filed under: economics of trails

Economic Benefits of Trails

Go for Green

This fact sheet provides researched facts about trail development in Canada including trail use, the money spent by trail users, statistics on job creation related to trail development, adjacent land values and the economic impact of new money to a community when trails are developed.


Economic Impact of Bicycle Tourism & Recreation

Bicycling is one of the most popular outdoor recreation activities in the state and contributes significantly to Wisconsin’s economy (WI DNR, 2006; Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and WI DOT, 2006). In addition to purchasing equipment, resident and non‐resident recreational bicyclists support economic activity through expenditures on food and beverages, entertainment, transportation, accommodation, government fees, and other retail shopping while bicycling. This chapter quantifies the impact of such activity on the state’s economy in terms of output and employment.

Bicycle recreation currently supports more than $924 million in economic activity in Wisconsin, of which nearly $533 million is direct impact occurring annually. Of the combined impacts, more than $535 million is attributable to bicyclists from other states, representing an infusion of outside dollars into the state economy. Increasing non‐resident bicycling by 20% has the potential to increase economic activity by more than $107 million dollars and create 1,528 full‐time equivalent jobs.

In the current economic climate that encourages people to forego exotic vacations for trips closer to home, Wisconsin stands ready to attract increasing numbers of bicycle recreationists from the Twin Cities, Chicago, and other neighboring areas. Bicycle tourism may serve as an important economic development strategy for many areas in Wisconsin, particularly those endowed with significant natural amenities and able to invest in infrastructure and marketing activities. The impact of bicycling is not limited to bicycle tourism from nonresident visitors. Increasing both resident and non‐resident bicycling by 20% could have an even more significant effect on the state economy, creating $184 million in new economic activity and generating 2,638 additional jobs.

Policy Recommendations

Wisconsin has long been a leader in bicycling and is one of the few states to have created a position for a state bicycle and pedestrian safety program manager. Numerous agencies and organizations exist in the state to promote bicycling, including the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. In addition the University of Wisconsin Extension continues to provide assistance to communities and regions developing bicycle tourism plans. Our primary recommendation for helping communities benefit from bicycle recreation and tourism is to continue and augment this assistance. This includes coordinated marketing efforts, sharing information among communities regarding event planning, assisting communities in developing realistic expectations for economic impacts, and conducting cost‐benefit analyses for bicycle infrastructure development.

Bike trail in Madison, WI (photo by Stuart Macdonald Sept. 2006)

Bike trail in Madison, WI (photo by Stuart Macdonald Sept. 2006)

Valuing Bicycling’s Impact on Health

Incorporating physical activity into the lives of those living in Milwaukee and Madison by replacing 20% of short trips with bicycle trips could result in substantial reductions in morbidity and mortality. The health and economic benefit to residents of these two cities alone has significant implications for the entire state of Wisconsin. Incorporating physical activity into the lives of everyone in the state of Wisconsin could result in substantial reductions in healthcare costs, increased worker productivity, increased life expectancy, and improved quality of life among residents.

If the number of short car trips (under five miles) were reduced within urban areas, less ozone and fine particulate matter would be anticipated, as would a decrease in associated adverse health outcomes. Such incremental reductions in pollution would have significant human health and economic benefits due to the large populations who would experience improved environmental conditions in the state (including the metropolitan areas and outside these areas). By replacing 20% of commuting trips with bicycle trips, a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions could occur in Wisconsin alone. This reduction could play a role in meeting targets for greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in major public‐health benefits for the citizens of Wisconsin.

Policy Recommendations

Bicycling can be fun and recreational; however, bicycling can also be useful for commuting to work and for small trips such as going to the post office to mail a letter or picking up something from the local grocery store. Since 50% of the working population currently commutes five miles or less to work, a distance that is considered bikeable, this provides a prime opportunity for bicycle promotion and improvement in personal health, air quality, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, the ways our cities are designed often prohibit people from feeling safe or wanting to ride their bikes for these utilitarian purposes. As a result, we recommend that policy makers and urban planners:

  • Accelerate development of bicycle routes, lanes, and paths throughout the state so that all who choose to bike have the opportunity for safe and convenient routes.
  • Institute bicycle parking racks in cities across the state, eliminate motor vehicle parking at bike racks, and provide bicycle parking at all city, county, and state buildings and transit centers.
  • Create communities of compact, walkable, transit and bicycle‐oriented mixed‐use neighborhoods, districts, and corridors.
  • Encourage cities to apply for Safe Routes to School Funding.
  • Coordinate bicycle plans and activities with public and private K‐12 schools across the state.
  • Pilot an individualized marketing campaign to people receptive to replacing automobile trips with bicycling.
  • Encourage bicycle education, support, and outreach for adults and children.
  • Promote business‐based bicycling programs and incentives.
  • Encourage regular bike programs/workshops at neighborhood centers and nonprofit organizations.
  • Encourage minority, low‐income, and other under‐represented groups in the state to bicycle more and promote programs that make bicycles available to everyone regardless of income level (both used and new bikes).
  • Promote existing rides, tours, events, programs, and groups that promote bicycling throughout the state.

Bicycling Demographics: Gathering evidence for investments in bicycling infrastructure

Based on the available data on current Wisconsin bicycling trends, the primary bicycling age group (on bike trails) is 40‐60 years old. Additionally, significantly more men than women bike recreationally on bike trails and bike commute to work. According to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois projected population trends, by 2035, this Baby Boomer generation will make up a significant proportion of the total population. We assume that people who bike when they are 10, 30, or 50 years old are more likely to keep bicycling when they surpass 65 years of age.

Policy Recommendations

If the goals of bicycling investments are to develop infrastructure that targets the largest population segment while also planning for the future, then we would recommend the following investment strategy:

  • Immediate investments should focus on the younger segments of the population (<60 years of age). It is important to develop a culture of bicycling for recreation and transportation in the Baby Boomer generation as well as younger generations so that their participation in bicycling will continue into old age. According to the Bernhoft and Carstensen (2008) study, bicycling infrastructure for younger bikers should include designated bike lanes and smooth, even roads on primary thoroughfares that serve as the quickest and most direct routes to a variety of destinations. This age segment, particularly women, appreciates designated bike paths and traffic signals although the absence of these amenities does not generally prohibit them from bicycling. Policies to address the dangers of bicycling near parked cars and the need of cyclists to travel straight ahead while cars are turning could also be points of intervention to increase bicycling within this population.
  • Near‐future investments, ideally within the next two decades, should focus on investment in bicycling paths and traffic signals in order to accommodate the aging population in Wisconsin. The presence of this type of infrastructure not only makes older bikers feel safer when on the streets, it also prevents bicycling accidents and unnecessary mortality.

Recommendations for Further Study

Through this study, we have completed a thorough assessment of economic, health, and demographic data related to bicycling. While we believe that our conclusions are reasonable and conservative, our assessments are limited by a general lack of representative data specific to Wisconsin. Better data would enable further refinement of the results of this study. We specifically recommend the following data collection initiatives to more fully capture the benefits of bicycling:

  • Conduct a state‐wide survey over the course of a year on bicycling behavior and preferences. Survey participants should be randomly selected and include a variety of age groups, income classes, athletic ability, geographic areas, and family status. Questions should include what infrastructure they find necessary for their safety and comfort as bikers, their bicycling frequency and type of bicycling (e.g. recreational or utilitarian), and perceived obstacles to bicycling.
  • Incorporate questions regarding bicycling and other recreational activities (duration, frequency, spending) into the current annual surveys conducted on behalf of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Currently the Department of Tourism interviews approximately 2,000 visitors annually at more than 100 sites across Wisconsin regarding trip expenditures. Expanding this survey would provide valuable data with minimal additional cost.
  • If possible, obtain statistics from the National Household Transportation Survey regarding the length of Wisconsin recreational bicycling trips in order to determine how many can be estimated to involve expenditures. Knowing the actual distribution of the length of these trips would provide the necessary information.

Published June 1999

More Articles in this Category

Public Lands and the Continental Divide Trail Study

The primary goal of this study was to understand who uses the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), how they use it, their preferences, and the economic impact of the CDT in the region. Additional data were also collected regarding protecting public lands and using the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado.

2022 CDT Small Business Survey

From August to December 2021, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition surveyed 136 small business owners in 38 communities located along the Continental Divide Trail to learn more about how the Continental Divide Trail impacts their businesses, the local economy, and their support for public lands.

Impact of Trails Hub

Everything you need to know about the positive impact of trails on health, environment, economics, and more.

2022 CDT Small Business Survey

As a connector of landscapes, communities, and cultures, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) provides a setting for community members, decision makers, conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, and everyone connected to the lands and waters of the Divide, to come together to discuss how to steward the vital natural, cultural, and historic resources found across its entirety. With this report, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition hopes to highlight the role of the cooperative stewardship model in the management of the CDT, what we accomplished in 2021, and what we are looking forward to in 2022.