The American Tobacco Trail is great, at least for well educated middle class dudes

The ATT bridge over I-40 is coming up on its one year anniversary next month. The bridge was the final component of the Durham segment of the ATT, which now runs all the way from downtown to Southpoint (and beyond).

The project presented an opportunity to study the trail, both before and after completion, and a report from NCSU shows some interesting results (PDF). The researchers monitored ATT usage at similar times in nearby areas both before and after the bridge was completed, and they also asked trail users to complete a survey.

The number of trail users increased following the completion of the bridge; by their count, by a whopping 80.1%. This is not surprising, considering that there are a lot of residential neighborhoods just north of the bridge and a lot of retail just south of the bridge. The nearest way to bike or walk across I-40 before the bridge’s completion was the (terrifying) Fayetteville Road vehicular bridge, so there was undoubtedly a lot of pent up demand for an alternative in this area.

What is surprising, at least to me, is the demographic break down of trail users; per the report:

Demographic information from pre-bridge surveys shows that the typical trail user was male, 26-54 years old, had an advanced degree, and a household income between $60,000 and $119,999. Those surveyed post-bridge exhibited similar demographics.

Looking at their data, a majority of all trail users had an advanced degree. Durham does have an impressive percentage of residents with advanced degrees, so this is plausible, but that rate is much greater than the city as a whole. I’m personally inclined to take the survey data with at least a grain of salt, since there may be sample error at play here. [Edit: the survey locations being near relatively affluent areas may be a contributing factor, as well].

Here are some interesting points the researchers observed:

    • Although all trail uses increased with the addition of the bridge, cycling increased the most
    • The gender breakdown is 55% male versus 45% female
    • The proportion of children using the trail went up from 8.9% to 9.9%
    • The trail is overwhelmingly used for recreation, both before and after the completion of the bridge. It looks like under 10% of those surveyed were using it for transportation.
    • The bridge has had “an estimated annual impact of 43 jobs, $1.3 million in employee compensation, and $4.9 million in total business gross revenues.“I tend to be sceptical of precise monetary impact numbers like this, because it takes a lot of extrapolation to get them, but it does seem likely that the bridge is earning back at least some of its investment cost already.

Although I think the ATT is a real point of pride for the city (and the bridge makes it even better), I’m a little discouraged by that demographic breakdown. If accurate, the study seems to indicate that the ATT is underutilized by low income people, and that the trail is infrequently used as a form of transportation. Do people have safety concerns that prevent them from using the trail in certain areas? Does the trail not connect up with other pedestrian or bike friendly infrastructure? Or is the study’s methodology simply off the mark?

The new data on the ATT bridge reminded me of Durham’s other notable pedestrian bridge: the $2.2M bridge which spans the Durham Freeway. The bridge links two neighborhoods which were separated by the construction of the Durham Freeway (the Freeway project resulted in the destruction of numerous poor neighborhoods).

I’ve always wondered whether the Durham Freeway bridge was more of a token gesture (and a fancy display piece to show people driving into town) than a useful piece of infrastructure designed to meet the real needs of citizens. If the ATT bridge (which links miles of trail on either side) is basically just used for recreation, how are people using the Durham Freeway bridge, which connects areas that don’t even have proper sidewalks yet? I’d love to see some kind of study done on that bridge, too.

3 thoughts on “The American Tobacco Trail is great, at least for well educated middle class dudes”

  1. RE: Demographics (and to echo Amy) I would imagine this is more reflecting the social norms of various groups. Just a thought.

    The trail is overwhelmingly used for recreation, both before and after the completion of the bridge. It looks like under 10% of those surveyed were using it for transportation.

    Would it be legal to use the trail as a commercial transit route for commuters? I’m thinking golf cart taxi route, or pedicab. “Cart”-pooling, etc. for lack of a better word, as an alternative to riding the bus.

  2. The intention of the study was to look at the impacts of the bridge, not study the trail as a whole. So you are correct in asserting that the demographic breakdown is likely not representative of the trail as a whole, but it is likely representative of the users in the study area which comprises the area around the bridge site.

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