Data collection plays an increasingly vital role in the future of trails
Until recently, user count data was collected manually through an annual volunteer effort. In 2017, however, a program in Pennsylvania took their count program to the next level by rolling out 17 automated Eco-Counters in all four corners of the state.
That innovative approach is a partnership between Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC) Northeast Office. DCNR had the funding to support the deployment of counters and RTC had the expertise to install and monitor them. A similar trail count program was started in 2014 by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
While manual count collection provides a snapshot of data at a particular moment in time, automated counters gather data 24/7, providing an annual profile of trail usage. The EcoCounter’s MULTI counter differentiates between pedestrians and cyclists and is housed in a discreet post that blends into the surrounding natural environment.
This system makes it easy to access data, as data is transmitted wirelessly through cellular networks to an intuitive, free online data analysis platform. Across the state, the automated counters are installed on trails in a variety of rural, semi-urban, and urban areas. Data from the counters provide an understanding of just how many people are enjoying the rail trail network and how trails are used— such as for weekend recreation or weekday commuting.
For example, on the Panhandle Trail just outside of Pittsburgh, trail use is 50% higher during the weekend compared to mid-week, informing trail managers that the trail is used predominantly for leisure and recreation. From January to September 2018, 800,000 people were counted on these trails, with northeastern Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Heritage Trail having the greatest number of visitors counted at over 85,000— that’s nearly 10,000 trail users counted per month!
According to RTC, trail user count data is an essential tool to acquire funding for future trails. Count data has been extensively included in grant applications as a means to justify the extension of a trail and to fill in gaps within the network. Combining the count data with other data sources, such as health, environmental, or economic indicators, this rich data source serves as a key tool to demonstrate the quantitative benefit of trails to local communities and the surrounding area.
Using Eco-Counter’s public web page service, Rails-to-Trails has gone one step further and made daily count data publicly available, providing individuals, research institutions, and advocacy organizations unprecedented access to statewide trail usage data. View the counter data at http://data.eco-counter.com/ParcPublic/?id=4275.
Harnessing technology for trail development, RTC in Pennsylvania is a leading example of 21st century trail management. As this program— and others across the country— continues to grow, data collection will play an increasingly vital role in the future of trails.