Outdoor Recreation Net Benefits of Rail-Trails

Uses studied: ,
Region: , ,
Place: Dubuque County (IA), Tallahassee (FL), Oakland (CA)


This study found that trail users are willing to incur greater expenses and travel further to use rural trails, and spend more time on those trails while they are there, indicating these trails are enjoyed by both locals and non-locals. Urban trails, on the other hand, are mainly a resource for local residents, and are used much more frequently and for shorter periods of times.


This study was one of the first to acknowledge the difference between how rural and urban trails are used. The results provide an idea of the relative, per-trip benefits in rural versus urban settings. This study underscores the importance of understanding the likely trail users–local or non-local–when estimating benefits from a trail.


The study was based in three different communities: Dubuque County in eastern Iowa (population 94,411 in 2013), Tallahassee, Florida (population 183,638 in 2013), and Oakland, California (population 397,011 in 2013).

Trail Type

The authors surveyed users at three existing rail-trails, which were selected because they represent a range of geographic regions, population density, land ownership, length, and managing agencies:

  • Heritage Trail, Iowa: 26-mile gravel trail through rural and forest land
  • Tallahassee to St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail, Florida: 16-mile paved trail near small towns and through forest land
  • Lafayette/Moraga Trail, California: 7.6-mile paved trail through urban and suburban areas


Most rail-trails studies focus on the economic impact of spending by rail-trails users at local businesses. This study evaluates the benefit to rail-trails users, measured in dollars, to be used to justify funding for new trails or expanding existing trails. Data were collected under a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program.


The rural and small town trails had a much lower number of annual trips and median number of trips per user:

  • Heritage had 10 trips per person per year and 135,000 annual visits,
  • Marks had 12 trips per person per year and 172,000 annual visits, and
  • Lafayette/Moraga had 120 trips per person per year and 409,000 annual visits.

Benefits per user were highest on the trails that had the lowest annual number of visits, suggesting that these rural trails may be destinations for non-local visitors, while the urban trail is frequently used for shorter periods of time by locals. The benefits per user, per trip, for each trail follow:

  • Heritage had $30.18 per trip,
  • St Marks had $49.78 per trip, and
  • Lafayette/Moraga had $4.81 per trip.


The authors used a two-part approach to gathering data: respondents were first intercepted on the trail and briefly interviewed, and were then mailed a detailed survey. The on-site sampling was constructed to cover a representative time of day, day of week, season, and trail section. They received 1,705 completed mail surveys, for a 79 percent overall response rate. They had 307 responses for Heritage, 522 responses for St Marks, and 717 responses for Lafayette/Moraga.

Respondents were asked questions regarding the number of trips they took to the trail annually, whether the trail was the primary purpose for their visit, expenses during this trip, whether they were on an overnight trip, whether they traveled in a car to the trail, the distance of the trail to the respondent’s home, number of hours spent on the trail, a ranking of benefits from the trail (e.g., health and fitness, recreation opportunities, preserving open space), age, and income.

The authors use these data to estimate a statistical model predicting the number of trips the average respondent would take. From this model, known as a “travel cost model,” the authors derived the benefits per trip to trail users, in monetary terms, known as “consumer surplus.”


Siderelis, C. and R. Moore. 1995. “Outdoor recreation net benefits of rail-trails.” Journal of Leisure Research 27(4): 344-359.