Evaluating Change in Physical Activity with the Building of a Multi-Use Trail

Benefits studied:
Uses studied: ,
Place: Durham


This study found that people who used a new rail trail in Durham, North Carolina reported exercising more during the month after it opened, although it did not appear that their minutes spent exercising per week was actually any higher than before the trail opened. Potential effects of new trails on physical activity may take longer to manifest themselves in residents’ habits, and the effects likely depend on how many trails are already nearby.


This study would be of interest to communities that are considering trails as a way of increasing residents’ physical activity levels. The results from this study are consistent with another study that found no effect from a campaign promoting a new trail (see study 49), but differs from another study (47) which found an effect from new trail construction. From this, we conclude that while trails can increase the public’s physical activity levels, this is not guaranteed and depends on the trail’s appeal, whether people are aware of it, and whether the trail fills a gap in the neighborhood’s transportation infrastructure. Additionally, these studies have focused solely on the effect on neighborhood residents, but destination trails may have a city- or region-wide effect on physical activity.


This study was based in Durham, North Carolina, population 229,963 in 2013.

Trail Type

The study evaluated a new rail-trail that would ultimately be 23 miles long. A 3.2-mile segment had opened the previous year; this study addressed the next 2.8-mile section, along with a 2-mile spur. The trail is paved and is in well-developed areas, passing by schools, subdivisions, apartment complexes, and shopping areas.


The purpose of this study is to measure the effect of trail building on physical activity levels of nearby residents. The study was conducted by university and agency researchers; no specific funding source was reported.


  • The authors found that those who used the trail did not have higher physical activity levels, including minutes per week of leisure activity, moderate activity, walking, or bicycling. They did find that those who had ever used the trail actually had fewer minutes per week of vigorous exercise than they did before the trail opened.
  • One-quarter of respondents had heard of the trail and used it at least once.
  • Of those who had used the trail at least once, 22 percent thought their level of physical activity had increased.


The authors conducted phone interviews with a random sample of households living within two miles of the proposed trail. These respondents were interviewed roughly two years before the trail opened and one month after the trail was opened. They had 436 respondents who participated in the baseline and follow-up surveys.

Respondents were asked about physical activity levels, characteristics of their neighborhood (e.g., does it have sidewalks, trails, or heavy traffic), their health, and sociodemographics. To avoid biasing responses, the trail was only mentioned after respondents were asked about physical activity levels.


Evenson, K., A. Herring, and S. Huston. 2005. “Evaluating change in physical activity with the building of a multi-use trail.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28(2): 177-185.