Safety, Scenery and Services Influence Urban Trail Use

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Urban recreational trails developed with attention to safety, scenery, trailside services and other physical attributes are likely to receive more use than less well-designed trails, according to a new study.

These findings can guide design of new trail systems as well as efforts to increase use of existing recreational infrastructure, say study authors led by Kim Reynolds, Ph.D., of the department of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Urban multiuse trails may improve public health by providing opportunities for walking, jogging, cycling, skating, hiking, cross-country skiing and other physical activities.

To date, few researchers have looked at the link between trail use and the physical features of the trail and its setting, the authors say. Their study appears in the March/April issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

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Reynolds and colleagues audited attributes of urban trails in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, then tallied users for four days on each of the trails.

Observers counted 17,338 people. Cyclists accounted for 67 percent of the total, with joggers following at 14 percent, walkers at 13 percent, skaters at 5 percent and others at 1 percent.

After controlling for the number of people living within one mile of each trail, the researchers found that trail segments received more use when they offered a well-maintained surface, streetlights, a mix of natural and urban scenery or trailside amenities such as cafes. Trail segments received less use when there was litter, noise, dense vegetation or tunnels. These factors are related to aesthetics and perception of safety, the authors say.

They note, however, that the study did not distinguish between cause and effect. For example, the study says, "It is difficult to know whether trail users come to [a trail] segment because a cafe is present, or if a cafe was built on this segment because a large number of users were already present."

Even the proximity of a well-designed trail system may not be enough to get many Americans off their couches, said John Librett, Ph.D., a preventive medicine expert at the University of Utah. He emphasized the need for comprehensive outreach programs that promote both the benefits of physical activity and the exercise opportunities within a community.

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