Presentation at the 2008 Active Living Research Annual Conference
The Mary Black Foundation in Spartanburg County, SC adopted active living as one of its two grantmaking priority areas in 2003. This decision has led to substantial investments in projects that increase opportunities for and support of physical activity (PA). One such investment resulted in a two-mile rail/trail conversion project completed in fall 2005. This segment serves as a key connector between the downtown business district and more rural parts of the county. In addition, the segment runs between two historic residential neighborhoods with vastly differing socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.
A systematic 5-year process was initiated to monitor users of this rail/trail segment to more fully inform community leaders of 1) its overall use, 2) use by residents from two adjoining neighborhoods, and 3) future program and policy strategies to increase use of the segment.
The System for Observing Play and Activity and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC) is a proven methodology that can be implemented in diverse community and trail settings to gather valid and reliable data on demographic features (sex, age, race/ethnicity) and PA intensity (sedentary, walking, or very active) of users. Quarterly observations of trail users were made 4x/day (7:30am, 12:30pm, 3:30pm, 6:00pm) for 7 consecutive days. Observations were made for several minutes each at 6 different access points along the segment. These observations made by trained college students were compared to demographic data from two abutting census tracts. Brief intercept surveys were also completed with a convenience sample of users. Information was gathered pertaining to personal demographics; purpose, frequency, and duration of using the segment; time and means of travel to access the segment; how the user learned of the segment; and perceptions of maintenance, aesthetics, and safety.
Results: Direct Observation: During spring, summer, and fall of 2006, and winter, spring, and summer of 2007, 2,535 individuals were observed on the rail/trail segment. As the air temperature changed, so did the number of users. Nearly 32% of all users were observed when the temperature was 71-80oF, and over 50% used the segment when the temperature was 71-90 oF. A significant seasonality*sex interaction was found with more males observed using the segment each season. Significant gender differences were noted for PA intensity with 74% of females observed walking compared with 43% of males. Conversely, only 23% of females were observed participating in very active (vigorous) PA compared with 55% of males. A gender disparity between all rail/trail users was found with 54% being male and 46% being female. Approximately 43% and 57% of residents of the census tracts abutting the rail/trail are male and female, respectively. In addition, the vast majority of rail/trail users were adults (n=1,838, 73%). Few older adults, children and teenagers were observed using this segment of the rail/trail. Interestingly, the finding for age groups among rail/trail users was consistent with the current census data for age proportions of persons living near the segment. However, census tract data indicated that 62% of nearby residents were Caucasian and 38% were non-Caucasian. These percentages were considerably different than the observed rail/trail users during the first 1.25 years (72% Caucasian vs. 28% non-Caucasian).
Intercept Survey (n=254): 75%-85% reported coming to the segment from home by automobile requiring less than 15 minutes. 95% reported using the segment for exercise or recreational PA. The most often reported frequency of use was 1x/wk (33%), and over 60% reporting staying on the segment longer than 45 minutes with each use. Similar to the SOPARC data, more women (84%) than men (59%) reported walking on the segment and more men (15%) than women (4%) reported jogging/running. Women reported being with family and friends more often than men when using the rail/trail. Over 80% reported the maintenance, aesthetics, and safety as good-excellent. The 3 most commonly reported ways of learning about the trail were word of mouth, the newspaper, and driving past the segment.
Conclusions: This evaluation indicated that during the first 16 months after construction, the sex and race/ethnicity features of the rail/trail users were inconsistent with the demographic characteristics of residents living in two nearby census tracts. Most users traveled by automobile to access the trail. Community leaders should consider tailored marketing strategies to promote greater use of the rail/trail segment by females, non-Caucasians, and older and younger populations, especially among those living nearby. New policies and programs also need to foster the large potential use of the segment for travel purposes, as many businesses are located adjacent to the rail/trail, and it connects to the downtown business district.