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  Pine Creek Rail Trail in north-central Pennsylvania.
A happy rail-trail user is eager to take the survey.

RTC Resources

Trail User Survey Workbook: How to Conduct a Survey and Win Support for your Trail

Survey Templates and Spreadsheets

Information on RTC's Trail User Survey work for Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

User Survey and Economic Impact Analysis reports by RTC:

Trail User Surveys and Economic Impact: A Comparison of Trail User Expenditures, 2009

Ask Our Listserv: Learn about trail development from the experts! Join our listserv to be connected to more than 900 trail managers, advocates and builders across the country.

Go to RTC's Trails and Greenways Publication Library

For more information, please contact the appropriate regional or national office.


Additional Resources

Heritage Rail Trail County Park 2012 User Survey and Economic Impact Analysis : York County Department of Parks and Recreation

San Jose Trail Count City of San Jose, Department of Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services

Heritage Rail Trail County Park 2007 User Survey and Economic Impact Analysis : York County Department of Parks and Recreation

Northern Central Rail Trail 2004 User Study and Economic Impact Analysis: Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Economic Impacts of Virginia Creeper Trail : Virginia Department of Conservation

Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail User Survey Waterfront Regeneration Trust

Minnesota Trail Studies: State Trail Use : Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Nebraska Rural Trails: Three Studies of Trail Impact : Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program National Park Service

Use and Users of the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail in Midland County, Michigan : Michigan State University

Indiana Trails Study: Indiana Department of Transportation

Management and Maintenance

Trail User Surveys

Explore the latest resources on this topic:

User Surveys in RTC TrailBlog
User Surveys in the Library

Watch Our Webinar On Trail Counts

The completion of a user survey and economic impact analysis can provide a number of valuable benefits to trail organizations, local municipalities and state agencies. A complete picture of trail-user characteristics can be developed—who uses the trail, where they come from, what they do on the trail, how long they are on the trail, and which sections of the trail are most popular. The survey can document how users perceive the current condition of the trail and help to identify maintenance issues. The survey outcomes can help to identify if additional amenities would improve the trail-user experience.

Collecting current data on users, usage patterns and economic impact can serve as a powerful tool to support the development of additional trails. Having current facts and figures can help other trail projects gain support from local municipalities, businesses and adjacent property owners.

Data from a user study and economic impact analysis can also prove a powerful aid when submitting funding requests or applying for grants to support the development of new trails or the maintenance and upgrading of existing trails.


For any research project it is important at the outset to establish a set of objectives. Know why the information is being collected and what will be done with it when the study has been completed. A trail-user study that sits on the author's desk isn't going to accomplish much. A typical set of objectives might include:

  1. Determine the characteristics of users of the trail. These would include where trail users come from, their demographics, usage patterns (type of activity, length of activity, frequency of activity), and trail user perceptions in terms of safety, cleanliness and maintenance;
  2. Determine which sections of the trail are used most frequently, amenities that are desired by trail users, and primary reasons for utilizing the trail (recreation, exercise, nature study, fishing);
  3. Determine the spending patterns of trail users, how much do they spend on equipment, meals, lodging and snacks in conjunction with their trail activities, and where do overnight visitors stay.


The next step is to determine how the survey will be conducted. In most cases Information will be gathered from people who are actually using the trail. However, there may also be an interest in gathering information from adjacent property owners, businesses adjacent to the trail, or businesses that provide products and services for trail users (bike shops, bed-and-breakfasts, motels, restaurants). Who information is gathered from is referred to as the "target group."

Now that the target group has been defined, the next question is how many targets should be contacted. This is referred to as the "sample size." The larger the sample, the more accurately the results will reflect the target group. A decision about sample size should be based on such factors as project timeline, budget and necessary degree of precision. Consider 300 completed surveys to be a minimum number for a sample size.

When to conduct the survey will be dependent on the objectives that have been set. Most trail-user surveys are conducted from May to October; this is when many trails see the heaviest usage. However, in southern states, trail usage may be higher in the cooler months and even during the winter. If you are interested in winter activities on the trail, the survey may be conducted over 12 months.

Data Collection

There are a number of different ways that the information can be collected from trail users. The following are brief descriptions of methods that have been successfully used to collect trail-user data.

  • Personal intercept
    This method requires that an "interviewer" stop trail users and ask a series of questions. This is usually best for short surveys. In one example the only questions was "what is your zip code" as trail users walked or rode by. This method is labor intensive and usually requires a lot of volunteer hours.
  • Self-Selecting - Drop Box
    In this method, survey forms are available to be picked up at trailheads and trailside businesses. Completed forms are deposited in a drop box at the trailhead or business. The labor required here is to have someone make sure the supply of survey forms are maintained and that the drop boxes are emptied periodically.
  • Self-Selecting - Mail-Back
    This is similar to the method described above except that the completed survey forms are mailed back to the trail organization's address. The mail-back can be either a self-addressed stamped envelope or business reply mail.

Direct mail, e-mail and Web-based survey methods are not recommended for trail-user surveys because they require a previously existing database of trial users and professional assistance is advised.

Survey Form

The most important consideration when designing a survey is to select those questions that will best help achieve the objectives established for the project. Review the objectives and stick to them.

Keep the number of questions in the survey to a minimum. Generally it is better to keep the survey form to one side of one page. For each question, ask, "What will I do with the information gathered in response to this question?" and, "Will this information help me to achieve the objectives of the survey?" Because there will be hundreds of completed survey forms, make the questions "closed-ended." That is, provide the respondent with a number of predetermined responses from which to choose. Open-ended questions, where the respondent can provide any answer that comes into their head, are generally too difficult to analyze.  Also, keep the following in mind: Place difficult or sensitive questions near the end of the survey, and group questions together in a logical sequence.

Recording the Data

There are number of excellent statistical analysis programs available for personal computers. However, you can probably do all of the analysis you'll need with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The responses to questions are in columns and the individual survey forms make up the rows.

When entering the data, there are two points that must be kept in mind. First, enter exactly what the respondent provided. If the question asked the respondent to "circle one" and they circled three responses, record all three responses. Second, be aware of the possibility of "outliers." These are surveys or survey responses that are abnormal when compared to the type of response that would normally be anticipated, e.g., a four-digit Zip Code. Such responses are more apt to occur when a "self-service" methodology was used to conduct the survey. In some instances surveys are completed in a malicious manner and contain obvious fabrications. It is best to set surveys with questionable responses aside for review by the project manager.

Reporting and Analysis

To complete the project, a report should be written that presents the results of the research. At a minimum, the report should include: an executive summary and tables or graphs containing the responses to each individual question.

Don't keep the results of the survey a secret. Contact a local newspaper and talk with a reporter about the results. Send copies to local municipal officials and state representatives and agencies that provide trail funding. Offer to present the results at a Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has worked with a number of trail organizations to develop and implement trail-user surveys, resulting in the Trail User Survey Workbook ( 2.1M). The workbook contains more detailed information on how to conduct a trail-user survey. Also there are survey form templates for conducting research on urban, suburban and rural trails. Data collection spreadsheets with all of the calculations already formulated are also available.

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