Estimating trail use and visitor spatial distribution using mobile device data: An example from the nature reserve of Orange County, California USA

How to cite this study

Creany, N.E., Monz, C.A., D’Antonio, A., Sisneros-Kidd, A., Wilkins, E.J., Nesbitt, J. and Mitrovich, M. 2021. Estimating trail use and visitor spatial distribution using mobile device data: An example from the nature reserve of Orange County, California USA. Environmental Challenges 4(2021), 100171.


This study uses mobile data from the analysis platform Streetlight to estimate visitor use in four urban parks and protected areas in Orange County, California. The mobile device methods are compared to other trail counting methods to determine whether mobile device data could be a reliable measure of trailhead visitation counts and spatial distribution of visitor use. Resulting estimates are close to the results from well-established automatic trail counting and GPS-based monitoring methods.


This study is relevant to those interested in estimating visitation levels using mobile phone data. Visitation estimates can be used to inform land management, decisions regarding necessary amenities, and policies to prevent environmental degradation. Many social media estimates have limited visitor sample size, as only a small portion of visitors post their trip online and this sample may not be representative of all visitors. This research highlights an advantage of mobile phone data, as results may be more generalizable to all visitors of the park or protected areas given the widespread usage of mobile phones.


This study is located at four sites in Orange County, California.

Trail Type

This study analyzed pedestrian and bicycle counts on trails in four parks and protected areas: Aliso Wood Canyons, Peters Canyon, Laguna Coast Wilderness/Crystal Cove State Park, and Whiting Ranch.


The purpose of this study was to evaluate the reliability of using mobile phone data to estimate trail usage. The study was funded by the Natural Communities Coalition of Orange County.


  • The Spearman’s rank test indicated strong positive and statistically significant correlations between Streetlight (mobile phone data) and on-site trail counter estimates of weekday/weekend pedestrian and bike use. 
  • The spatial distribution of pedestrian and bicycle trail use estimates indicates moderate to very strong positive statistically significant correlations between Streetlight and GPS-based estimates at three of the four sites. At Peters Canyon, there was no significant relationship between Streetlight data and GPS-based estimates of pedestrian use.
  • Caution should be used when using Streetlight data for parks near office or retail areas as the software may pick up vehicles traveling at lower speeds, potentially misclassifying them as pedestrians.


This study compares visitation counts from mobile device data from Streetlight to infrared automatic trail counters from TRAFx and GPS trail counters. Visitation from TRAFx was measured at four trailheads in the parks and protected areas. Counts were collected continuously during May 2018. Mobile device data was accessed through Streetlight’s Pedestrian Tool, which provides an estimate of the number of pedestrians or bicyclists passing through a polygon that the user defines. Polygons were established across the trail sections where trail counters were installed. To compare Streetight and trail counter estimates, the data was entered in SPSS, and a Wilcoxon signed-rank test was conducted to compare use estimates between Streetlight and the automated trail counters. 

The Streetlight Pedestrian Tool was also used to estimate the spatial distribution and density of visitor use on trails in the designated areas with 100x100m cells generated in ArcMap. The Streetlight Pedestrian Tool produced pedestrian spatial distribution and visitor use as well as bicycling activity. These estimates were compared to the visitor GPS tracks that were obtained through a random sample of visitors (594 pedestrians and 251 mountain bikers)  in May and October 2017 and May 2018 at each of the sites. A Spearman’s rank-order test of correlation was performed to evaluate the relationship between Streetlight and GPS-based estimates.  


Added to library on November 27, 2023