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Who uses the Erie Canal trail? Study seeks to encourage diversity

National Park Service
The Erie Canalway Trail, a section of which is shown here, is the subject of a new study to determine who is -- and who is not -- using the trail and devise ways to make the trail more welcoming to a diverse population of users.

Common Ground Health, a Rochester nonprofit, has begun a study to understand who is using the local portion of the Erie Canalway Trail and how to make that group more diverse.

Benjamin Woelk, who’s running the study for Common Ground Health, said he suspects that current trail users are largely white and have above-average incomes, even though the trail runs right past some of Rochester’s poorest ZIP codes.

Woelk said this study, which will analyze trail use in Monroe, Orleans and Wayne counties, is part of a relatively new push to understand exactly how parks are connected to health.

“This is not just a recreational space,” Woelk said. “There are real health benefits -- mental health especially, and also physical health -- that come from the Empire State Trail.”

TheErie Canalway is a 360-mile east-west section of the largerEmpire State Trail, which will connect a network of regional trails that run 750 miles from Manhattan to Lake Champlain and Albany to Buffalo.

That network is scheduled for completion later this year, and Woelk said it’s important to understand why some groups of people who live right next to sections of the trail that are finished are rarely using them.

Kecia McCullough, who sits on the study’s steering committee and runs the local chapter ofBlack Girls Do Bike, said the study is a start -- but she wants to see action, too.

 She drew a distinction between people who live outside of the Rochester city limits, who she said use the trail often, and people of color who live in the city and use the trail rarely.

McCullough said she already knows what to expect from the first batch of study results.

“People in the city are typically not using the canal path. We already know that. We know that it’s not easily accessible,” she said. “But why isn’t it?”

McCullough said the trail, which largely follows the city’s southwestern border, lacks access points in the communities of color it abuts.

McCullough said answering the “why” question will be crucial to the study’s success. Then, she said, she wants to focus on “hows.”

“How can we make the trail welcoming to the people who are not there now? How do we build access to the trail in the parts of the city where people need it?” she said.

For Woelk, the pattern of low trail use in minority communities is a public health concern.

“These are the communities that have some of the highest rates of chronic disease in our area. Getting people on the trail can affect that,” he said, explaining that physical activity is connected with longer lives, reductions in diabetes, and mental health benefits.

“If they’re not using the trail, that’s low-hanging fruit for positive health outcomes,” he said.

Andy Beers, who runs the Empire State Trail program, said other cities and towns along the route will be watching the results of this study. What Common Ground Health learns in Rochester will help other municipalities encourage a diverse set of people to get on the trail, he said.

“We’re particularly interested in reaching people with underlying health challenges that aren’t using the trail today -- to get them out walking and riding,” Beers said.

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