A cautionary Nova Scotia rail trail tale

Motorized use of the Nova Scotia Rails to Trails:  A decision they regret

by Theresa Peluso

First there was the vision, started at the 1991 East Coast Bicycle Conference in Cambridge, Maine:  To establish the East Coast Greenway Alliance (ECGA).  Then there was the painstaking work to make it happen, as the ECGA was transformed into a green, non-motorized trail system spanning nearly 3,000 miles (5,000 km) from the Maine-New Brunswick border to Key West, Florida.  This vision included a continuous firm-surfaced, non-motorized route, suitable for walkers, wheelchairs and road bicycles, and has been a great tool in encouraging people of all ages and abilities to stay healthy and active.

So where did Nova Scotia go wrong?  As of 2009, 90 percent of the then-47km-long rail trail in Nova Scotia had been opened up to motorized recreational vehicles, as part of the province’s “shared-use” policy, despite the objections of numerous community groups five years previously, when the project was initiated.

A section of rail trail over an old train bridge at Ingramport where motorized traffic is NOT permitted. (Dennis Jarvis photo, Flickr)

For a summary of what did go wrong, I have summarized numerous concerns explained in Creating Greenway Nova Scotia, Nov. 2009, produced by Nova Scotians Promoting Active Transportation on Community Trails (NSPATCT).

Although recreational machine advocates vaunt the tourist dollars they’ll bring to a community, this report shows that eco-tourists who value active transportation stay more days and spend more per person during their stays than motorized tourists.  People like this would not be attracted to Gorham, New Hampshire, for the reasons explained in this 2017 segment from New Hampshire Public Radio (http://nhpr.org/post/nhs-north-country-atv-tourism-revs-culture-clash#stream/0):

Sandy Lemire has called Gorham home for as long as she can remember. But in the last few years, it seems like the town she grew up in is getting harder to recognize.

“The machines keep getting bigger and bigger,” she said, standing on her front lawn one recent morning. “And the bigger they are, the more noise they make. And if they see somebody — I’m surprised they haven’t done it now, probably because you’ve got a microphone, because usually when someone is out there doing something they—”

Almost on cue, she was interrupted by a loud “vroom.”

“…They gun the engines,” Lemire continued. “To show off.”

…A key trail entrance to Ride the Wilds sits at the edge of Gorham’s main business district. Since 2013, the state and town both made the trails easier to access by allowing ATVs to drive on some of the main roads.

That, Lemire says, changed everything.  “I love it down here. It’s where I was brought up. Now, it’s to the point that my neighbor next door, they’ve gone for the day or the weekend because they can’t stand it,” she says, raising her voice to be heard over the sound of nearby engines. “And I refuse to leave. This is where I am.”

Don’t forget the maintenance costs.  The Halifax Regional Municipality reports at least a 300 to 400 percent increase when ATVs are given trail access.

Then there’s the decrease in use by active transportation aficionados of multi-use trails, which would explain why it’s hard to find examples of conflicting use between motorized and non-motorized users:

An American study, Koontz, C.R. Recreational trail conflict, states that motorised recreational vehicles negatively impact and displace active transportation enthusiasts. The level of displacement motorized vehicles impose in Nova Scotia has been examined by two studies. A study by Janmaat and Vanblarcom (2009) quantified the level of displacement on a proposed trail in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and assessed this to be about 48% of potential users. An earlier study commission by the provincial government (Gardner Pinfold, 1999) interviewed over 500 trail users. This study showed that physically active trail users opposed sharing trails with motorised recreational vehicles and many indicated that they would not use trails open to their use. Some survey respondents gave their reasons as “these vehicles wrecked trails, disturbed the atmosphere of trails, disturbed wildlife, and were dangerous because of their speed”.

From the above-mentioned Greenway analysis:

There are significant safety concerns from mixing motorized traffic with walkers and cyclists and in placing motorized trails in residential areas where they criss-cross roads and driveways. Accidents between people and machines happened several times last year on trails….

Turning 90% of the Rail Trails in particular over to motorized use on the predominantly urban rail trail corridor didn’t solve anything. Instead, it accentuated the problem. It brought the motorized off-highway vehicle use, and the problems associated with it, right into the middle of towns and villages in direct conflict with a significant percentage of the population. And it allowed the Rail Corridor to become the access point, or spine, for a broader network of off road trails into more remote areas. It is one example of how the original intentions to control the problems with OHV’s have instead become tools of the motorized lobby.

And don’t think people who own homes along a motorized trail are happy.

There is also solid evidence that motorized trails and the attendant noise and environmental degradation they entail discourages trail side development and lowers housing values, while there is evidence that Active Transportation trails are highly desirable in residential settings and improve housing values. The noise factor alone from snowmobiles was a deciding factor in the successful class action suit in the Laurentides case in Quebec in 2004  that resulted in neighbours of the P’tit Train du Nord linear park receiving millions of dollars in compensation from the Quebec government. It should be a cautionary tale for any government.

As for controlling the motorized users of this trail, although a mandatory licensing requirement was implemented, a large number of recreational vehicle users still haven’t registered, don’t belong to organized clubs, and do what they like because enforcement is ineffective to non-existent.  Nova Scotians Promoting Active Transportation on Community Trails (NSPATCT) have therefore recommended that the province  “Establish and fund a permanent Integrated Enforcement Task Force of at least 12 additional full-time equivalent positions exclusively dedicated to the enforcement of off-highway vehicle laws and regulations and to the coordination of all off-highway vehicle policing activities involving federal, provincial and municipal enforcement agencies.”  Now what do you think that will cost?

Similar problems to what Nova Scotia has experienced, are also happening in British Columbia, on the other side of our country.

In conclusion, it is well recognized that most thriving communities are that way precisely because they’ve made their spaces more walkable and cyclable.  Deprioritizing cars and other motorized vehicles humanizes our spaces, thereby encouraging more people to socialize, dine, shop and otherwise enrich the community experience.  Furthermore, making motorized travel paramount when designing our communities has led to many needless deaths and injuries to cyclists and pedestrians, and has contributed to the sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle of our North American culture.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.

Can we not learn from our past mistakes, and find a better solution than prioritizing motorized transportation over active transportation?