With the Belmont Community path route recently approved by the town and the Somerville Community Path re-added to the GLX after bids came in under expected cost, it’s worth looking at the value of rail-replacement bike trails in the metro region, and where future capital investment should be directed.
First, a note about ridership. The Minuteman Community path, which offers the fastest route from a town of 42,000 to a subway station, with the competing transit consisting of mixed-traffic buses, gets about 1,500 cyclists per day, by town estimates. This is not a good mode share- the 77 bus, which runs in the same corridor, gets 3,600 riders without any form of bus priority. While rail trails are thus unlikely to serve as high-capacity transportation corridors, they can still play a role, due to the most improtant fact about their design- they’re really cheap.
The section of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail running through West Concord costs 2.9m/mi, and the section of the Assabet River trail from Maynard to South Acton is similar. These two projects illustrate the most valuable role for rail trails in Greater Boston- connecting suburban development to commuter rail stations. In this role, they cost-effectively increase the walk and bikeshed of rail stations, and build support for better non-car transportation infrastructure in places where the vast majority of trips are made by car.
To give an example of good design, take the Assabet River rail trail. Despite running through an area without any fixed route bus service, the trail connects South Acton, the most popular station on the Fitchburg Line, to Maynard Center a pre-war center with significantly greater commercial and residential density than any surrounding town. The Bruce Freeman Phase 2C, which bisects the West Concord station, serves a similar purpose, although the density around the trail peaks concurrent with the station. By doing so, the trail no longer has to provide a faster end to end travel time than its competition (overwhelmingly cars), only a cheaper way to “park” at the station. While a trail from suburb to suburb is unlikely to attract nontrivial usage, suburb->CR station connections give bike commuting a cost and speed advantage, by allowing commuters to skip paying for limited station parking. The aforementioned phases of the Assabet River and Bruce Freeman trail cannot be expected to get great utilization, but their low costs and contribution to transit ridership mean that they provide value.
On the other side of the ledger, the Bruce Freeman Phase 1 through Westford and Chelmsford fails to connect to commuter rail, and thus sustains trivial ridership. While the section finds some use as a means of recreation, suburb to suburb trips will always be faster by car than by bike, and car ownership in the relevant communities is near 100%. In a similar vein, the Mass Central trail through Wayland, Sudbury and Hudson promises miles of trail with no multimodal connections, with the only nearby rail transit coming from the Kendall Green station in Weston. However, the station is skipped by several Fitchburg trains, and the station is nearly five miles from Wayland Center, the first area past Weston on the trail with nontrivial commercial density. Thus, the state should de-prioritize the Mass Central trail, for lack of a plausible ridership generator. On the other side, MassDOT should immediately construct the final phase of the Bruce Freeman trail in Framingham, which links dense (for suburbs) residential, plus Framingham State University, to the Worcester Line. The Swampscott rail trail, which links pre-auto North Shore residential to Swampscott station, should be prioritized for similar reasons.
In sum, the value of rail trails comes from acting as a low-cost way to boost commuter rail ridership, and future funding decisions should focus on the presence of strong multimodal connections.