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Tracking Down Who Is Using Connecticut's Trails

Patrick Skahill
Connecticut Public Radio
The guts of an infrared (IR) sensor box. This one is on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail in Hamden. In 2017, IR sensors at 15 sites recorded more than 1 million uses of Connecticut trails.

A state-wide census of trail use is underway. Last year, it recorded more than 1.4 million trips taken by hikers, bikers, and others looking to get outside.

If you’re out hiking this spring and notice a small gray box, it may have your number.

“It’s heat sensing -- so any warm body, basically -- that passes the sensor will be counted,” said Kristina Kelly, statewide coordinator of the Connecticut Trail Census program.

The census’ mission, which also included more than 1,000 in-person surveys in 2017, is to obtain information about who is using Connecticut’s trails, at what time of day, and for what purpose.

Kelly said the infrared sensors are currently counting on 15 different trail spots, which means lots of field visits to make sure everything’s running properly.

One of the things she demonstrated on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail in Hamden was opening the sensor container -- to download its data and give it a good cleaning.

“We check for bugs inside,” Kelly said. “That has been an issue before, where bugs cover the sensor in a spider web, and then it’s not counting.”

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Laura Brown, a community and economic development educator with UConn Extension, (left) and Kristina Kelly, statewide coordinator of the Connecticut Trail Census program. The two are standing by an infrared scope sensor in Hamden that's used to count trips on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.

Sometimes deer and other critters give false hits too. But Laura Brown, a community and economic development educator with UConn Extension, said the data provides important information to trail managers.

“Multi-use trails are not cheap to build. They can be up to $1 million a mile,” Brown said. “Which means that when communities make the decision to do it -- they want to know what is the use going to be like? Are people making use of this investment?”  

According to UConn Extension, in 2017, of the 15 trails tracked, the most heavily used trails were the at Naugatuck River Greenway in Derby (303,550 uses), the Still River Greenway in Brookfield (197,945 uses) and the Hop River Trail in Vernon (133,016 uses).  

Data collection for 2018 starts next month.

Kelly said trail managers looking to participate can get more information on the Connecticut Trail Census website, where they can also take a look at all of last year’s data.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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