Neighborhoods and Trails: Why Trails?

Prepared by Margaret Alexander for the Santa Fe Conservation Trust January, 2009;
Updated April, 2010

Professional trail planners and their academic counterparts have contributed many studies on the positive advantages of trails.  The literature of trail negatives is less robust, but still, a great deal of social science has been devoted to explaining the impact of trails on everything from economics to ecologies.  What follows is a survey of the most recent papers on the issues that come up in policy decisions and public meetings on trail development. Surveys have been done before (see Williams, 2003) but this paper updates previous surveys and adds interviews with local (Santa Fe, New Mexico) police personnel.

Many of the papers cited are available on the web at no cost and are linked in the References Cited. In addition, the Santa Fe Conservation Trust has copies of the papers cited in this survey.

I. Public Policy and Legislation on Trails

To get an overview of state and federal policies and statutes that might impact the work, Eyler, 2008 presents case studies of six trail projects which cover a myriad of governmental issues.  Public policy, from zoning ordinances to liability, is explored.  Eyler also sites examples where elected officials were key components in getting trails built, a constituency, which may be over-looked by trails advocates.

II.  Crime

Trails are not crime-free.  However, studies show that crime rates are lower on trails than in other environments.   For example, one-half of all robberies occur on streets and one-half of all rapes occur in the home. No one avoids constructing streets and building homes to deter crime so trails need to be regarded with the same standards.  The perception that crime occurs on dark and hidden parts of trails is common.  However, a study that addresses this particular fear, establishes that it is unfounded (Eakin, 2001).

  • A massive survey of crime of 372 rail trails in urban, suburban, and rural settings was undertaken in the late 1990s, covering 7,000 miles of trail with 45 million users (the urban component was 5 million users on 332 miles; 14 million people on 1,100 miles of suburban trails; and 26 million users on 5,282 miles of rural trails). (Tracy, 1998)
  • Only 3% of these trails reported any crimes against persons (assaults, muggings, rape, and murder); of the 3% of trails that reported a crime against a person, urban trails had a higher rate of crime than suburban ones.   Crime against persons on rural trails was negligible.
  • In 1996, the national rate of muggings in urban areas was 335 for each 100,000 inhabitants.   Only one of 36 urban trails reported muggings, giving rail trails a rate of 15 muggings per 5 million users.  In the suburbs, muggings occurred at a rate of 102 per 100,000 people.  Only one mugging was reported among the 14 million people who used suburban trails in 1996.
  • Burglary near trails was extremely rare, more so than other crimes.  Only 4 burglaries were reported in homes adjacent to 7,000 miles of rail trails in 1996 and 3 of those 4 were reported in rural areas.  There’s no evidence that these 4 crimes were a result of the nearby trail.
  • Minor crimes were reported on trails, but much less frequently than in the rest of the landscape:  4% of trails reported trespassing; 14% reported graffiti; 24% reported littering; and 18% had unauthorized motorized use.
  • In a study of 78 tunnels on 36 trails in the U.S., public meetings revealed fear of crime and homelessness at these sites.  However, after the tunnels were built few instances of crime and homelessness were reported or observed by trail managers (Eakin, 2001, p. 12.)
  • 69% of urban trails, 67% of suburban trails, and 63% of rural rail trails are patrolled in some way.  In some of these cases, the patrols consisted of volunteers cleaning up once a month and in others, local police on bicycles.
  • In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mayor Coss reported that police bike patrols had stopped illegal motorized vehicles on trails through the Tierra Contenta neighborhood. (Friedman, 2009)
  • Trails are associated with preventing death and injury by providing bicyclists and pedestrians with a safe path away from traffic.
  • There is no correlation between crime and trails.  In fact, trails are safer places to be on and live near than streets, parking lots, and shopping malls.

III.  Privacy and Noise

Perceptions of privacy issues are closely tied to property rights and values (see the next section).  Careful planning is needed to allay fears that trail users will affect homeowners’ sense of privacy.  Fencing, shrubbery and careful routing can all be used but need to be communicated to those involved.  The best solutions are ones that include the individual property owners’ wishes.

  • On the other hand, good visibility along trails by reducing vegetation and obtrusive fencing increases usage.  Even natural features such as close canyon walls lead to reduced trail use, possibly because walkers feel cut off. (Reynolds, 2007)
  • Reducing noise on trails, such as the sound of a nearby highway, increases use (Reynolds, 2007)

IV. Property Values

Studies of how the value of homes near trails focus on perceptions of property owners, real estate agents, and buyers.  Fewer studies of actual home values are available.  Among perceptions of value, most owners and agents feel that trails either increase or do not affect home values. In addition, several studies have found that trails near commercial areas brought increased profits.  For example,

  • A study of 90,000 recent home sales in 15 markets showed an increase of up to $30,000 for residences that have a high degree of “walkability.”  Only one housing market, Las Vegas NV, showed lower prices when walking nearby was available.  (Cortright, 2009)
  • In Denver, a survey of homeowners near trails showed that 29% felt their property value increased and 43% said they had no effect.  Among real estate agents 73%, felt a home near a trail would be easier to sell and 55% felt that comparable homes near trails would sell at a higher price. (Webel, 2007 using data collected in 1994)
  • In Santa Rosa (California), a similar survey found that 64% of the residents near a trail felt their quality of life had improved; 33% said their home would be easier to sell while the remainder felt the trail had no effect on values (Webel, 2007 using data collected in 1992)
  • Seattle enacted a municipal tax for trails which was derived from the increase in property values that trails provided (Eyler, 2008)
  • Trail use was higher in neighborhoods where commercial businesses, such as cafes, are close by. (Lindsey, 2006 and Reynolds, 2007)
  • Increased property values next to trails, parks, and open space increases tax revenue.

V.  Ecological destruction

The literature of a trails’ impact on local ecology go both ways:  alternative transportation networks like trails can reduce carbon emissions, but trails take humans into conflict with local flora and fauna (see Habitat Degradation below).

  • Litman, 2007 focuses on the ecological as well as economic benefits of trail use over motorized travel.  High fuel consumption for short trips and more parking lots and streets contribute to burning unnecessary fossil fuel.
  • Engineering for particular ecological niches is an important way to both build better trails and alleviate local concerns about ecological conservation.  For example, flexible design should not mandate particular widths and surfaces for all applications.
  • At a public meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, neighbors suggested that they walk the proposed trail area with the contractor hired to do the work to insure that trees and habitat are not disturbed unnecessarily. (Friedman, 2009)
  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines use temporary fences and barriers to protect ecologically significant features from damage by contractors.  (Friedman, 2009)

VI.  Habitat degradation

There is no doubt that habitat is disturbed during trail construction.  It is less clear how badly habitat is disturbed after the trail is built. Natural surfaces and revegetation probably mitigate construction damage, but no study has been done to prove this.

A rigorous study of bird habitat along rail trails in Nebraska has produced a lot of data (Poague, 2000).  Scientific studies appear to focus on individual species so if there is a question about a particular type of animal, it may be hard to make generalizations.  In many cases, trail builders focus on the safety and aesthetics for hikers, walkers, and bikers rather than animals (Poague 2000). Here’s what we know about bird abundance and trails:

  • A careful count of bird species along urban and rural rail trails showed no significant difference.  Generally, there were more birds in woody urban and rural areas in spring and summer and more birds near urban trails in the fall and winter.  (Poague, 2000)
  • Migratory birds prefer trails with good canopy coverage from trees whether they are either urban or rural.  Rural trails have more species of birds than urban ones.
  • Migratory birds preferred rural trails as compared to urban ones in spring and summer, but in the fall, there was no difference between the abundance of migrants in the fall and winter. (Poague, 2000)
  • Birds that are permanent residents didn’t differ in abundance or diversity between urban and rural settings. (Poague, 2000)
  • Several studies cited by Poague show that increasing suburban and urban development (not trails per se) has a damaging effect on the diversity of bird species.
  • The Bureau of Land Management is funding a study of the effects of dust from trails and dirt roads on adjacent habitat.  (Duniway, 2008)
  • On site meetings among neighbors, contractors, and government agencies can dispel fears and create a positive environment for the local ecology.  Holding public meetings at trailheads and inviting contractors to meet neighbors at the building site increases the odds for public acceptance of new trails.

VII. Land Acquisition and property rights

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy web site, gives an overview of methods to acquire property for trails.  Trail advocates know that one of the main challenges to getting trails built is the myriad of private and public landowners who must cooperate.   Locally, the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, has expert staff who can give advice on how to acquire trail easements in specific cases in northern New Mexico.

For example, a release from liability can be useful, but homeowners and agency administrators may be reluctant to sign anything.  Municipal “umbrella” policies are helpful and claims virtually unknown. (Eyler, 2008, p. 423)

VIII.  Who uses trails?

  • In Indianapolis between 2002 and 2005, 35 miles of trails in all types of neighborhoods were monitored for traffic.  Cycling was the most common form of activity with 46% to 61% of trail users; walkers comprised 19% to 39%; and runners formed between 5% and 23%.  More males used the trails: between 25% and 44% were females.  Between 30% and 40% were in groups of two or more and traffic on weekends was 87% higher. There is also economic data that shows that trail users have higher incomes than the average population. (Lindsey, 2006)

IX.  Exceptionalism–this case is different! And some good trail facts…

  • Despite all of the studies, theory, and professional best practices, local sentiment often leans toward exceptionalism.  For instance, “this case, at this meeting, at this time, is different because”…  Sometimes exceptions are valid and must be taken into account and accommodated.
  • It’s helpful to realize that some problems are intractable.  Costs are too high, crime always occurs, construction inevitably entails disruption, and wildlife and wild flowers are always impacted.
  • Many, many trails studies focus on the positive attributes of trails, most of which can outweigh the disadvantages that come to light in public meetings from neighbors who fear change in their immediate environment.
  • Trail advantages include:  improved health, inexpensive recreation, cheap transportation, less pollution, land use efficiency (fewer streets), safer bike and pedestrian routes, better opportunities for community cohesion, and higher property values near trails.
  • Trails can mitigate the diseases associated with inactivity:  heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, depression, and some types of cancer (Litman, 2007 p. 12).
  • People who live in communities with diverse transportation systems, including trails, spend 50% less on travel than those from communities dependent on  cars. (Litman, 2007)

X.  What the public wants and what it doesn’t

At least one study carefully identifies what people want on trails and what they don’t.  These preferences don’t necessarily increase trail use or enhance the experience, but they do reveal what matters most in a public hearing (Reynolds, 2007)

  • People like to see the environment around them.  They don’t want man-made or natural impediments to the view.
  • They also like street lights (even during the day when they are unlit), a well-maintained trail and surroundings, and the amenities along the trails (for example, signs, trash cans, vegetation control).  The study posits that urban trail amenities increase the perception that trails are a safe place to be.
  • Reynolds’ polling shows that the public reacts negatively to litter, noise, bushes and untrimmed trees, which obstruct visibility, tunnels, and other visual barriers nearby.

References Sited

Cortright, Joe. “Walking the Walk; How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities.” Rep. Aug. 2009.  CEOs for Cities.  May 6, 2010 <>

Duniway, Mike. “Assessing Impacts of Roads, Trails, and Pipelines on Western Rangelands.” Jornada Trails; Jornada Basin Long-Term Ecological Research Programs June 2008: 1-1

Eaken, Amanda, and Joshua Hart. Tunnels on Trails; A Study of 78 Tunnels on 36 Trails in the United States. Rep. Apr. 2001. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 6 Jan. 2009 <>.

Eyler, Amy. “Policy Influences on Community Trail Development.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 33 (2008): 407-527.

Friedman, Rachel. “Santa Fe River Restoration and Trail Construction Project.” Community Meeting. Genoveva Chavez Community Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico. 13 Jan. 2009.

Lindsey, Greg, and Yuling Han. “Neighborhood Correlates of Urban Trail Use.”Journal of Physical Activity and Health 3 (206): S139-157. 7 Jan. 2009 <>.

Lindsey, Greg. “Public Choices and Property Values Evidence from Greenways in Indianapolis.” Central Indiana; Understanding the Region and Understanding Choices (2003). Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. 7 Jan. 2009 <>.

Litman, Todd A. Economic Value of Walkability. Rep. 12 Dec. 2007. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. 22 Jan. 2009 <>.

Miller, Scott, and Richard Knight. “Influence of Recreational Trails on Breeding Bird Communities.” Ecological Applications 8 (1998): 162-69. 7 Jan. 2009 <>.

Mogush, Paul, and Kebin Krizek. “The Value of Trail Access on Home Purchases.” Proc. of 84th Annual Meeting of Transportation Research Board, Washington DC. 2005. 7 Jan. 2009 <>.

Poague, Kevin, Ron T. Johnson, and Linda J. Young. “Bird Use of Rural and Urban Converted Railroad Rights-of-Way in Southeast Nebraska.” Wildlife Society Bulletin, 28 (2000): 852-64. 8 Jan. 2009 <>.

Reynolds, Kim D., Jennifer Wolch, and Jason Byrne. “Trail Characteristics as Correlates of Urban Trail Use.” Health Promotion Supplement 21 (2007): 335-45. 8 Jan. 2009 <>.

Schneider, Tod. “Bike Path Phobia: Selling Skeptics On Urban Greenway Bike Path Safety.” Parks & Recreation (August, 2000): 1-2. 8 Jan. 2009 <>.

Tracy, Tammy, and Hugh Morris. Rail-Trails and Safe Communities; the experience on 372 trails. Rep. Jan. 1998. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 8 Jan. 2009 <>.

Webel, Suzanne. Trail Effects on Neighborhoods: Home Value, Safety, Quality of Life. Rep. Redding CA: Amercian Trails, 2007.

Williams, John. References on the Relationship between Bike Trails and Crime/Property Values. Rep. Maplewood NJ: National Center for Bicycling & Walking, 2003.

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