A Contingent Trip Model for Estimating Rail-Trail Demand

Uses studied: ,
Place: Madison, Watkinsville


This study estimates future use on a proposed rail-trail in Georgia, while most trail studies estimate use on an existing trail. It found that the best predictors of future trail use are how close the person lives to the trail, whether they had ridden bicycles in the previous year, and whether they had used a rail trail previously; age and income were not related to predicted use.


This study’s findings regarding the factors that lead to higher trail use can be applied in many places, even though it may not be feasible for all researchers to follow the rigorous statistical methods developed in this paper. The authors’ approach allowed for the collection of information from non-users of the trail to identify obstacles to expanding the user base, an often-overlooked aspect when assessments of local trail use are conducted.


The trail connects the towns of Madison (population 3,982 in 2013) and Watkinsville (population 2,874 in 2013) in northeastern Georgia. Watkinsville is roughly 15 minutes from Athens, Georgia (population 117,749 in 2013).

Trail Type

The study estimates potential future use of a section of the proposed 23-mile Antebellum Rail-Trail (ART), a multi-use path. The trail has since been developed, connecting seven towns and covering 100 miles.


The primary purpose of this study is to determine whether there would be sufficient users, and benefits to those users, to justify building the trail. As a part of this effort, the authors developed a cost-effective method to estimate future trail use by surveying the nearby population. The study was supported by the Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station and Southern Research Station of the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service.


The authors predict the proposed trail would have 416,000 household visits per year.

Many respondents were familiar with and supportive of rail trails:

  • 20 percent had previous experience using rail trails,
  • 31 percent said they were familiar with the term “rail trail” prior to receiving the survey, and
  • 41 percent expressed strong support for developing rail trails.

The following factors were strong predictors of how much respondents thought they would use the proposed trail:

  • Respondents who had ridden bicycles some or a lot in the previous year were much more likely to take trips to the new trail;
  • Respondents who had used a rail trail previously were more likely to use the new trail;
  • Respondents who lived closer to the trail were more likely to use it.

The authors found that household income, age, and whether the respondent lived in a rural or urban area were not related to expected trail use.

Roughly one-third of respondents stated they would take no trips to the ART. Over half of these stated they might use it, but would not make a trip specifically for it. Respondents cited time and cost constraints as the main reason not to use the trail.

The authors estimate that monetized benefits to future trail users, called “consumer surplus,” will be $18.46 per trip, which is comparable to values from other studies. Multiplying this by the expected number of visits per year yields a total benefit to trail users of approximately $7.5 million per year.


The authors used a mail survey, sent to north Georgia residents living within approximately 75 miles of the proposed trail. They selected the 75-mile radius assuming most users would be day and not overnight users, although the final 100-mile trail that was developed likely has a significant non-local draw.  Of the 800 surveys sent out, 14 percent were returned undelivered due to bad addresses. Of the remaining 687 surveys delivered to households, 268 were returned (39% response rate).

Respondents were asked a total of 25 questions related to general participation in recreation, specific awareness and use of existing rail trails, and demographics. Respondents were also asked how far they lived from either Madison or Watkinsville, and how many annual trips they thought they would take to the trail per year. The authors compare the demographics of their sample to the demographics for Georgia to determine how well their sample represents the broader population.

Based on the survey responses, the authors use a statistical model to monetize the benefits to potential users beyond the travel-related expenses they incur to get to the trail. The measure of this benefit is called “consumer surplus.”


Betz, C., J. Bergstrom, and J.M. Bowker. 2003. “A contingent trip model for estimating rail-trail demand.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 46(1): 79-96.