Which Ohio bike trail is visited by the most people? It's a simple question, right? Well, yes and no. Let's take a look at how trail user data is collected and what it suggests regarding visitation rates.
Getting An Accurate Count
A high visitation rate is the best indicator of how popular a trail is. But counting those visitors is not perfect science. You see, many trail users will pass by a counting station a second time as they return from their their ride/walk. As it's not practical to quiz every user for their name or address, there's no way to be sure how many have passed by more than once. To avoid doubling the actual usage numbers (counting everyone twice as they double back), sometimes formulas are devised to eliminate these repeat numbers. But they are only a best guess as to how many users were counted more than once.
But that's only a part of the counting dilemma. On longer trails, some users will only use a small segment of the bikeway and may not pass a check point or counting station, even if there are several along the route. They will go uncounted. Others will pass a couple of stations causing the numbers in these spots to rise. This tells us with reasonable reliability, which trail sections are the most popular. But even in these cases, the 'doubling back' effect can significantly inflate the count.
How It Works... Or Doesn't
Here's an illustration. Let's say we have a short trail, perhaps 3-4 miles long. We set up four counting stations to cover its entire length. Now let's start counting and see what happens...
1st-station=4 2nd-station=4 3rd-station=0 4th-station=0
Very early on two stations record 4 users each. Seems clear, right? Let's break it down: Did one couple walk/ride about 1/2 the trail, then double back? If so we have a total of 2 users. Perhaps two different couples did the same but only used 1/4 of the trail instead. In that case, we have 4 total users. But wait. If it's an urban trail that has numerous access points, maybe 4 users passed station 1 (once), while 4 others did the same at station 2. In that case, we'd have 8 different users!
Our total station count is 8, but as we can see by our example, as few as 2 users could have generated those numbers during one visit. So it's only reasonable to try to adjust the numbers to generate a more realistic total for the final count. Unfortunately there is no perfect formula that allows one to do so with guaranteed accuracy. And raw data, or data that is not adjusted, will be on the high side due to the 'doubling back' effect.
Numbers Can Lie
Since accurate, definitive numbers are so difficult to achieve, you'll likely see a wide range instead. We've seen estimates for the Ohio & Erie Towpath that have suggested anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 or more total annual visitors. That's quite a range, so when faced with the challenge of comparing this trail to others, what number would we use?
Hands On Approach
For those who have personally visited many Ohio bikeways there's another method of determining popularity: By visitng each trail during a typical summer weekend. It quickly becomes apparent which trails draw the most followers. The two long-standing leaders are definitely the Little Miami and the Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail. At least at this time, we can safely consider them to be the two finalists in the search for the most popular Ohio bikeway.
Meet The Finalists
The Little Miami Scenic Trail has the best word-of-mouth of any Ohio bike trail due to its long-established history that dates back to the 1970s. It was the first long bikeway in the state that also happened to traverse scenic areas along the Miami Valley in southwestern Ohio. Today it has grown to about 75 miles in length. You can add another 18 to that total if you ride the Simon Kenton Trail that takes over where the Little Miami leaves off to the north in Springfield, Ohio.
The Little Miami is part of one of the busiest trail networks in the state. It passes through the popular Xenia Station Hub and is also part of the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, a route that will connect the Ohio River in Cincinnati with Lake Erie by trail.
In the northeast, the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is still a work in progress. Roughly 80 of the estimated 100-110 mile corridor has finished trail. It also passes through popular locations as it makes its way through the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park where it connects to two major trails, the Emerald Necklace and the Akron Bike & Hike Trails. Not to be outdone, a portion of the towpath is also part of the Ohio-to-Erie Trail.
While many segments of the towpath trail are newer, the history of the canal is a big draw for cyclists and canal buffs alike.
But where the towpath really distinguishes itself from the Little Miami is with its infrastructure and the money behind it. To build the trail through downtown Akron, for example, required massive amounts of capital. To cross a portion of Summit Lake required a 'floating trail' or boardwalk. The results are a number of well-endowed trailheads, bridges and parks along the bikeway that can only come with large-scale planning and a big budget.
But which of these two grand trails is most popular? Well, we could use the wide range of numbers generated for each and see which has the higher average. But since the ranges are so large (and therefore lacking in accuracy), it's still a relative guess as to which numbers are more realistic. So if all we're going to do is make an educated guess, let's use a simpler method and have some fun at the same time.
Poll Me, Daddy!
We ran a web poll for over 2 years that addressed this very issue by including our two finalists -- as well as several other contenders -- in a popularity contest. It stands to reason that the trail that most consider their favorite will be visited the most (when users have the time and means to do so, of course).
And The Winner Is!
The Ohio & Erie Towpath edged out the Little Miami for the top spot, while the Ohio-to-Erie Trail (the cross-state trail that includes segments of both leaders) took third place.