Background

In 2011, the Connecticut National Recreational Trails Program Recreational Trails Plan, published by the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), stated that, “Little research has been done regarding the number and types of trail users around the state, potential conflicts and safety concerns.”  Without user data, state, municipal and regional planning agencies as well as trail administrators had little information on which to base trail planning and maintenance decisions, evaluate the effectiveness of modifications to the trails, or justify the need for additional resources.  Until 2016, such data collection was largely conducted on an ad hoc basis.  The Recreational Trails Plan offered a solution to this problem. “Working with some of the academic institutions in the state, the DEEP should develop a protocol for surveying trail users so that the present and future needs of these constituents can be met.”

The Connecticut Trail Census (CTTC) was developed as a direct response to the 2011 recommendation in the Connecticut National Recreational Trails Program Recreational Trails Plan that additional data be collected about users on Connecticut’s multi-use trails. The following additional state and regional factors justify the development and on-going support for the Census:

  • Connecticut has over 2,000 miles of multi-use trails and designated greenways many of which are unknown or underutilized by residents, tourists and other possible users. Trail use data obtained through the Trail Census will help communities understand existing use and to design appropriate programs to increase connectivity, access and use of these trails and greenways.
  • Connecticut has invested 14 million dollars since 2007 to design, build and maintain recreational trails in Connecticut without a standardized tool for understanding if these investments are yielding increased use, economic or health impacts statewide. Prior to implementation of the Trail Census in 2016, no standardized data existed for understanding trail use in the state.
  • Promoting physical activity is known to improve health outcomes but there are disparities in access to and use of these resources across the state by race, income, and geography. The Trail Census currently has several participating trail sites that are located in what could be considered urban areas such as Hartford, Hamden, New Haven and New Britain. These locations especially could see increased use by and physical activity of their communities due to the program providing community-based trail related engagement programs and encouraging the physical connectivity of the state’s trail systems.
  • Connectivity and alternative transportation routes are on the forefront of the state’s legislative agenda. The pilot Trail Census program obtained data regarding how frequently trails are used for commuting versus recreation. This data serves as a baseline measuring the effectiveness of programs intended to encourage alternative transportation.

The Connecticut Trail Census (CTTC) is an innovative, statewide volunteer-based data collection and education program implemented as a pilot from 2016-2018 on 16 multi-use (bicycle, pedestrian, equestrian) trail sites across the state.  The program was developed as a partnership program between the University of Connecticut, the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, the Connecticut Greenways Council, and local trail advocacy organizations. The CTTC promotes active citizen participation in monitoring and advocacy of trails and encourages data informed trail building and maintenance programs by identifying patterns and trends in user data. The Trail Census includes trail use counts recorded by infrared pedestrian counters, trail user intercept surveys administered by trained volunteers, and public education programs.  The project is statewide and serves community leaders and decision makers including local elected officials, planners, economic development professionals, trail advocates, trail maintenance professionals, environmental, health and outdoor activity advocates, as well as the general public.

The 2016-2018 Phase I pilot was a great success. Achievements and outcomes of the pilot include: installing, providing technical assistance, and maintaining 16 infrared counters as well as temporary installations of counters at several sites (counters logged over 1,401,000 trail uses), physical quarterly downloads of the data at each site, development of data analysis tools including manual count techniques and calibration factors, entering data and conducting analysis of over 70 hours of manual counts and 1,044 trail user intercept surveys conducted by 63 local volunteers logging an estimated 1,348 volunteer hours (an estimated value of over $36,000), publication of quarterly data reports and annual reports, hiring and training a part-time Trail Census Coordinator (hired Spring 2017), launch of the new website and data portal www.cttrailcensus.uconn.edu, teaching 6 face-to face trainings and 2 webinars, establishing a social media presence and email newsletters for the program, and leveraging a $40,000 grant in partnership with the University of New Hampshire for Extension colleagues to learn best practices for downtowns to capitalize on trails.

The program was continuously adapted based on ongoing feedback from partners and trail site coordinators. The program goals outlined in the table in Attachment D are based on learning and insights documented throughout the pilot program through both formal and informal evaluation.  Changes to the program were made as a result of weekly steering committee discussions to review what was working and what could be improved (the pilot program steering committee included Aaron Budris NVCOG, Laura Brown – UCONN, Kristina Kelly – CTTC Coordinator and Ryan Faulkner – Data Analysis Staff), regular discussions with the Connecticut Greenways Council, a 2017 online survey soliciting feedback from Site Coordinators, a focus group with trail site coordinators held at the 2017 Connecticut Trail Symposium as well as a formal program evaluation survey completed in September 2018 with 26 respondents.  Respondents to the survey indicated they have used Census data:

  • To make more informed trail decisions – 72.2 % of all respondents said they either have (38.9%) or plan to (33.3%) reference CTTC trail use data to make trail decisions. “[We have] used the data to plan where to focus maintenance needs; CTDOT has used [CTTC trail use data] to justify paving versus stone dust applications.” “[We] are using data to prove need for a port-a-potty in this area.
  • In long term planning efforts – 72.2% reported either already (50%) or planning to (22.2%) integrate CTTC trail use data in long term planning efforts. “Hope to use the data to advance the DOT shovel ready plan to create a bike lane.” “[Using the data to] expose..the need for a more robust and coordinated approach to trail operation, maintenance, promotion, funding, data gathering/analysis.”  “It is important that when promoting the trails, especially the building/improvement… that we have statistics supporting their use to counter the “I never see anyone using the trails” argument.”
  • Communicate trail data to local officials or the public8% of respondents said they have (61.1%) or plan to (16.7%) communicate CTTC trail use data to local officials or the public. “The data sure made our Mayor and Administration stand up and take notice! Prior to CTTC, they were totally unaware of how much our trails were used. Public also! The value it adds to the local economy, and to quality of life in our town took front seat for the few days of the announcement of the Trail Census results.”
  • Identify patterns and trends on the trail8% of respondents reported having already (50.0%) or planning to (27.8%) use the data to identify patterns and use trends on their trail. [We have used the data to] “understand the most popular trails, where policing needs to be done.” “Many in our community have the impression that not many people use the trails. Jaws dropped when the numbers were shared at a public meeting.”
  • Leverage other resources2% of respondents have (44.4%) or plan to (27.8%) use CTTC trail use data to leverage other resources. “We will use the data for fundraising and for public relations at various events we attend (Farmer’s Market, Main Street Marketplace, etc.).” “Will make note of trail use in further RTP grant applications.”

The results of the evaluation show that use of the Connecticut Trail Census data is primarily at the local community level. However, as a program evaluator commented, “The data [obtained through the Trail Census program] is pushing Connecticut into a role as a model for other states.” Implementing this program as an ongoing uniform, consistent, statewide initiative offers the potential for significant expansion and broader impacts.