Toward performance-based development of urban trail networks

By Mary Ebeling

The Trail Modeling and Assessment Platform (T-MAP) project, an effort led by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), will create a performance-based urban trail development toolkit for planners, policy makers, and advocates. T-MAP offers a set of data collection instruments, methodologies, and analysis tools that will transform the way planners, policy makers, and the public think about and develop trails and trail networks.

A sampling of the research questions RTC is trying to answer with T-MAP include:

  • Why do people choose to use trails?
  • What percentage of trail use replaces trips by motorized modes?
  • What is the typical trip length?
  • Is it useful to develop functional classifications for trails?
  • Can targeting improvements in connectivity and access help a community meet its equity goals and improve livability for at-risk communities?

The T-MAP platform employs a suite of analytical models and tools that a community can customize to meet its needs and goals. The three core models include:

  • A GIS-based method for measuring trail system connectivity
  • A trail-use demand factoring and forecasting model
  • A set of impact assessment tools that translate trail use into dollars related to health and transportation impacts

RTC research director Tracy Hadden Loh says the motivation for T-MAP is to “create low-cost, easy-to-use planning tools that produce communicable results to support trail building and trail advocacy in urban areas throughout the U.S.”

T-MAP graphic

The Trail Modeling and Assessment Platform (T-MAP) includes three data inputs and four model outputs. The research team will use traffic counts from trails throughout the U.S. to generate temporal adjustment factors. The team will use GIS data to create a trail connectivity matrix. The team will combine these two data sources to produce a trail demand forecasting model. Finally, the team will use a trail user survey to create two impact assessment calculators related to healthcare costs and transportation.

The urban areas of Arlington, VA; Albuquerque, NM; Billings, MT; Colorado Springs, CO; Fort Worth, TX; Indianapolis, IN; Miami, FL; Minneapolis, MN; New Orleans, LA; Portland, ME; San Diego, CA; and Seattle, WA have partnered with the research team to test and refine the T-MAP tool. These communities represent the full range of the nation’s climactic zones and, therefore, are a good representation of how trail use could vary by climate.

We recently reported on the development of nonmotorized performance measures through the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program. The NTPP took initial and important steps at developing measures to document the performance of bicycle and pedestrian transportation infrastructure. While RTC’s T-MAP tool is not yet fully formed, it holds potential to further refine nonmotorized transportation performance management, giving planners and policy makers the tools needed to determine the value of investments and develop justifications for funding.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.