Decision makers need information on the use of, and demand for, public recreation and transportation facilities. Innovations in monitoring technologies and diffusion of social media enable new approaches to estimation of demand. We assess the feasibility of using geo-tagged photographs uploaded to the image-sharing website Flickr and tweets from Twitter as proxy measures for urban trail use. We summarize geo-tagged Flickr uploads and tweets along 80 one-mile segments of the multiuse trail network in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and correlate results with previously published estimates of annual average daily trail traffic derived from infrared trail monitors. Although heat maps of Flickr images and tweets show some similarities with maps of variation in trail traffic, the correlation between photographs and trail traffic is moderately weak (0.43), and there is no meaningful statistical correlation between tweets and trail traffic. Use of a simple log-log bivariate regression to estimate trail traffic from photographs results in relatively high error. The predictor variables included in published demand models for the same trails explain roughly the same amount of variation in photo-derived use, but some of the neighborhood socio-demographic and built-environment independent variables have different effects. Taken together, these findings show that both Flickr images and tweets have limitations as proxies for demand for urban trails, and that neither can be used to develop valid, reliable estimates of trail use. These results differ from previously published results that indicate social media may be useful in assessing relative demand for recreational destinations. This difference may be because urban trails are used for multiple purposes, including routine commuting and shopping, and that trail users are less inclined to use social media on trips for these purposes.
Read the full paper in PNAS.