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Scared Off: Crime Myth vs. Reality on Trails

On the urban planning news website Planetizen, Diana DeRubertis recently noted that trails in her neighborhood weren't getting enough use because they seemed isolated, and as a result, unsafe for users on the trail alone. Despite the reality that trails are no more dangerous than their surrounding areas, this misperception is a serious issue that discourages trail use. First, the hard numbers: In Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's survey of crime on rail-trails, results show that the real issue is one of perceived rather than actual danger. Of 372 trails surveyed, only three percent reported major crimes such as mugging, assault, rape and murder. Other studies of crime along trails have shown the same result: trails are simply not dangerous places. In fact, rail-trails often clean up formerly derelict areas that had hosted criminal activity, as Charles R. Tennant, former chief of police in Elizabeth Township, Pa., has discovered. "We have found that the trail brings in so many people," he said, "that it has actually led to a decrease in problems we formerly encountered such as underage drinking along the river banks."

Despite these facts, the perception of danger remains and many potential users are dissuaded from getting out on the trail. Yet with proper design and programming, trail managers can ensure their trail is a safe, appealing community resource.

Smart design is paramount to making users feel secure. In addition to lighting the path, trail managers need to work with local emergency services to create a locator system similar to those in Dallas, Texas, and San Jose, Calif., so trail users calling 911 can relay their location to the dispatcher. In addition, new construction along the trail should face the path instead of ignoring it. Turning the trail into an inviting neighborhood front porch is more effective for improving safety than treating it as a back alley.

Similarly, a trail cannot be ignored once it is built. First, you must overcome the perception that trails are unwatched areas. Part of the challenge is the location of some trails. Continuous paths suitable for trails are often found along long-ignored waterfront or rail corridors, and many trails - even in busy urban neighborhoods - are located in areas that have not traditionally hosted many people. But along seemingly hidden trails, you can turn residents into regular trail users by engaging communities along the corridor with meaningful programming.

Sometimes that includes volunteer patrols or programming with local police. But more often, programming serves to encourage area residents to use the trail. Recently, we hosted a grand-opening celebration for the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C. Nearly half of those who filled out surveys at the event hadn't used the trail before. The event introduced a new set of potential users to the trail and made them more likely to use it again. The "safety in numbers" phenomenon applies to trails, as well. With more trail users, there are more eyes on the trail and fewer opportunities for criminals to attack. With proper design and programming, trails become cherished places that attract more and more users - so many users, in fact, that overcrowding can become an issue. With bicycling and walking on the rise nationwide, increased demand for trails is something we should all be working to address.

Photo: An officer patrols the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C. by M.V. Jantzen/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Posted Thu, Jun 24 2010 11:16 AM by Stephen Miller (RTC)


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