Interact for Health

Eric Oberg is the director of trail development for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

(Apr 24th, 2017)

Eric Oberg is the director of trail development for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The organization works to create new walking and biking trails out of former rail lines with the goal of building healthier communities across the United States. Oberg spoke with Interact for Health to discuss the successes and lessons learned from his time with the conservancy.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and its goals?

Eric Oberg: Our mission -- really what drives us -- is we're an organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines, connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people. We're an advocacy organization built around trying to get more trails and active transportation facilities built in communities large and small around the country because we firmly believe they're an integral part of healthy communities and healthy people. That's the mantra; that's the vision; that's what drives this organization. It's about creating better places for people to live, and our goal is to make sure every American is able to step out their front door and access walking, biking -- having an option to live in a healthy community and themselves live a healthy lifestyle.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned from operating the conservancy and what positive results have you seen?

Oberg: Back in the early- and mid-'80s when this organization was founded, we were talking about hundreds of miles of rail trails specifically. Now we're over 25,000 miles. Just from a metric, you can see that this country has embraced the idea that trails should be an integral part of their community. You've got big cities that have done an amazing job in the trail development and bicycling network and have such a reputation as great places to walk and bike. But there's a lot of great small towns and destination places that are creating small-town economies that are amazing, too.

Something we're in the middle of right now is coming up with a health care calculator that communities around the country can start monitoring health care savings based on community members' use of their trails.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of the conservancy are you most proud of?

Oberg: We're the largest trail organization in the country, but still, at any given time we really only have 40 to 50 employees. Our reach is large, but our numbers are not. We've got an amazingly hardworking staff.

I'm super proud of the fact that we're doing cutting-edge research when it comes to walking and biking trails -- whether it's economic impact or health care, health impact, business impact. Trying to quantify the impact of this infrastructure is huge. It's something I'm really proud of because nobody else is doing it. We're really at the cutting edge of getting research in the hands of our partners around the country so that they can show decision makers why this infrastructure is so important.

Interact for Health: Could you tell me a brief story that illustrates the effect of the conservancy in a local community?

Oberg: I had the greatest experience, and it sums up why this work is important to me personally and to our organization. We had a group of about 12 children in Cleveland taking part in a so-called Earn-a-Bike program, where children come and spend a week or two learning all about a bicycle. They were in the range probably of 10 to 13 years old. The pinnacle of the week and a half class was spending all day on the bike, eventually riding out to the lakefront. We had two kids in that class who had grown up 3 miles from Lake Eerie and the first time they saw the lake was on their bicycle -- because they were a part of this. And it really struck me then: That's what this is about. It's about freedom for some of these kids to go out and explore their community.

And when you extrapolate that to adults and what it can mean for anybody. The idea is that you're not hemmed in by where you live or whether you own a car. It really, I thought, painted a clear picture of the power of creating safe corridors for people to get from A to B in a way other than using a car -- walking, biking.

Interact for Health: What about your job do you find most fulfilling?

Oberg: For me, the excitement is learning about these places and these people and seeing that the work we do can be meaningful on so many levels for so many different people. The most exciting part of this is seeing how hungry these communities are for this kind of thing.

Now I've been here long enough that I can start to see the fruition of some of the early work. Most trails take years and years. Some trails take decades. For me personally, that's the exciting part, where you get to see it from beginning to end.