Pennsylvania Legacies #177: Redefining Trail Gaps

Featured image credit: Thom Carroll Photography/Circuit Trails Coalition

PEC’s recently published gap analysis of the Circuit Trails network is more than just a list of priority segments: it proposes a whole new way of thinking about trail projects in terms of social impact. We hear from two members of the Circuit Trails Coalition’s task force on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion: Eleanor Horne of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, and PEC’s Zhenya Nalywayko, who prepared the report.

The Circuit Trails initiative aims to create 500 miles of trails around Greater Philadelphia by 2025. So far the groups making up the Circuit Trails Coalition, which includes PEC, have completed close to 400 miles, with many more already planned and funded. The closer the effort gets to 500, the more the Coalition’s focus shifts to enhancing connectivity within the system — and, in particular, closing gaps.

What is a trail gap, exactly? On its face, it’s just the geographical space between existing trail sections. Working from that definition, closing gaps usually means finding the most cost-efficient ways to connect the dots, wherever they may be.

You can read the entire Gap Analysis here.

But the Circuit is about more than just trail miles. It’s about connecting people — with one another, with the outdoors, with places to work and play — and t’s no secret that access to these kinds of connections is far from universal. Different neighborhoods have different needs, and different barriers to meeting them. Sometimes the true impact of a project can’t be measured in dollars-per-mile.

What if you could define trail gaps in a way that accounts for all the variables — especially when it comes to historically underrepresented, underserved, and vulnerable communities? For more than five years, a Circuit Trails working group focused on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion has been wrestling with how to do that.

The effort took a big step forward last summer with the publication of a new, network-wide gap analysis. It’s a comprehensive review of where the biggest opportunities lie — not simply to achieve the longest-possible continuous routes at the lowest cost, but to make the biggest difference where it’s needed most. It’s also meant as a tool to help trail advocates and planners set priorities based on quantified social impact.

“It’s about connecting people to green spaces and transportation and transit centers, to open space. It’s the same purpose but taking a micro look at specific communities,” said Eleanor Horne, co-president of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, one of more than fifty groups represented in the Circuit Trails Coalition. “What really is important is connecting people. People became the metric, what people need was more the metric than how much pavement is actually laid. I think in many ways the Gap Analysis is a humanizing tool.”

In many ways, the Gap Analysis is a humanizing tool.

There are endless ways to rate and prioritize trail segments. The Circuit Trails Coalition used the Indicators of Potential Disadvantage system created by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). According to the DVRPC, “the IPD analysis identifies populations of interest under Title VI and EJ using U.S. Census American Community Survey (ACS) 2016-2020 five-year estimates data and maps these populations in each of the Census tracts in the region via GIS.”

The study group decided to narrow down the factors to the three that seemed the most relevant their equity goals: income, race, and ethnicity. Moving away from an emphasis on miles built and focusing instead on the location of the gaps made it possible to rank trail gaps based on which ones would do the most good for the most people, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. 

The top trail gaps from the Gap Analysis.


Once the rankings were finalized, there were some surprises.

“What’s very interesting is that the number one priority trail gap overall was the, what we’re calling, the Southern Connection of the Liberty Bell Trail in Montgomery County, which we did not expect,” said Zhenya Nalywayko, program coordinator with PEC and lead author of the gap analysis. “Typically, for people who aren’t from Philadelphia, you look at Montgomery County as a middle- to upper-income county, but that isn’t to say there aren’t lower income, very diverse parts of that county. Oftentimes those areas get overlooked.”

There were also, inevitably, some disappointments, as some trails had to be ranked lower on the list.

“I was disappointed in some ways that my own trail, the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, does not have high ratings, and so when I’m being selfish about it, I think, you know, that weakens my own competitive standing for funding,” said Eleanor Horne. “But when I step back and I think about what is in the best interest of Circuit Trails, what is in the best interest of communities that are not my own that I care deeply about, then I’m deeply grateful for having the Gap Analysis.”