Assessing the Cost Effectiveness of a Community Rail-Trail in Achieving Physical Activity Gains

Uses studied: ,
Place: Morgantown


This study found that a community rail-trail in West Virginia encourages new physical activity among inactive residents and greater physical activity for those who were already active, and that for many community members trail use is their only form of exercise. Trail cost per newly active resident is on the lower end of health interventions aimed at encouraging sedentary individuals to become active, and is likely to reach more people that other common interventions.


This study is relevant for those interested in improving community-wide health through trails. The methods used in this study could easily be incorporated into existing trail use count and survey efforts, which communities commonly undertake. The rates of participation and change in physical activity in this study are highly specific to this community’s demographic and physical activity profile and how well recreation infrastructure met demand before the trails were built. In other words, a community with fewer trails might see a greater increase in physical activity after a trail is built, while a community with extensive existing trails may see a smaller increase.


This study was based in Morgantown, West Virginia, population 29,956 in 2013.

Trail Type

The study evaluated two rail-trails: Caperton and Deckers Creek. The Caperton Trail is six miles long, paved, and is entirely within Morgantown city limits. The Deckers Creek Trail is 19 miles long, 3 miles of which run through Morgantown and are paved. The remainder is gravel and passes through rural, outlying areas.


The purpose of this study is to evaluate the cost per user of increasing physical activity for community members by constructing a rail trail to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of public trails as a public health intervention and methods to assess the relationship between public trails and public health. This study was conducted by academic researchers; no information was provided about funding sources.


  • Twenty-three percent of respondents report they did not exercise regularly before using the trails.
  • Sixty percent of respondents report they exercise more since they started using the trails.
  • Forty-seven percent of respondents reported meeting physical activity recommendations through trail use alone.
  • The trail cost $74 per repeat trail user who visited the trail at least once per week.
  • The trail cost $123 per repeat trail user who increased their physical activity since using the trails.
  • The trail cost $329 per repeat trail user who started exercising due to the trail. This compares favorably to other public health programs designed to change participants from sedentary to active, which cost from $206 to $905 per participant and generally reach fewer people.
  • The trail cost $157 per repeat trail user who met physical activity recommendations solely from using the trail.


The authors obtained trail use estimates using infrared counters, mounted at different points along the trail over an eight-week period. To avoid double-counting round trip trail users, they used on-site counters to calculate the proportion of trail users who were round trip users (66.7%). They also conducted user intercept surveys, during which trail users were asked about their exercise history, trail use, general physical activity habits, and demographics. The authors collected 414 completed surveys out of 422 people approached (98% response rate).

They ultimately measure trail use in terms of the number of people who use the trail at least once a week, repeat trail users (RTU). Using these data, the authors distinguish between three effects on physical activity: 1) RTUs who increased physical activity since they began using the trails, 2) RTUs who began physical activity since using the trails, and 3) RTUs who meet physical activity recommendations through trail use alone.

Trail costs were obtained from the trail administrators, and include costs for land acquisition, engineering, construction, maintenance, and trail marketing. Costs were annualized, assuming a 30-year life of the trail.

To calculate cost-effectiveness ratios, the authors divide the trail cost by the three physical activity measures to obtain cost per RTU.


Abildso, C., S. Zizzi, S. Selin, and P. Gordon. 2012. “Assessing the cost effectiveness of a community rail-trail in achieving physical activity gains.” Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 30(2): 102-113.