10 tips for counting visitors on trails
By Yves Zsutty, Trail Manager, City of San Jose
If you aren’t counting and surveying trail users, you may be missing an opportunity to better fund your program and help the community understand the value of your trail system or interconnected network of trails.
Governing bodies, the public, granting agencies, and neighbors often ask how many people use or are expected to use a trail. Having a solid answer based on data can offer assurance, support funding for maintenance, address concerns, impact how you may design a project, and can make your grant funding applications more compelling.
I’d like to offer 10 Tips as you plan for your first count:
Tip 1 – Gather as much data as possible. You want to make the most of staff, volunteers or consultants that have committed time to the count. Use your resources wisely by having them encourage trail users to take an on-line survey that offers insights beyond the usage data. Don’t stop trail users to respond to a survey– instead, offer them a postcard that directs them to an on-line survey (we use SurveyMonkey) so that they can provide input at their leisure. Set a clear deadline no later then 1 week after the initial count. Expect 30% to 50% response rate– so don’t be nervous about closing the survey by the deadline. Ask no more than 20 questions or you’ll risk losing responders. Ask baseline demographic questions each year (age, sex, number of visits, purpose, etc). Customize the remaining questions to gain new insights each year. You might seek to explore topics related to tourism, safety, design features, reasons for visiting trails, public perceptions, etc
Tip 2 – Know what you want to learn. Determine what you are seeking to learn. Are you trying to determine a trail’s tourism impact, usage as a commute corridor, value of a recreational element, something else? Think about framing your questions to explore your particular interest in depth.
Tip 3 – Make the most of your resources: San Jose does not have a defined budget line item for its annual Trail Count. We depend heavily on volunteers to schedule one or two hours at a count station. Our part-time volunteer coordinator starts reaching out to possible volunteers 30 to 45 days in advance. As the count approaches, City staff is asked to support the effort to fill in any holes in the calendar.
Tip 4 – Leverage stakeholder resources: Trails and biking facilities are popular amenities and your Parks Department is not likely the only stakeholder for their maintenance and development. Reach out to your local Bicycle Advocacy Group, Parks Foundation, large employers, civic groups and others that might be looking for a short-term and well-defined volunteer commitment. Many people want to offer help and spending an hour or two on a beautiful trail is a great and rewarding volunteer job.
Tip 5 – Count Consistently: Determine count stations that can be used year after year to accurately track changes in usage. Use count sheets with the same methodology each year so data can be compared accurately. Data gets more valuable each year because of comparative opportunities and you’ll find many chances to share this data throughout the year.
Tip 6 – Data is data: Count every year so that you can see trends both positive and negative; new extensions should increase usage, temporary closures or construction may reduce usage. San Jose instituted a Trail Closure Policy because of the negative impact of special event closures to trail users. Without count data, we would not have found the political support for redesign of special event sites to minimize or eliminate closures.
Tip 7 – Keep it simple: Don’t let the fear of doing it just right prevent you from moving forward. Over 5 years, we’ve learned a lot from our successes and mistakes. Start with one or two count stations. Think about what answers you are seeking and get started. After the first year or two, you’ll have a comfort level and be able to expand your counting to strategic locations and refine surveys to learn even more.
Tip 8 – Use resources wisely: You may choose to count at one location simply to have data for an upcoming grant. That’s OK– you don’t necessarily need to staff all count stations year after year. You might also determine that you can’t get enough volunteers for a 12-hour count. We have several count stations that are only monitored during peak periods (7-9 a.m., and 4-7 p.m.). These stations might be low volume and clearly serve a commute propose, so showing travel during the commuter periods is sufficient for our purposes.
Tip 9 – Everyone wants to make a difference: Your volunteers and staff are participating because they want to see more trails, they wish to offer their valuable support, and they want to be part of the process. As the Trail Count coordinator, be sure to visit as many stations throughout the day as possible. You want to make sure that people are counting and surveying in a consistent manner, and perhaps more importantly, you want to personally thank people for their valuable time and commitment. This expression of gratitude can encourage the volunteers to participate year after year.
Tip 10 – Share your data: Take time to compile reports that are distributed to all volunteers, staff, your governing body, stakeholder groups, granting agencies and media. There is a shortage of data about trail usage at a national level. Many people will be very interested in your findings. Get early returns out to your volunteers as early as possible –they are part of the process and can’t wait to hear results.
San Jose has been conducting Trail Count annually for the past 5 years. By counting and surveying our trail users on select trails, we know that 54% commute to work, 75% are male, and trail usage has increased between 5 and 10% each year.
The National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project is a great place to learn more about counting methods and data collection equipment. San Jose’s Trail Program website is also a good resource: we post a Fact Sheet annually and have also included several highly detailed Summary Reports that offer lessons learned and guidance for persons conducting their first count.
The City of San Jose has one of the nation’s largest urban trail networks within its geographic boundaries. The network is comprised of 35 interconnected trail systems with over 53 miles open to the public. Through its Green Vision and General Plan, the city is seeking to develop a 100-mile interconnected trail network by 2022. Yves Zsutty has managed San Jose’s Trail Program for the past 10 years and has spoken on the subject of Trail Counts and trail development at State and National conferences.