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Suburban trails: To be embraced, they need to be about more than exercise

When I was strolling and biking on Minneapolis’ lake paths this past weekend, enjoying the unseasonable and gorgeous weather, it seemed like everybody was out there with me.

When I was strolling and biking on Minneapolis’ lake paths this past weekend, enjoying the unseasonable and gorgeous weather, it seemed like everybody was out there with me. In fact, on such days the paths can get quite crowded.

I suspect most of the metropolitan area’s suburban walking/biking trails also experienced high use this weekend. But, as outdoor reporter John McKinney wrote last week in the online magazine Miller-McCune, suburban trail use is not a sure thing. Furthermore, many of the people who use such trails don’t actually live in the trail’s surrounding neighborhoods.

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

A study conducted in a Salt Lake City suburb, for example, found that neighborhood residents did not walk or cycle more after a new trail was built. The vast majority (87 percent) of the people who used the new trail said they had walked, jogged or biked before the trail appeared — only they had done so on neighborhood sidewalks or on 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,” writes McKinney.

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People will take to new walking/hiking trails regularly, but only with some incentives. A study conducted in northeastern Pennsylvania found that communities needed a year of continual intense efforts (including a media campaign, cookouts and organized walks and bike rides) to get people out on the 22 new miles of trail installed in the city of Wilkes-Barre and other communities along the Susquehanna River.

“Telling potential Pennsylvania pedestrians to take a walk because it’s good for them was not a successful approach to boosting trail use,” writes McKinney. “… Instead, the [study] 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.”

Aesthetics also matter, of course. As McKinney notes, “People might be more inclined to a walk in the woods rather than an amble along an aqueduct.”

But for any trail to be successful, it must be about more than exercise. “The best trails, 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,” a U.S. National Park Service employee who oversees hundreds of trail projects told McKinney.

You can read McKinney’s full article here.