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The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways
User Experience at the Tanglefoot Trail in Northeast Mississippi

by Professor Michael Seymour, PLA, & Assistant Professor Peter Summerlin, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP | Mississippi State University

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

These circle charts show statistics about Tanglefoot Trail users. To acquire this data, an online survey, taken by supporters of the Tanglefoot Trail, was offered on Facebook and completed by 210 people. Although these statistics may not accurately apply to every trail system, they can still offer valuable information to designers and landscape architects looking to develope trails and walkways around the nation.

The Tanglefoot Trail meets the definition of a "greenway" as defined in David Little's 1990 seminal text, Greenways for America. Little includes in his definition "any linear open space" that travels "along a railroad right-of-way converted to recreational use." The Tanglefoot Trail is one of the more recent rails-to-trails conversions which have resulted from a recognized "greenways movement" that, according to greenway expert Julius Fabos, began in the 1980s. In subsequent decades, greenways have received considerable attention as a tool for sustainable design due to their obvious benefits, which include promotion of health through active living, advancement of non-motorized transportation options such as biking and walking, and preservation of much-needed greenspace for recreation, water management and wildlife habitat.

This study was designed to advance understanding of greenways by presenting data and findings from a survey of supporting users of the Tanglefoot Trail, a highly rural rails-to-trails greenway in northeast Mississippi.

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

View of Tanglefoot Trail (2016). As a converted rail line, the Tanglefoot Trail is comprised of long, uninterrupted stretches of asphalt that cut through the rural Mississippi landscape. With the limited intersections, very subtle elevation changes and several miles between stops, the trail is primarily attractive to recreational bike riders.

This paper is the result of a survey of supporters of the Tanglefoot Trail. The survey was conducted online with a link, announcement and subsequent reminder posted on the Tanglefoot Trail Facebook page. The survey took an average of nine minutes to finish. The survey included Likert-scaled statements, some basic demographic questions and a few open-ended questions for topics that required greater input or reflection. 256 people started the survey with 210 completions (82.03% completion rate).

Who uses and supports the Tanglefoot Trail?
Respondents were somewhat older than might be expected with an average age of 51. While this is influenced by the exclusion of those under 18 from the survey, it does seem to reflect the older demographic one typically witnesses using the trail as well as the aging population of the state, which has a median age of 36.5. Additionally, there were very few respondents in the 18-24 age bracket (2) and the highest proportion of respondents from the 54-65 age bracket (63).
Other significant demographic information collected from respondents included gender and primary residence. In terms of gender, 56% or respondents identified as male and 44% as female. 77% of respondents identified Mississippi as their primary residence with 96% residing in Mississippi or an adjacent state. While trail supporters often mention those who have travelled vast distances to use the trail, the majority of the respondents were from north Mississippi and almost half (49%) from towns directly along the trail route.

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

The 43.6-mile trail navigates through a rural Mississippi landscape comprised of agriculture, pasture, mixed forest, and 6 small communities. Rest areas at each community (referred to as "whistlestops") provide restroom facilities and public parking for trail users.

How and when do they use the Tanglefoot Trail?
79% of respondents reported that biking was their primary Tanglefoot Trail activity. 14% of respondents reported walking/hiking as their primary use while 6% reported running and 1% reported another use such as using a golf cart or skating. The dramatic emphasis on biking is unsurprising given the length of the trail, the low surrounding density (which prohibits much destination walking), and the relative flatness of the route.

Respondents were also asked, "How many people do you typically travel with?" Most respondents reported traveling with someone when they used the Trail. Only 17% reported traveling alone, while 57% reported traveling with one or two companions and 26% reported traveling with three or more in their group. Some trail documents encourage using the trail "with a partner" for safety, although this is not an official regulation. There does, however, seem to be an aspect of camaraderie to the trail (and most greenways) which was mentioned by some of the respondents in the open-ended questions.
Respondents were asked several questions about duration and frequency of use, seasonal differences and distance traveled. When asked how much time they "typically spend on the Tanglefoot Trail?" 86% of respondents reported spending more than an hour. Only 1% reported spending less than 30 minutes and 13% reported spending 30 minutes to one hour. Respondents were also asked which seasons of the year they used the Trail. Fall (218 of 220 respondents), summer (197 of 220 respondents) and spring (220 of 220 respondents) were almost equally popular, but winter use was much reduced (92 of 220 respondents). In terms of frequency of use, 61% of respondents reported using the trail once a month or more. However, of this group, only 2% reported using the trail on a daily basis. 34% of respondents reported using the trail a few times a year and only 5% reported having used the trail just one time. In terms of distance, almost half of respondents (49%) reported traveling more than 20 miles on a typical visit to the trail. And 85% of respondents reported traveling over five miles.

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

What do you enjoy most about the Tanglefoot Trail?

What motivates them to use the Tanglefoot Trail?
Trail users were asked to rate five motivations for using the trail on a scale of one to ten. Categories were a slightly modified version of those suggested in the Trail User Survey Workbook created by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Respondents rated "Health and Exercise" (8.98 out of 10) and "Recreation" (8.79 out of 10) very highly in terms of their motivation for using the trail while "Fitness Training" (7.73 out of 10), and "Camaraderie" (5.84 out of 10) were rated as less influential. "Commuting" (2.75 out of 10) was rated the lowest in terms of influence on user motivations, which is not surprising given the rural character, distance between towns and low density of the trail surroundings.

What do they enjoy most about the Tanglefoot Trail?
Regarding their enjoyment of the trail, participants were asked to rate ten, Likert-scaled (1=Strongly Disagree, 5= Strongly Agree) statements about various aspects of the experience. As these were trail supporters, it is not particularly surprising that they agreed with most statements about aspects of the Trail being enjoyable. However, the extent to which respondents agreed with the various statements is enlightening. Respondents rated "the peace and quiet on the trail" (4.75) and "the natural aspects of the trail" (4.71) very highly. "Shopping along the trail" (3.12) and the "busy parts of the trail" (3.06) were rated the lowest in terms of respondents' enjoyment. This has ramifications for trail development.

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

What did you appreciate or find meaningful about the Tanglefoot Trail

Respondents were also asked two open-ended questions regarding the meaning of the trail. The first was "What did you appreciate or find meaningful about the experience of using the Tanglefoot Trail?" Responses were categorized and tallied; they are presented in the Table found in the upper-right hand corner of this page. Most frequently mentioned was the safety the trail provides by allowing riders to avoid cars. The peacefulness of the trail and the natural environment surrounding the trail were the second and third most frequently mentioned items.

The Usefulness and Meaning of Rural Greenways

In what ways was the experience of using the Trail beneficial to you?

This study suggests that the Tanglefoot Trail has had a positive impact on the lives of many rural north Mississippi residents, who otherwise have few, healthful recreational opportunities available. For aging rural populations, such trails may provide an attractive option to improved health outcomes through increased cycling in particular. Future research should examine this issue in greater depth to explore more specifically what landscape character, design features, views and amenities would be helpful in attracting and retaining users and supporters.

As seen in LASN magazine, March 2019.

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September 18, 2019, 5:32 am PDT

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