Trail Development Below Transmission LinesThe world’s urban population is growing. According to the World Health Organization, 54 percent of people lived in urban areas in 2014, up from 34 percent in 1960.

As people flock to cities, they find fewer open spaces to enjoy. This has health experts worried. Studies show people’s brain waves differ when they spend time outdoors rather than within the built environment; people who live near open spaces are typically more physically active.

Often, providing green space is a secondary consideration for city planners focused on such issues as urban sprawl, traffic congestion, pollution, isolated neighborhoods and overburdened infrastructure. While urban citizens want and can benefit from open space, it’s not usually a top priority in municipal budgets. So what’s the solution?

Urban leaders can find one answer in the mostly ignored, carved-out corridors of power transmission line right of ways (ROWs). I explored the issue in a recent story for American Trails.

Opportunities Below the Lines

If land isn’t already claimed for public recreational use, it’s unlikely it will ever be. Urban real estate is just too pricy. While residents place a high value on open spaces in cities, they typically aren’t willing to have a city spend exorbitant amounts to provide them.

A century ago, as cities bought property for parks and public spaces, public power utilities did the same for transmission ROWs. Sometimes these corridors are shared with other infrastructure — railroads, roads, pipelines, underground utilities and waterways. As you can imagine, property ownership issues can be complex. But the opportunity is often worth the time investment.

Transmission line ROWs can provide a shortcut, with expansive spaces already present in built-up areas. Today, dozens of walking and biking trails follow transmission ROWs. With proper guidance, awareness and demonstrated success, hundreds more could follow.

Overcoming Barriers to Successful Trail Projects

The first step for community officials is to determine who owns the property. Sometimes a utility merely leases the land via an easement. When the city owns the ROW, a trail likely has a more favorable chance of succeeding because the city can expand recreational facilities at relatively low costs.

The American Trails article outlines additional (but solvable) challenges:

  • If a utility owns the land, representatives may have concerns about liability and vandalism. Residents may worry about electromagnetic fields (EMF). Both parties must feel reassured that appropriate safeguards are in place.
  • Partnerships can be developed and maximized to mutually benefit multiple stakeholders. One example: While the city receives a wonderful addition to the trails system, assisting in the development can be an asset to a utility’s brand.

Hiking and Biking Trails for the Future

Recently, a state bill passed allowing for a 100-mile bicycle interstate along existing power transmission lines routes. This project is planned not for a biking mecca like Seattle or Portland, but within the city of Houston.

Trails like these are becoming more mainstream. Other successful projects around the nation have resulted from the efforts of residents seeking to improve the livability and recreational profile of their cities. Everyone — residents, utility companies, city employees and politicians — can have a voice to spur on these transmission trail projects

There is no single solution for transmission trails, but with open minds and carefully constructed agreements, these projects can be a great addition to any city. Would a transmission trail work in your community? Let us know what you think.

Will Kirby is a transmission engineer for Burns & McDonnell, specializing in the design and analysis of overhead transmission and distribution lines. Reach out to Will on LinkedIn.

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