- The trails research and searchable benefits Library shows how trails can generate business impacts and create new jobs by attracting visitors, especially overnight visitors.
- Local trail users often use community trails multiple times per week, and trails are a valuable part of residents’ quality of life.
- Trails are often associated with higher property value, especially when a trail is designed to provide neighborhood access and maintain residents’ privacy.
- Trails are associated with increased physical activity and improved public health, especially in rural places without other safe places to exercise. In many places, access to trails in low income or minority neighborhoods is much less than in high income or mostly white neighborhoods.
- Private land owners, public land managers, land trusts, trail advocates, and others must be aware of the legal responsibilities associated with developing and maintaining trails.
Trails Research and Searchable Benefits Library
The above main themes on how trails benefit communities emerge from this collection of detailed research across the United States.
To help community leaders, elected officials, trail users, and others better understand the benefits of trails, Headwaters Economics compiled more than 130 studies on the impacts of trails in a single library, searchable by type of benefit, use, year, and region.
These and other quality of life benefits from trails can help to justify investment in a trail project and determine whether a project meets community priorities.
The studies selected and summarized for the trails library include high-quality research from across the U.S., mostly in smaller cities and rural areas. The library includes some of the earliest research on trails as well as the most recent. It also provides a detailed explanation of the types of benefits and methods used to calculate them.
Destination trails attract visitors from outside the local area who travel specifically to use a trail. The benefits from destination trails are most commonly measured in terms of the local business impacts. [Read a short summary of impacts or view all related research.]
Business impacts include business revenue, employment, and employee earnings. In addition to the direct effect that visitor spending has on businesses, visitor spending has a ripple effect in the community as employees and business owners spend their earnings, and local and state governments receive more tax revenue.
The economic impact from trails is highest when a trail is connected to local businesses that cater to trail user needs, including restaurants, grocery stores, camping and hotels, and gear stores. This connection can occur directly through trail spurs that link to commercial centers, as well as through signs at trailheads or shuttles between a town and the trailhead. Because lodging often accounts for the biggest proportion of trip expenses, a trail’s economic impact is greatly increased when it attracts more overnight users.
Quality of Life
Community trails, while rarely in hiking or biking guidebooks, are an important part of many cities and towns across the U.S. and trail use estimates show these trails often are used frequently by residents for both recreation and transportation.
The benefits of community trails are usually measured in terms of improved quality of life, higher property values, and improved public health and safety. Because community trails generally do not attract new visitors or new spending to an area, they are not usually associated with significant economic impact from new spending at local businesses.
Surveys designed to understand how community trails affect local quality of life have found that those who use community trails use them multiple times per week, although the proportion of residents who use trails ranges widely between communities. For avid trail users, surveys regarding user attitudes also have found that trails play a significant role in determining where they live within a community, and also affect their decision whether to relocate to or stay in the area.
Homes near community trails often have higher property value, with a price premium ranging from five to ten percent in most studies. This is especially true when a trail is constructed concurrently with a neighborhood, and is designed to provide neighborhood access to a trail. [Read a short summary or view all related research.]
Legal, well-marked access also eliminates problems with trail users trespassing to access a trail. Research also has found that those who opposed a trail prior to construction generally find a trail to be a much better neighbor than they anticipated.
Community trails have been shown to improve public health by increasing residents’ levels of physical activity and providing safer transportation routes for pedestrians and cyclists. Trails are associated with encouraging inactive residents to become active and modestly increasing the activity levels of already-active residents. [See this short summary or all related research.]
Trails often are the only place residents exercise. The gains in physical activity are most significant in rural places with few other safe places to exercise. Increased physical activity is greatest among populations at greatest risk of inactivity, including people with low income or low education levels and the elderly.
In many communities, parks and trails are less abundant in poorer neighborhoods with a larger share of minority residents. The health and quality of life benefits of parks and trails is greatest for those who live the closest to these resources. This disparity in access to trails and parks therefore has significant health, social, and economic implications and can exacerbate existing environmental justice concerns in communities. [See this short summary.]
The reasons behind these inequities of access vary across communities. Particularly in urban communities, historically minority or low-income areas tend to be more densely developed, leaving little available space for building new parks or trails. In some rural places, low-income and minority residents may have been less involved with park and trail planning efforts so public resources have not been allocated to these neighborhoods.
Private land owners, public land managers, land trusts, trail advocates, and others must be aware of the legal responsibilities associated with developing and maintaining trails.
Although risks and responsibilities vary widely depending on the location and type of use, this topic has been addressed in all 50 states and is well-studied. Knowledge of basic legal principles can guide project planning and highlight areas that merit particular attention.
This trails research and searchable benefits library can help community leaders, elected officials, trail users, and others find existing research conducted in similar communities for similar trail projects, and provide credible answers to questions regarding the benefits they can anticipate from new trails.
While researchers have shown that trails are associated with several types of benefits, not all trails will bring all benefits. Before asking what type of benefits a trail is likely to bring to a community, it is important to understand whether trail users are likely to be mostly local residents or visitors.
For example, community trails generally do not attract new visitors or new spending to an area, so they generally are not associated with a significant impact on businesses. Exceptions to this are community trail systems that encourage people or businesses to relocate to an area or remain in an area.
Anticipating the type of benefits that can be expected from a trail also can help a community to focus trail design or marketing efforts to maximize those specific benefits. Recognizing existing disparities in access to trails for low income or minority neighborhoods can inform trail planning efforts.
This library, in addition to providing useful results, is also a resource for learning about appropriate methods to use for those interested in conducting their own research.
We anticipate that this library will be an expanding resource over time. If you know of credible trail studies that should be considered for inclusion, please contact Headwaters Economics.
The LOR Foundation, whose goal is to enhance livability in the Intermountain West, provided funding for this library. The Foundation hopes that this resource helps communities understand how trails can benefit communities and make informed choices about investing in this infrastructure.