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Suburban Trail Use Not a Sure Thing

• October 05, 2010 • 5:00 AM

The mere existence of a walking or biking trail near your neighborhood doesn’t mean anyone is using it, researchers and trail advocates have discovered.

For decades a walking/biking trail near a suburb has been considered a universal good: the most preferred amenity (more so than golf courses and tennis courts) of suburbanites and regarded as a major contributor to good health and fitness. Studies have shown that a location near a trail increases property values and even suggested that homebuyers are drawn to a specific neighborhood by the proximity of a pathway.

“Build it and they will come,” is a core conviction of suburban trail builders and policymakers alike from Fullerton, Calif., to Farmington, Conn. New research, however, casts that fundamental belief into doubt.

A study of a Salt Lake suburb pathway by University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers Konstadinos G. Goulias and Shaunna K. Burbidge presents an altogether different view of trail use in the ’burbs: “Simply installing a paved path where there was not one before does not induce demand for physical activity.”

The study, published in the Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, found that residents of West Valley City did not increase levels of walking and cycling after a new trail was constructed nearby.

Goulias, a transportation engineering and planning consultant for projects worldwide, expected the installation of a suburban trail would trigger an increase in physical activity levels of neighborhood residents. “We expected at least a few persons to be influenced by the new trail and to tell us what a great opportunity it was for biking and walking.”

One unique aspect of the study was its “before-and-after” approach — it measured the neighbors’ walking-jogging-cycling frequency before the trail was built and after it was completed. About 87 percent of those who used the new trail reported they were pursuing these activities before the path was constructed and used sidewalks or more distant trails. Proximity to the trail had no significant effect on total physical activity; those near it were no more likely to use it than those farther away.

Other research suggests that using a suburban trail must be “sold” to foot-dragging neighbors. While motivating people to walk and bike is a difficult task in all communities, it is a particular challenge in the automobile-centered suburbs.

“We found we had to do a lot of marketing to get people to use the trails,”

explains Michele Schasberger of the Wyoming Valley Wellness Trails Partnership. Schasberger directed a five-year-long project to increase physical activity among residents in northeastern Pennsylvania by expanding a trail network; the results appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

Funded by an Active Living by Design grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the partnership constructed 22 miles of trail in the city of Wilkes-Barre and other communities along the Susquehanna River. “The biggest lesson we learned from the grant is the power of promotion and the importance of informing the public — not just once, but frequently — about trails,” Schasberger says.

Telling potential Pennsylvania pedestrians to take a walk because it’s good for them was not a successful approach to boosting trail use, according to Schasberger. Instead,

the trail partnership found that community members were more likely to be motivated to get off the couch and onto the trail by messages about fresh air and fun times with friends and family.

Media efforts, cookouts, organized walks and bike rides were employed to successfully boost trail use. Infrared trail counters recorded a 40 percent increase on the Greater Hazleton Rail Trail during a yearlong effort to promote that path.

Researchers admit that the aesthetics of a trail may have something to do with its usage. People might be more inclined to a walk in the woods rather than an amble along an aqueduct. A generic trail installed “just for exercise” is likely not as attractive to users as one leading through a lovely park or one that links up interesting sights.

“Aesthetics matter, but it’s really connectivity that’s most important,” states Barbara Rice, program manager for the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program.

Rice and her colleagues, who oversee hundreds of trail projects across the United States, stresses that they are more concerned about the quality of trails than quantity. “The best trail, and the ones likely to receive the most use, are ones that connect users to something desirable — to nature, to special places in the community, to other people.”

While research may have refuted a sacred belief — “Build the paths and they will come” — it has not yet established what motivates suburbanites or anyone else to hit the trail. Goulias strongly suggests making some major investments in better understanding the behavior of those who use trails and those who do not.

National Parks Trails advocate Rice agrees. “We need to measure our success not so much by the number of miles of trails we build, but by the number of people we’re able to encourage to use them.”

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John McKinney
John McKinney is the author of 20 books about hiking, parklands and nature including "The Hiker's Way" and "A Walk Along Land's End: California on the Edge." After a long stint as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, John (aka The Trailmaster) now writes articles and commentaries about nature and outdoor recreation for magazines and online.

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