Evaluating the Impact of Rail-Trails: A Methodology for Assessing Travel Demand and Economic Impacts

Benefits studied: ,
Uses studied: ,
Place: Lewisburg, Mifflinburg


This study outlines a step-by-step process for estimating trail use, breaking the process down into four primary steps. The authors illustrate how to apply the method using a simple case study on the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail in Pennsylvania.


This study is a valuable guidance document for estimating the use and economic impact of existing trails. Although the authors define it as specific to rail-trails, the methods could be applied to any type of existing trail. The paper outlines several details to consider in conducting a trail use study, but it likely cannot serve as a stand-alone resource, particularly for estimating economic impact.


The trail analyzed in this study runs between Mifflinburg (population 3,527 in 2013) and Lewisburg (population 5,759 in 2013) in central Pennsylvania.

Trail Type

The authors use the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail (BVRT), a nine mile rail-trail, as a case study to demonstrate their methodology.


The purpose of this study is to outline a standardized approach to predicting use and measuring the economic impact of a new or expanded rail-trail, using an existing rail-trail as an example. The authors hope that this standardized method will make it easier to develop more accurate use estimates for more trails. The research was supported by the Katherine Mabis McKenna Environmental Internship Program and the Degenstein Foundation.


The authors suggest repeating the use surveys each year could help refine the best approaches for a particular trail and establish use trends.

  • Approximately 100,000 trips are taken on the BVRT each year.
  • Use along the BVRT is mostly cycling (74.5%), followed by walking (19%) and jogging (7.5%).
  • Trail users spend an estimated $66,159 during trips along the BVRT.
  • The average user takes 11 trips per month and travels 25 miles round trip to reach the trail.
  • Each additional mile the user travels to reach the trail reduces the number of visits by 0.22 trips per month. In other words, someone who lives ten miles further from the trail would take 2.2 fewer trips per month.


The authors outline, in detail, the primary steps associated with the Rail-Trail Impact Assessment Method (RTIAM).  The four steps are:

  1. Defining the corridor study area, which includes identifying relevant county and municipal jurisdictions, connections to existing roads or trails, and high use trail sections.
  2. Collecting data on users and their preferences, which includes automatic trail counts, manual trail counts, and surveys on trail use patterns and related spending.
  3. Analyzing data, which includes modeling trail use from count and survey data and modeling economic impact using survey data, taking into account variation in use during different seasons.
  4. Summarizing results, which includes understanding the audience for the report and their needs and how often the study should be repeated for ongoing monitoring.

For each step the authors outline detailed considerations, such as  different methods to count users, questions to ask on surveys, and different approaches to analyzing data.


Oswald, M., K. Burkhart, and M. Nicholson. 2014. “Evaluating the Impact of Rail-Trails: A Methodology for Assessing Travel Demand and Economic Impacts.” International Journal of Sustainable Transportation (just-accepted).