Pavement conditions, safety concerns blamed for drop in trail use in San Jose
Pedestrians on a San Jose trail during the Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services department 2020 trail count. Courtesy of city of San Jose.

When Liz Sewell moved to the area, she said she marveled at the number of trails San Jose has close to downtown.

Sewell, the city’s trail manager, came to the South Bay from Philadelphia, a city that’s quickly transformed itself into a bike-friendly community. But she said San Jose’s push to encourage more biking across the city, particularly for commuting, interested and excited her.

“I was very surprised, looking back historically, to see how many users were using the trails for active transportation,” Sewell said. Active transportation means using the trails for travel with a destination in mind, such as going to work, home or shopping.

But a new study led by Sewell shows a concerning trend: Using trails for commuting has dropped to 13 percent from 31 percent of users last year. The annual study, now in its 14th year, found about half of all trail users counted this year were out for exercise, while another third used trails just for fun — up from 18 percent last year.

“It looks like recreation and commuting just kind of flip flopped,” Sewell said. “It was really good to see that even during these times when people aren’t using the trails for what they would normally use them for, they still want to get outside and are finding the trails a useful mechanism to do so,” Sewell said.

The study took place during the height of this summer’s wildfires, and air quality was considered “moderate” to “unhealthy for sensitive groups. A “Spare the Air” alert was also in place for the Bay Area.

Volunteers and staff counted more than 4,700 trail users at 11 count stations — about 1,600 fewer people than in 2019.

This year’s survey recorded large decreases in trail users at most of the 11 trail stations – some dropping by a whopping 76%. Officials anticipated the drop is related to the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires.

A screenshot from the study showing the number of trail users at 11 stations.

Yves Zsutty, division manager for San Jose’s parks and recreation services, said the counts showed an increase of trail use in South San Jose, where more recreational users congregate. That correlated with a drop in trail use downtown, where more commuters use the city’s trails.

The department also conducted another survey in June to measure COVID-19’s impact on trail use. Compared with the annual survey, the numbers showed people were getting out on the trails more than just a few months into the pandemic – despite the poor air quality.

While less than two percent of trail users were commuting in late spring, the study found about 10 percent of trail users were back to commuting by September.

“There were a lot of statements like ‘It’s good for my emotional health and mental health,’ ‘It helps me be outside,’ some people said… they already used the trail system as their gym, so when the gyms closed down, they still had their normal exercise routine,” said Beth Tidwell, a senior analyst for San Jose’s capital projects team. “There’s a lot of good positive feedback that people were very grateful that San Jose has trails.”

But the past several studies have showed a general decline in trail use dating back to 2016.

Survey respondents said pavement conditions, debris and other impediments related to the homeless population were the biggest reasons why they don’t use the city’s trails more. Others said safety was an issue.

“Social issues are a challenge and I can understand why people would feel discouraged,” Zsutty said. “The city has a number of programs program it’s putting out to keep the trails in better condition, but… I believe this could be impacting it.”

View the full 2020 trail count study, as well as previous trail counts, at the city’s website here.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow her @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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