Designing Urban Trails for Physical Activity by Nearby Residents

Identifying and testing environmental predictors of urban trail use

Field of Work: Physical activity on urban trails

Problem Synopsis: Multi-use urban trails represent one way of promoting physical activity among residents of low-density urban environments oriented toward automobile use, and thereby potentially reducing the diseases (such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease) associated with sedentary lifestyles. Research is needed to find out how to make these trails more conducive to physical activity.

Synopsis of the Work: After selecting three urban trails in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles, researchers collected and analyzed data regarding:

  • Trail characteristics, including landscape—such as slope, trees and green cover—and trailside urban design features—such as residential mix, access from neighborhoods, and streets.
  • A count and description (including sex, estimated age, and activity) of trail users, as observed by researchers.
  • Self-reported information from 490 people regarding their trail use, sociodemographic attributes, motivation for physical activity and self-reported health status, and perceptions of the trail and neighborhood environments.
  • Characteristics of neighborhoods adjacent to the trail, such as demographics, socioeconomic status, and vehicle ownership.

Key Findings: The researchers reported their findings in three peer-reviewed journals, the American Journal of Health Promotion, Environment & Planning and Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

  • Characteristics associated with increased trail use included a mix of urban and natural views, streetlights, good trail condition, and the presence of cafes.
  • Characteristics associated with decreased trail use included litter, noise, higher vegetation density, a drainage canal as a prominent feature, natural areas (such as a park, wetlands or a river) adjacent to the trail, and tunnels.
  • Survey data indicate that people are more likely to use a trail if they are motivated to engage in physical activity; perceive that their homes are close to the trail; and perceive that the trail is safe.
  • Decreased levels of trail use are associated with lower levels of income; increased distance that the user has to commute to work; and physical barriers to the trail, such as rivers, railroads or freeways.