Comparing the Costs and Health Benefits of a Proposed Rail Trail

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Place: Annapolis Valley

Overview

In rural Nova Scotia, a proposed trail is expected to increase substantially the amount of physical activity of local residents, with over half of respondents predicting increased physical activity due to the trail. For every dollar spent constructing the trail, it is expected to generate at least $2 in avoided health care costs.

Relevance

This study is relevant for those interested in understanding how the presence of a new trail might affect trail users’ health, and whether the value of those health benefits exceed trail construction cost. Readers should keep in mind that the general trends are relevant to many places, but exact cost-benefit ratios are specific to disease incidence and health care costs in Canada.

This study uses methods similar to a Lincoln, Nebraska study, with a significant improvement by measuring how much physical activity would be attributable to the trail alone. The Lincoln study assumes that all trail users would not be physically active if the trail did not exist.

This study asked respondents to estimate their current and future physical activity, with and without the trail. This approach is used frequently in research estimating the number of recreational trips, but is less common and therefore its accuracy less known when estimating future physical activity. Given respondents’ tendency to estimate optimistically their own physical activity, the predicted changes in this study may be somewhat high.

Location

This study is based in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, Canada. Roughly 10,000 people live within 1 kilometer of the proposed trail.

Trail Type

The proposed 28-kilometer trail would run next to an active rail line, through rural agricultural land and small towns.

Purpose

The purpose of this study is to estimate the monetized value of health benefits associated with increased physical activity for users of this trail. The researchers compare the value of reduced health care costs to the cost of building the trail to determine whether the trail is a cost-effective intervention to increase physical activity and improve health.

This study complements related research on the effect of allowing motorized users on non-motorized trail use. Together the two studies suggest that allowing motorized use would reduce significantly the non-motorized trail use, and this reduced use would lessen the potential health benefits from the trail.

The authors are university professors. No separate funding source is identified.

Findings

  • The trail is projected to have 158,000 new trips a year, or 434 per day.
  • More than half of respondents predict the trail would increase somewhat (43%) or at least double (10%) their weekly physical activity. Forty-seven percent of respondents predict the trail would have no effect on their average weekly physical activity. No respondents predicted decreased physical activity.
  • The yearly value of the trail in terms of reduced health care costs ranges from C$97 to C$169 per trail user, depending on how much additional physical activity they get.
  • Using the most conservative assumptions about health benefits and the highest cost estimate, the ratio of benefits to costs exceeds 2:1.
  • A gravel-surface trail is expected to generate C$9 in health benefits per C$1 in costs; a paved surface trail is expected to generate C$5 in health benefits per C$1 in costs. Allowing ATVs on the trail decreases predicted trail use by non-ATV users, decreasing the predicted health benefits.
  • Because there are few alternative sites nearby, particularly for cycling, this trail is expected to provide a substantial boost in physical activity and improve recreational experiences.

Methods

The authors use a mail survey, sent to a random sample of Nova Scotia residents. They break the sample into three groups: local residents near the trail, rural residents up to 200 kilometers away from the trail, and urban Halifax residents.

To isolate the trail’s effect on physical activity, the authors ask respondents how they expect the trail to affect their physical activity. The survey uses a “contingent trip” method, which asks respondents to estimate the number of trips they would take to the trail under different ATV management scenarios: a complete ban, restricted access, or unrestricted access. The survey also asked respondents questions related to current ATV use, demographics, and current physical activity.

The authors estimate the monetary value of the potential change in physical activity using published estimates of differences in health care costs for active versus inactive Nova Scotia residents. They compare respondents’ current physical activity to their predicted physical activity, identifying the proportion of respondents who would be newly active due to the trail. Residents who are currently active and expected to be even more active were not included in the benefits estimate.

Citation

VanBlarcom, B. and J. Janmaat. 2013. “Comparing the costs and health benefits of a proposed rail trail.” Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events 5(2): 187-206.