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Impacts of trails and trail use
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A SURVEY OF AUSTIN'S TOWN LAKE TRAIL USERS

The trail is used for recreation, exercise, socializing, and to enjoy a beautiful natural setting in the middle of the City. See more on Austin's trails system.

From the Austin Parks and Recreation Department

Map of Texas The 10-mile long Town Lake Trail is one of Austin's favorite recreational destinations. It is estimated that over 1 million people visit the trail every year. The trail is used for recreation, exercise, socializing, and to enjoy a beautiful natural setting in the middle of the City.

The Parks and Recreation Department conducted this survey in order to learn more about trail users, and how to improve their experience. The survey revealed that most people think the trail is safe, well maintained, and has adequate amenities. On the other hand, there is always room for improvement. The value of this survey is to learn how to make a good park better.

User Characteristics

photo: Austin's Town Lake Trail
Austin's Town Lake Trail

Most people that use the trail are locals, but the number of out of town visitors on the trail is significant. Almost as many women use the trail, as do men. The age range distribution is amazingly equal among adults. Fewer people under the age of 21 use the trail. This may be attributed to the fact that most teenagers are more actively involved with organized sports associated with school.

Most people use the trail in the morning or after 5:00 in the evening. This is not surprising considering that the survey was conducted during one of the warmer times of the year. These times are also reflective of before and after work hours. Trail users regularly visit the trail on both weekdays and weekends. Most people feel comfortable using the trail alone, but many participate with a buddy. There are also a number of people that participate in group activities on the trail. The majority of people on the trail are runners or walkers. There is also a significant number that ride bikes or walk dogs. Many people offered that they would volunteer to help maintain and improve the trail.

Trail Use by Location

photo: A trail is popular for exercise
The trail is popular for exercise

The great majority of trail use occurs west of IH-35. Over three-fourths of all visitors to the trail enter at four popular locations. These include the entrances near Austin High, Butler Shores (Riverside and Lamar), Auditorium Shores, and near the Austin Nature Center. There are a number of factors that probably contribute to this practice. Those include ample parking, the feeling of safety in numbers, and the popularity of the social scene. A consequence of this use is trail crowding and conflict among different types of users.

Conversely, the 4.8 miles of trail (including sidewalks) east of IH-35 are largely unused. Contributing factors include lack of clearly identified trailheads with parking, lack of good connections to the trails on the west side, and a perception that the east side is not safe. One of the greatest challenges for trail use management is how to deal with over crowding and the resulting conflicts. Part of the solution may be in making the trail east of IH-35 a more acceptable destination for trail users.

Trail Maintenance

When asked, "Do you feel the trail is well maintained," most everyone said yes. A lot of people said "yes, but..." In other words, people were telling us that the trail is well maintained but it could be better. Those recommendations are of particular interest.

Many said the trail surface should be repaired. Since the popular granite gravel surface is susceptible to erosion, it requires constant restoration. Control of water drainage across the trail is also a problem. A lot of people are concerned that dog owners don't clean up their pet's waste. This problem is worse in the summer months when odor becomes a factor. Some users asked that brush and overhanging limbs be trimmed back from the trail. Many users asked for improved maintenance of restrooms and repair of water fountains. Some asked for improved litter removal.

Trail Safety

The great majority of people feel safe on the trail. Once again, people said "yes, but..." and then offered suggestions for improvement. Most people desire the addition of lighting to the trail. It should be noted that the request for trail lighting was also recommended for overall improvement of the trail use experience, such as extended hours and use during the cooler time of the day. Many users asked for increased police patrols on the trail. Others were concerned about thieves breaking into cars parked at trailheads.

Most of the people surveyed were on the trail west of IH-35 where there is the perception of safety in numbers. The comfortable feeling of "safety in numbers" is clearly lacking for east side trail use.

Trail Signage

The majority of the people surveyed said that trail signage is adequate. Of course, most trail users are regulars who know their way around the 10-mile trail system. The deficiency becomes more obvious for new or occasional trail users.

Those surveyed provided a variety of recommendations for improving signs along the trail. A lot of people asked for improved trail mile markers. Many asked for trail maps to be displayed at trailheads. People asked for more general information to be provided, and that signs be made easier to read. Of particular concern was that directional signs be placed at trail intersections. There were requests for the posting of trail etiquette rules; these rules would advise trail users to ride their bikes slowly and courteously, to control and clean up after their dogs, and so forth. Some just want more signs everywhere.

Conflicts with other Trail Users

Most people said they have no appreciable conflicts with other trail users. But conflict does exist. The biggest complaint was about speeding bicyclists. Others reported that uncontrolled dogs are a problem; this includes dogs off-leash and dogs on long leashes that extend across the trail. Some trail users complained about groups of people running together and using too much of the trail. There is a direct relationship between trail crowding and trail conflict.

Suggestions for Improvements

The question was asked, "What could be done to make this a better trail system?" This critical question was aimed at finding ways to improve the overall trail user experience. Some of the responses were similar to those concerning maintenance and safety, but still have an appropriate application.

The most frequent request was for more water fountains and rest rooms. Users asked us to find ways to reduce trail crowding. Suggestions were made to provide a separate trail for bikes. Many wanted the trail to be extended. Requests were made for more trailside amenities such as warm up areas, benches, and exercise stations. People asked that more "mutt mitt" dispensers be placed along the trail for pet owners to use. Many urged us to find ways to reduce bicycle speeding, and to increase Ordinance enforcement all together. Some asked for more parking lots. Others want more shade trees or shade structures in open areas.

There were many additional suggestions covering a wide variety of ideas and recommendations. These did not show up statistically as a part of the pie chart, and thus were classified as "other". These individual recommendations will be considered and kept on file for reference.

Survey Methodology

The Town Lake Trail User Survey consists of approximately 1,400 surveys completed in July of 2003. The survey was conducted by 36 employees of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. Surveyors were stationed at five strategic and heavily used locations that covered the entire scope of the trail. One survey was completed on a weekday and another was done on a weekend day. Survey times ranged from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

This effort was conducted as an "intercept" survey. Surveyors intercepted trail users as they participated in their activities on the trail. In order to have a random survey, approximately every 10th person on the trail was selected for an interview. Only willing participants were interviewed. Most were happy to participate.

This survey was not a scientific survey that yields a definable probability of error. On the other hand, the results show a consistency of response that allows a meaningful interpretation.

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