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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. 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.

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.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 10/11/2010 - 05:42 pm.

    I’d agree with that NPS employee. Connecting people to desirable places is important, and many trails are focused on the nature aspect and exclude almost everything else. Nature’s nice, but that oak tree isn’t going to notarize my paperwork or sell me a wrench. I’ve had trouble knowing where to stop to find food along trails. Of course, many rail trails were built along train routes that were discarded due to slow business, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t see much stuff (and of course, trains tended to serve industrial sites anyway). Other trails that are just built next to streets and on park land suffer from the same zoning issues that put things too far apart and segregate them.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/12/2010 - 09:12 am.

    A daily walker for the past dozen years or so, my own inclination regarding trail use tends to lean toward the scenic. I’m going to put in my 3 or 4 miles a day anyway, so if I can enjoy some scenery along the way, so much the better.

    One “scenic” attraction is an attractive or dramatic view. One route I took several times a week when I lived in suburban Denver provided me with excellent views of the entire metro area from a hillside. I could routinely see Longs Peak, 50 miles to the north, and Pikes Peak, 50 miles to the south, and most of the metro area spread out to the east to the horizon. Nothing in my Minneapolis neighborhood corresponds to that sort of viewpoint, but there are compensations.

    Water is another “scenic” attraction, especially if it’s moving. For several of my Colorado years, I lived in a small city that straddled a small river. The daily walk there typically involved a mile or so in each direction to and from the stream, and another mile or two alongside it. From my perspective, the best recreational investment the city ever made was construction of a paved, multi-use trail along the river, which was used by dozens of people every day.

    This area has streams, ponds and lakes in abundance, so here in Minneapolis, I’ve made regular and frequent use of a paved pathway, combining pedestrian and bike routes, that follows Shingle Creek down to its juncture with the Mississippi. It’s a very similar experience to what I enjoyed while in the “river town” in Colorado, and both “river trails” along streams provided, whether purposeful or not, numerous wildlife encounters

    In both of those “river trail” cases, however, I’d add at least one caveat, and that is that both trails basically have no commercial touch points – there’s no place to stop and get a cup of coffee, or use a restroom that’s maintained, or maybe get a light meal. So, if connecting with nature is not a really effective motivator, and exercise per se isn’t getting people off the couch, there’s not much else to attract people to those kinds of trails.

  3. Submitted by David Stovall on 10/12/2010 - 01:12 pm.

    I hike and Nordic walk the western Minneapolis suburban trails almost daily and find them all interesting. The trails I walk are at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum both the paved and woodland trails, the Lake Minnetonka LRT Trail, The Dakota Trail, Carver Regional Park Trails, Baker Regional Park Trails, Lake Rebecca Regional Park Trails, Wolsfeld Woods SNA and Wood Rill SNA.

    The SNAs are strictly nature in old growth Maple forests with no amenities. Wood Rill SNA does touch the Luce Line Trail. The Three Rivers regional parks have well kept up paved trails and woodland trails. They also have restroom and water stops.

    Both the Three Rivers Dakota and Lake Minnetonka LRT trails have restaurants to stop at along the way and at the ends. Generally no public restrooms are provided by the trails but you can find public equivalents with experience.

    All the mentioned trails have an abundance of natural areas of ponds, woods, marshes, streams and lakes. The past two weeks have been spectacular for walking with the fall colors reaching peak.

    The Twin Cities do not lack in trail amenities but I think most people identify with the Minneapolis chain of lakes trails and have little knowledge of the suburban trails based on observed traffic.

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