5,977 views • posted 08/13/2019 • updated 09/20/2023

Evidence of Many Varieties of Economic Benefits Linked to Trails

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.

by Stuart Macdonald, Trail Consultant, American Trails

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 $887 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supports 7.6 million direct national jobs, generates $59.2 billion in annual state and local tax revenue, and $65.3 billion in national tax revenue. Active recreation is defined as bicycling, trail activities, paddling, snow sports, camping, fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing.

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)

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)

Promoting the link between health and trail activities; photo by Stuart Macdonald)

Promoting the link between health and trail activities; photo by Stuart Macdonald)

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)

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)

photo credit: Mary Shaw (c)
Kayak Pittsburgh rents sea kayaks for use on the Three Rivers Water Trail; photo by Mary Shaw

Kayak Pittsburgh rents sea kayaks for use on the Three Rivers Water Trail; photo by Mary Shaw

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.

“...in 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)

Attached document published November 2009

About the Author

Stuart Macdonald spent 19 years as Colorado's State Trails Coordinator. He is the editor of American Trails Magazine. During 1998-99, he represented State Trail Administrators on the national committee that proposed regulations for accessible trails. He chaired the National Recreational Trails Committee, which advised the Federal Highway Administration in the first years of the Recreational Trails Program. Stuart grew up in San Diego and his main outdoor interest besides trails is surfing. He has a BA in English from San Francisco State and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from Utah State.

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