Behavioral Effects of Completing a Critical Link in the American Tobacco Trail

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Benefits studied:
Uses studied: ,
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Place: Durham

Overview

In Durham, North Carolina, a bicycle-pedestrian bridge was built to connect two previously separate segments of a regional trail, leading to a 133 percent increase in trail use after its construction. This new connection allows the researchers to demonstrate a substantial increase in physical activity attributable to the bridge, with significant public health benefits for trail users.

Relevance

This research is relevant to those interested in the potential change in trail use and subsequent public health benefits when safe connections are built between existing trails. By gathering data immediately pre- and post-construction, the study capitalizes on a unique opportunity to measure changes in behavior attributable to new infrastructure.

In addition to measuring use and physical activity, the researchers gather data on spending by trail users. However, because most trail users are from the area immediately surrounding the trail, their spending does not represent new money in the community and therefore cannot be considered a new economic impact.

Location

This study was conducted in Durham, North Carolina (population 251,893 in 2014).

Trail Type

The American Tobacco Trail (ATT) is a rail trail that runs south from downtown Durham, through urban commercial and residential areas, suburban and rural areas. In 2013, a bridge was constructed that connected a 7 mile northern segment to a 13.5-mile southern segment, creating a 22-mile corridor.

Purpose

The purpose of this study is to evaluate the change in use of a regional trail after a bicycle-and-pedestrian bridge was constructed, connecting two trail segments that had previously been separated by an interstate. The study evaluates change in number of trips, duration and distance of trips, modes of use, and demographics of users.

This research was funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation, the Helen and William Mazer Foundation, and the Blue Cross–Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina, with support from the East Coast Greenway Alliance and the City of Durham.

Findings

  • Total number of trips increased from 217,900 in 2013 to 508,100 in 2014, a 133 percent increase. There was no difference in the number of trips per person, suggesting that the trail is being used by more people, not just existing users on the trail more frequently.
  • The percentage of children using the trail increased by 158 percent after the bridge was constructed.
  • Average duration of physical activity on the trail increased from 138 minutes per week to 162 minutes per week in 2014 (150 minutes are recommended by Surgeon General).
  • Trail users are largely from zip codes immediately adjacent to the trail. However, after bridge construction more trail users were from areas around the state. By attracting non-locals, the trail now has greater potential for economic impact.
  • Average trip distance increased by 27 percent, from 7.3 to 9.3 miles.
  • Bicycling became more common after the bridge was constructed, increasing from 40 to 46 percent of all uses. Walking and jogging decreased by 1 and 6 percent, respectively.
  • One-way trips increased by two percent in 2014, suggesting a small but important increase in trail use for transportation.
  • The increases in trail use among women and low income people were even greater than among the general population.
  • More than half of trail users interviewed in 2014, at different points along the 22-mile trail, report using the bridge.

Methods

The researchers collected data using intercept surveys and manual counts at four places along the trail in May and June of 2013, prior to bridge construction. Then they repeated the sampling protocol in 2014 after the bridge was completed, adding one additional site on the bike-pedestrian bridge.

Survey respondents were asked questions about their trip duration, origin, and distance; the frequency of trail use; the purpose of their trip; their travel mode to the trail and on the trail; and demographics.

The researchers extrapolated the manual count data to estimate annual trips on the trail, adjusting for weather and number of round trips.

Citation

Cook, T., S. O’Brien, K. Jackson, D. Findley, and S. Searcy. 2016. “Behavioral effects of completing a critical link in the American Tobacco Trail.” Transportation Research Record 2598: 19–26.