineer for surveying a straight line. Durant wanted the track to curve as much as possible to lengthen the line hence making more money. I love this because many of my bike-riding friends can’t understand my fascination with biking on rail trails. They think of them as long, flat, straight, and boring. I’ve told them that I’ve ridden many a curvy rail trail and the best part is not having to share the trail with vehicle traffic. I’ve always thought that the curvy rail trails were that way because they were following the terrain now I wonder if a “railroad baron” wasn’t out to make a little extra money.

The history of railroading is followed by a history of bicycling in the U.S. and how bicyclists have been at the forefront of the conversion of many abandoned railbeds to trails. Going all the way back to the 1890s, bicyclists were the first people talking about paving roads and making decent sidepaths for people to bicycle. They were pushed aside by the automobile for a century and today they feel like, if they don’t save these railroad corridors, there’s really nothing left for them to ride on.

I got a kick out of his putting 1980s bike riders in one of two camps—the Macho Militants or the New Agers. Seems Harnik had a run-in with the head Macho Militant John Forester the author of Effective Cycling and a proponent of “Vehicular Style Cycling.” Forester wanted riders to learn to cycle with vehicle traffic and the New Agers wanted separate lanes or paths away from vehicles. While living in Columbia, SC in 1981 and shopping for my first new bicycle I saw a poster for an upcoming Effective Cycling class taught by a professor at the University of South Carolina. I took the eight-weekend course and ended up becoming an Effective Cycling instructor myself. During the next ten years, I taught many courses, workshops, and seminars. I called my classes “Bicycle Touring.” I wanted folks to be comfortable enough cycling with traffic that they could bicycle tour. I became a life member of Bikecentennial and American Youth Hostels and led many tours. I even served on the board of the League of American Wheelmen from 1983 to 86. Forester was on the board at the same time. When I started my board term Effective Cycling was a program of the League. During this time Forester left the board and took Effective Cycling with him and started his own Effective Cycling Association. I never saw him again. Today the League offers a bicycle skills program called Smart Cycling.

Harnik tells many stories about the local efforts to build coalitions and obtain funding to convert abandoned tracks into trails for bicyclists, walkers, equestrians, and more. Many of the rail trails Harnik highlights are now in the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame. I learned of the Hall of Fame soon after my retirement in 2014 and have had the pleasure of biking all of them and even walking the High Line. Was fun to learn the backstory and the people involved in such trails as the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle, WA; the Elroy-Sparta in WI; the 240-mile Katy Trail State Park in MO; the W&OD Trail in VA; and the High Line in NY.

I like Harnik’s quote “You can’t have a rail trail if you don’t have an old railroad line.” Harnik spends the front portion of his book on the 200-year history of U.S. rail development and the subsequent abandonment of thousands of miles of track. At its peak in 1916, the railroad network was about 254,000 miles. In 2020 about 137,00 miles were still in use. The 60,000 miles abandoned before 1970 were absorbed into the landscape and lost forever. Today about 23,000 miles are trails or being converted to trails. Harnik states this leaves about 34,000 miles unaccounted for. He encourages the next generation of rail-trail advocates to concentrate on finding these miles and developing them into trails.

From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network
By Peter Harnik
2021, University of Nebraska Press
288 pages, $19.95
ISBN 9781496222060

Purchase this book.

About the Author

During his career Jim Schmid served as South Carolina’s first State Trails Coordinator as well as working for the US Forest Service as a Trails Manager in AZ, ID, and FL and also had the pleasure of managing the Florida National Scenic Trail. Jim is a collector at heart. Check out his collection of trail quotes, terms, acronyms, sayings and more at In addition to updating his website and writing book reviews for American Trails Jim enjoys traveling around the country riding rail-trails and mtn bike trails.

Contact: [email protected]

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