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Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home        Washington Bicycling Hub - Spring '05      Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home 
Bike Trails Good for the Economy
Evidence Strong Though Studies Have Been Few  

By Charles Pekow

Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington, DC journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues. 

Figures that follow dollar signs – if you can document them – can convince the right audience that bike trails are good for the community economically. With the right numbers from the right sources, bicycle advocates can get both local politicians and business behind campaigns to improve and expand bike routes. It may be hard to document the health and recreational benefits of bike facilities in dollar value – but you can verify (or at least estimate) how much money bicycling brings into an area’s coffers.

A pair of presenters at the recent annual National Bike Summit in Washington DC sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists described how they gathered data deemed credible on how bicycling provides a positive economic impact in their communities. Carl Knoch, director of research for Trail Facts of New Freedom, PA specializes in surveying trail users to see how much money they spend. And if they spend enough, it makes a trail an economic asset.

Knoch described some historical research he had done on the Heritage Rail Trail County Park, a 21-mile north-south gravel trail near his home in rural York County, PA that connects with another 20-mile gravel trail in Maryland leading toward Baltimore. The Pennsylvania Trail opened in 1999.

Knoch estimates that the trail contributes about $5 million economically to the county each year. And it cost only $3.9 million to build the trail from an abandoned rail line back in the 1990s (though the county must pay for upkeep).

Knoch surveyed trail users in 1999, 2001 and again in 2004, asking the same questions and got similar results, within the standard margin of error, he said. He was able to document, based on survey responses of trail users, that they were buying bikes and related accessories and buying food and drink in restaurants along the trail – bringing in revenue (and thereby tax dollars) the communities otherwise might not get.

Knoch put surveys a trailheads so the reporters are self-selecting, he acknowledges.

The initial survey, for instance, showed that trail users spent an average of $6.47 on food during a trip along the trail – only 16 percent of visitors didn’t spend a dime, preferring to bring their own comestibles. Or at least that’s what people wrote down and some refused to answer. Five years later, the average lunch tab had doubled to $13.97.

“I thought that was a whale of a jump,” Knoch recalled. A large reason is that a sandwich shop along the route reopened as a more expensive restaurant and another restaurant opened near the trail.

Meanwhile, the Whistle Stop Bike Shop opened in a restored historic railroad station right on the bike trail. “No trail, no bike shop,” Knoch noted.

Knoch was able to show that the trail served as a tourist attraction. About 30 percent of trail users came from outside the county, including people coming from the attached Maryland trail and nearby counties to touring bicyclists from all over the country.

A survey of users Knoch took of the North Central Rail Trail south of the Mason-Dixon Line found less of an economic impact because the trail goes through Gunpowder Falls State Park, where users don’t get much opportunity to buy anything. But a study done in 1993-1994 by PFK Consulting for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources concluded that the trail “provides a number of substantial economic and qualitative benefits to the people of Maryland.” 

It noted, for instance, that the 1993 budget to maintain the trail came to only $191,893 but the trail supported 264 jobs and spurred people to spend about $3.38 million. And – politicians take note – the expenditures led to about $303,750 for the state’s tax coffers.

And if you don’t want to take a survey, maybe the government has some other information for you already. The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin didn’t do any original research, noted Executive Director Marjorie Ward. “We wanted to see what is out there. There is a lack of hard data on bicycling and its economic impact, and the little data there are are not compatible with other economic research,” she noted.

But it turned out that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WDOT) was able to provide some numbers using its number-crunching model that show that in 2003 pumping up bicycle tires also pumped up the state economy to the tune of an estimated $556,468,956 and 3,418 jobs.

The numbers included 1,945 manufacturing jobs and $425,553,400 in output from manufacturing bicycles and related clothing, largely from bicycle manufacturer Trek. They couldn’t document figures but estimated that bike tourism accounts for anywhere from $208 million to $278 million a year for the state economy.

Other jobs and revenue came from wholesaling and distributing bikes and related products, retail sales and service (more than 270 bike stores operate in the state) and – don’t forget yourselves. The 24 people working as couriers and bicycle advocates accounted for about $1.6 million in economic output.

And they still couldn’t include the government officials with a large focus on biking and bicycle safety instructors, or the transportation, food, lodging, etc. spun off by bike conferences – the state bike summit brings in about $15,000 Ward said. Nor did the study try to determine the economic impacts of health effects, reduced energy use or changes in the value of real estate when bike trails get built.

Ward also said she didn’t know the details of how WDOT comes up with its figures.

Knoch warns that it doesn’t pay to hire a marketing firm to do a survey unless you have a special need for the data – such as a plan to use them in applying for grants.

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