Deliver Benefits to the Public

Researchers examine use, benefits of Chicago's elevated trail

ILLINOIS — “The 606” is the world’s first multi-use elevated trail, extending for 2.7 miles through diverse neighborhoods that have some of the least amount of open space per person in Chicago. The trail, which connects six ground-level parks, is managed by the Chicago Park District for recreation but also serves as a cross-town transportation connector.

Photo: Portrait of Paul Gobster.
Research landscape architect Paul Gobster. Forest Service photo.

Forest Service scientists are providing information about the trail’s use to park managers and project partners with The Trust for Public Land so they can maintain a safe experience for users, make operations and maintenance plans, and document the multiple public benefits of trail development.

“We monitor the equipment and provide our partners monthly and annual data summaries, highlighting trends and anomolies,” said Paul Gobster, a research landscape architect at the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station unit in Evanston, Illinois. “So far the data show consistent high use during good weather, across all seasons of the year. The data also support broader goals of the trail’s development to provide a safe and healthy route for exercise and transportation, and a social connector between diverse communities.”

The scientists used automated traffic monitoring technology to count the number of people using the trail and found the majority of users were pedestrians, but the numbers varied by day of week and time of day. A model developed to account for variations in use indicated day of the week (weekday or weekend), location on the trail and temperature explained 80 percent of daily use variation. Preliminary results suggest that the 606 has created connections between historically segregated neighborhoods, meeting and exceeding managers’ objectives. Documenting all use helps managers properly maintain the trail.

Forest Service scientists have long studied trail use in national forests. Studying an urban trail like the 606 is a bit more complicated because the very high use requires observational sampling to calibrate counts and adjust for “occlusion errors” when users simulateously cross the infrared beam, but Gobster said he’s confident in their equipment and analysis.

Given the success of the 606, the High Line walkway in New York City, and riverwalks like the one in San Antonio, Texas, urban trails are one of the last frontiers for urban open space development. Green space in cities is often hard to come by, but repurposing these edges and corridors for public use as trails is an idea that continues to gain momentum in Chicago and across the U.S.

Gobster and his colleagues recently presented their research on the 606 at the national conference of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., where it won an Outstanding Paper Award.

Recent work by others on the 606 and elsewhere show that urban trails can ease traffic congestion because people walk instead of drive to work and provide an avenue for exercise. However, there are concerns that trail development can lead to gentification, raising property values and displacing lower income residents. City planners can take steps to mitigate those effects.

Photo: Pedestrians and cyclists along paved trail. Trees line both sides.
Pedestrians and cyclists share the 606 trail in Chicago, Ill. Forest Service photo.