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Trails and greenways impact our economy through Tourism, Events, Urban redevelopment, Community improvement, Property values, Health care costs, Jobs and investment, and General consumer spending.

arrow From the Summer 2011 issue of the American Trails Magazine


drawing of trail as a dollar sign


arrow Join our blog and discussions on economic benefits of trails


Evidence of many varieties of economic benefits linked to trails

By Stuart Macdonald, Editor, American Trails Magazine


What does “economic benefits” really mean in the context of trails, tourism, and communities? We are eager to share the many positive aspects of trails, but as we are increasingly having to defend trails, it is worth looking more closely at the evidence.

Americans do spend a great deal on outdoor recreation. A 2006 Outdoor Industry Foundation study found that “Active Outdoor Recreation” contributes $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supports 6.5 million jobs, and generates $88 billion in annual state and national tax revenue. Active recreation is defined as bicycling, trail activities, paddling, snow sports, camping, fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing.

Photo of trail workers

Youth and conservation corps provide jobs as
well as skills training for young people

Looking at our public lands, a recent study shows the importance of national parks and Bureau of Land Management area to the economy:

“The 437 million recreational visits to Interior-managed lands in 2010 supported more than 388,000 jobs nationwide and contributed over $44 billion in economic activity. Many of those jobs were in rural communities, including 15,000 jobs in Utah, 14,000 jobs in Wyoming, 9,000 in Colorado, and 8,000 in Arizona.”
The Department of the Interior’s Economic Contributions (2011)


Varieties of economic impacts

There are many ways that trails and greenways affect the local and national economies, including:

Photo of unloading bike from baggage car

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad provides access to riders
on the Cuyahoga Valley Trail (Photo by MarY Shaw - all
rights reserved)


Tourism on trails

While money spent on a trail trip is money not spent elsewhere, the real benefit is that it is money spent in rural towns and in more economically disadvantaged areas.

“Although the trails are small income generators compared to manufacturing, health services, and other large sectors of the local economy, their impacts are concentrated in communities dependent on trail activity, and spread to other businesses in population centers and commercial hubs of the region.”
— Economic Impact of Recreational Trail Use in Different Regions of Minnesota (2009) - download pdf (2.1 mb)

Many of the people traveling to a trail and spending a night or more in the area are economically well off with significant discretionary income. On the Great Allegheny Passage, over a third of overnight trail users reported household incomes of $100K or more.

“Almost half of surveyed bicyclists earn more than $100,000 annually and 87% earn more than $50,000. 40% have a Masters or Doctoral degree and an additional 38% reported completion of a college degree.”
— The Economic Impact of Investments in Bicycle Facilities: A Case Study of the North Carolina Northern Outer Banks (2004)

Trail tourism is one way of creating opportunities for people to vacation in the U.S. and especially places that are not standard tourist destinations. Rather than spending money in Las Vegas, at Disney World, or on cruise ships, they are traveling to rural areas across America.

“Fruita, CO has earned a reputation as a world-class mountain biking destination that pumps $1.5 million a year into the local economy, according to the BLM. And Fruita’s sales tax revenues have increased by 51% in the last 5 years, including an 80% increase in sales tax revenues from restaurants.”
— Outdoor Industry Foundation (2006)

Photo of store with bikes

A former industrial building along the Caperton Trail
has a new life in retail as a sandwich shop
(Photo by MarY Shaw - all rights reserved)

Local business benefits

Communities adjacent to public lands benefit from trails on those lands. Much of the investment in maintaining and creating trail systems comes from volunteers and donations from businesses. Many towns have been successful at identifying the recreation resources, creating systems of trails, and making them more available through maps, signs, marketing, events, and tours.

An estimated 800,000 trips are taken annually on the Great Allegheny Passage, a 141-mile system of biking and hiking trails from Cumberland, MD to Homestead, PA:

“The West Orange, Little Econ, and Cady Way trails in Orange County supported 516 jobs and an estimated economic impact of $42.6 million in 2010.“
— East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (2011)

The Teton County trail system generated an estimated $18 million in economic activity in 2010, with $1.1 million spent by local trail users and $17 million by non-local trail users:

“Employment and wages relating to the trail system in Teton County totaled $3.6 million with approximately 213 workers employed in the summer and fall of 2010.“
— Jackson Hole Trails Project Economic Impact Study (2011)

Ride, walk, run: affordable lifestyle awaits you

Advertising condos along the Highline Canal Trail in
Denver, CO (Photo by Stuart Macdonald)


Community benefits

Benefits of trail systems to cities and towns include:

• More attractive communities
• Safer routes for bicyclists, pedestrians, and children going to school
• Higher property values and taxes

Businesses want to locate in the same kinds of communities that home buyers want to live in: places perceived as safe and attractive, with opportunities for walking and trail activities.

“Trails consistently remain the number one community amenity sought by prospective homeowners.”
— National Association of Homebuilders (2008)

In pointing out the benefits of trails and greenways, we should remember that this value reflects an investment of public tax revenue. The question, according to the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment is:

“Are these investments worth the burden to taxpayers? We need more data about the costs of greenways to answer this question fully, but it is clear that homes in greenway corridors on average sell for higher prices. The premium to private property owners in greenway trail and conservation corridors across Marion County likely exceeds $140 million.”
— Public Choices and Property Values (2003)

“Investment in bicycle facilities improves the safety of the transportation system for all users and also benefits health and fitness, quality of life, and the environment.”
— The Economic Impact of Investments in Bicycle Facilities: A Case Study of the North Carolina Northern Outer Banks (2004)

The Walkway Over the Hudson is a 19th Century railroad bridge that has been renovated as a mile-long trail high over the river at Poughkeepsie, NY. Over a million visitors have come since the bridge was opened in 2009:

“The park’s success has inspired officials in both Poughkeepsie and Lloyd to enact or speed up zoning changes that will allow for tourist-friendly businesses in areas currently zoned only for housing, as they strive to build on the Walkway’s momentum to revitalize their communities.”
— “Walkway Over Hudson Invigorates Businesses,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 20, 2010

Walking this section of the trail you will burn 140 calories

Promoting the link between health and trail activities
(Photo by Stuart Macdonald)


Health care savings

Another way that we all benefit from trail facilities is increased public health. Studies are beginning to look at the link between trail use and health benefits. In Lincoln, Nebraska:

“Per capita annual cost of using the trails was $209 ($59 construction and maintenance, $150 equipment and travel). Per capita annual direct medical benefit of using the trails was $564. The cost-benefit ratio was 2.94, which means that every $1 investment in trails for physical activity led to $2.94 in direct medical benefit.”
— A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Physical Activity Using Bike/Pedestrian Trails, Wang, G., et al., (2004)

We will be watching for new research in this area. The potential benefits are great, as a recent study in the Miami area suggests:

“The development of Ludlam Trail will save the community between $1.68 million and $2.25 million annually in direct medical costs related to lack of physical exercise while leading to approximately 4,931 to 6,579 area residents becoming new exercisers. Residents within the Ludlam Trail Study Area can expect to lose or keep off between 32,664 and 109,939 pounds of weight annually by burning between 2.19 million and 7.39 million calories (kilocalories) per week while exercising on Ludlam Trail.”
— Trail Benefits Study: Ludlam Trail Case Study (2011)

People launching kayaks

Kayak Pittsburgh rents sea kayaks for use on the Three Rivers Water
Trail (Photo by MarY Shaw - all rights reserved)


Statewide impacts of trails

Another type of statistic cited in economic studies is the general level of expenditure associated with a particular trail activity. Typical examples are statewide studies of off-highway vehicle recreation expenditures or the economic value of horses. These studies include household spending for equipment, storage, repair and maintenance, and related costs.

Bicycle recreation currently supports more than $924 million in tourism and resident spending each year, of which nearly $533 million is direct impact occurring annually, such as travel, equipment sales, and restaurant expenditures.
— The Economic Impact of Bicycling in Wisconsin (2001)

“Bicycle tourism brings $66.8 million to the Maine economy.”
— Bicycle Tourism in Maine: Economic Impacts and Marketing Recommendations (2001)

An Arizona State University economic study of recreational off-highway vehicle use in Arizona found:

“The total economic impact (direct and indirect) to Arizona from recreational OHV use is more than $4 billion annually. OHV recreation activities provide an economic contribution to the State and its 15 counties mainly through direct expenditures for motorized vehicles, tow trailers, related equipment, accessories, insurance, and maintenance costs.”
— Arizona State Parks, Statewide Motorized and Nonmotorized Trails Plan (2004)

Spending on trail equipment

The purchase and maintenance of equipment used on trails is also a major economic factor.

“ the horseback riding activity... purchases of new equipment and horses, boarding of horses, feeds, veterinary fees, and other maintenance costs reached $551 million, or 59% of all equipment spending in the state.”
“Spending on new snowmobile equipment was second highest at $105 million, followed by ATV ($75 million), bicycle riding ($54 million), and running ($37 million).”
— Economic Impact of Recreational Trail Use in Different Regions of Minnesota (2009)


See the full reports cited in this article as well as many other studies on the economic benefits of trails and greenways at


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