The Washington & Old Dominion Trail: An Assessment of User Demographics, Preferences, and Economics

Uses studied: ,
Place: Washington, DC, outlying rural areas


This study found that the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail generates significant local economic impact, even though it is primarily used by locals. Using a creative set of questions, the authors identify which trail features are sufficient and which should be higher priorities for funding.


This study would be of interest to those interested in cost-effective approaches to accurately estimating the number of trail users. Although accurate estimates of user counts are necessary to estimating the economic impact of trails, time and budget limitations can make a statistically valid sample unrealistic. The authors use a simpler approach that, while not statistically valid, is a next-best strategy. Additionally, the authors’ approach to asking users about important trail features and current conditions of those features is a strategy that could be used in many user surveys to prioritize spending.


The trail begins in urban Arlington, Virginia (population 214,861 in 2013) and travels 45 miles through suburban neighborhoods and rural towns west of D.C., ending in Purcelville (population 8,060 in 2013) in Northern Virginia.

Trail Type

The W&OD Trail is a paved multi-use recreation and transportation corridor. A gravel trail parallels the route for 32 miles, providing a softer surface for equestrians, mountain bikers, and joggers.


This study, prepared for the Virginia Department of Conservation, was one in a three-part series quantifying trail use and user benefits related to recreational trails in Virginia (the other trails were the New River Trail and Virginia Creeper Trail).  Coordinating and technical assistance were provided by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, Northern Virginia Regional Commission, U.S. Forest Service, and the University of Georgia.


The authors estimate that 1.7 million users visit the trail annually. All but 5 percent are from counties adjacent to the trail, with the average user traveling 19 miles to reach the trail. Recreation and fitness are the most common uses for the trail at 84 percent, with 6 percent using the trail to commute. A quarter of users surveyed lived adjacent to the trail.

Nearly all (93%) respondents identified health benefits from the trail as having high importance. A safe place to recreate had the next-highest ranking (73%). The opportunity to view nature and fostering a sense of community had the next-highest importance level, followed by a place for athletic training, an alternative commuting option, and a place to exercise pets.

The authors asked respondents about the importance of various trail conditions such as maintenance, scenery, shade, restrooms, water fountains, community connections, and commercial connections, as well as their current conditions. This two-step approach allowed them to identify whether any aspects of the trail were important to user enjoyment but were not being addressed.

There were few gaps between importance to users and existing conditions. The exception to this was the availability of water fountains, which ranked as third-most important but scored second-to-last in condition. Parking availability had the lowest importance, but the third-highest condition. This suggests that, given most users live close by and access the trail by bicycle, there is no need to expand parking.

The authors estimate that locals, defined as visitors from within 25 miles of the trail, spent an average of $74 per trip. This is translated into $1.8 million in total economic impact annually.


Sampling occurred at 12 sites along the trail, with the days of the week and sampling hours carefully selected to represent all use times. Data were collected by volunteers administering a two-page survey to willing trail users 16 years and older. Two different questionnaires were administered to gather user preferences: one for locals (residents of Arlington, Fairfax or Loudoun Counties along the trail) and one for non-locals. The non-local survey also contained information regarding spending. Of the 1,426 completed surveys, 95 percent were from locals. Trail counts were conducted by a student intern over 32 hours to estimate annual use on the W&OD. Although not a statistically valid count, the results were a reasonable estimate given financial resources. The authors estimated economic impacts using the Money Generation Model, Version 2.


Bowker, J., Bergstrom, J., Gill, J., and Lemanski, U. 2004. The Washington & Old Dominion Trail: An Assessment of User Demographics, Preferences, and Economics.  USDA Forest Service, University of Georgia and National Park Service.