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Economic Impact of Rail Trails

Recently, the Rails to Trail Conservancy (RTC) released a comprehensive report on active transportation – (i.e. walking and biking), providing strong arguments for trails as mobility solutions, public health strategies, climate change mitigation and economic development drivers. This last benefit of trails is something that Eastwick Solutions has been advocating, so it caught our attention.

It reinforced our thinking about the economic impact of trails and more specifically what trail users are spending on trails. Economic impact studies typically include consumer spending, business spending (including on supplies, wages, and capital improvements), number of jobs and the secondary and tertiary spending that occurs based on consumer and business spending (e.g. the groceries that employees buy with their wages). In this blog, we will focus on the consumer spending aspect because this is what small businesses that are located on or near a trail want to know, and what potential business owners need to know before they decide to open a new business.

We will drill down on rail trails, a subset of trails. Rail trails usually have towns located along them making them the perfect hosts for trail-centric businesses. If towns don’t have a restaurant, bike shop or convenience store yet, it’s a great opportunity to recruit them! Fortunately, the RTC has done a tremendous amount of great work on spending along rail trails over a 20- year supporting this idea.

This blog will be focused on – how much do trail users spend on the trail and what are they buying?

The data from the RTC studies are robust for this snapshot, we are taking a deeper dive into 11 rail-trails from across Pennsylvania (our home state). RTC surveyed these towns from 2006 until 2017 and the surveys use a similar methodology and survey instruments, so they can be aggregated and compared with reasonable confidence.

The RTC studies demonstrate the significant economic impact of rail trails, for the 11 rail-trails that Eastwick included for this blog, the total spending was over 70 million dollars per year (adjusted for inflation)! As a benchmark, according to the RTC, there are 173 rail-trails in Pennsylvania, so the overall spending on rail trails is significantly more!

The trail with the highest spending amount is the Delaware and Lehigh, which sees over $21 million in total spending per year, likely due to its length (142 miles) and location near Philadelphia and New York. Keep in mind this figure represents years of hard work!

There are 3 categories of spending: soft goods (typically food or drink), “hard good” (bike parts, clothing, shoes, etc.) and lodging. Based on the 11 trails we reviewed over 2/3 of all respondents purchased soft goods while they were on the trail averaging $19.75 per trip; the Pine Creek Trail in north-central Pennsylvania saw the largest average expenditure of over $38! The “hard goods” category had an even larger percentage with over 82% respondents buying hard goods related to the trail, and an average amount of $417.82 per year.

Spending on lodgings is small because of most trails didn’t see many overnight stays so it’s more of a challenge to track this number. However, across the 11 trails, 9% of respondents did use overnight lodging near or along the trail with an average spend of nearly $100. Keep in mind that a significant percentage of users stayed in campgrounds, which lowers this average spending amount considerably.

A few words about the RTC surveys. In the earlier years, the surveys were all on paper and available at specific spots along the trail and/or in businesses near the trail. Trail users completed the survey and deposit them in boxes on the trail. Technology has caught up and making surveys available on-line by using a QR code to access the survey website. The surveys have become more robust to include data on demographics, amount of time spent on the trail, number of times using the trail, home zip code, activities while on the trail, and more. The good folks at RTC have made them available on their website for number geeks like Steve Nelson at Eastwick to access and analyze! The surveys are not a statistical sampling of all trail users because the respondents are self-selected. and they require the respondent to recall how much was spent without any documentation. In some cases, spending totals include lodging, in other cases, they do not. The surveys ask respondents to quantify their spending into the categories – “soft goods” “hard goods” and lodging.

Nevertheless, RTC surveys are tremendous resources and provide valuable data on spending. Because of the standard methodology and by looking at multiple studies, useful metrics can be discerned, and these studies provide an essential view of trail user spending. This, in turn, can help communities attract new businesses or help existing businesses expand their offerings.

The trails that we researched for this blog include the Armstrong Trail, the Delaware and Lehigh Trail, the Ghost Town Trail, the Lebanon Valley Trail, the Little Toby/Clarion Trails, the Oil Region Trails, the Perkiomen Trail, the Pine Creek Trail, the Schuylkill River Trail, the Three Rivers trail and the York Heritage Trail. For our analysis, we took spending data from the surveys and converted them into current (2019) dollars, so that the data could be aggregated and comparisons among trails could be done.

The bottom line is rail-trails have significant economic development potential and can be economic development assets in communities. Eastwick can help your community leverage your trail to its full potential, contact us to find out more!

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