By Silas Chamberlin —
Most of us probably support the creation and protection of trails because they provide opportunities for healthy recreation, simple, sustainable transportation, and are aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, not everyone does. There is, however, a more pragmatic justification for investment in trails that might change critics’ minds: economic impact. A number of recent studies have shown that communities can improve their economic base by constructing trails or catering to existing trail users. There are two parts to this argument. First, trail users spend significant amounts of money at state and local businesses. For example, a 2006 study of the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Tioga and Lycoming Counties found that trail users spent an average of $350 on hard goods (bikes, clothing, etc.) related to their use of the trail each year. The average user also spent an additional $230 on accommodations and $30 per person on soft goods (food, drink, souvenirs, etc.) on each trip to the trail. A similar study conducted in 2008 at sites along the D&L Trail in Lehigh, Northampton, Bucks, and Carbon counties found that 65% of trail users spent $50 or more on each trip. In short, trail users pump tens of millions of dollars into local and state economies every year, but they can only do so when communities have decided to invest in the construction and maintenance of those trails.
Second, communities with trails tend to have higher real estate values, less crime, and more vibrant downtowns. The National Association of Realtors has found that access to trails often ranks higher than security, parks, and sports fields in surveys of potential home-buyers. In a 2004 New York Times survey, 57% of potential home-buyers cited access to trails as an important feature of a new home. Indeed, homeowners with property adjacent to trails report 1%–6% higher real estate values than the national average. Of course, increases in property values are only a monetary expression of what we already know trails improve our quality of life. And, unlike other forms of gentrification and redevelopment, the positive characteristics of trails benefit all members of the community rather than a select few.
The Lehigh Valley is unique for its blend of history, culture, and natural beauty, but the region’s towns have suffered from deindustrialization and suburbanization. Traditional main streets—like those in Freemansburg, Northampton, Slatington, Walnutport, and Palmerton—are no longer vibrant centers of business and social life. Ironically, town dwellers are more likely to drive to the countryside for shopping and entertainment than they are to walk to the center of their community. Trails cannot solve the structural deficiencies that led to the decline of our downtowns, but if we support the construction, maintenance, and funding of trails, we can at least give our towns the opportunity for a renaissance.
Fortunately, we already have the infrastructure in place. The towpath of the Lehigh Canal runs through almost every major town in the Lehigh Valley and connects to parkways and trails that provide access to communities off of the river. Imagine snack stands, bicycle repair shops, restaurants, and bed and breakfasts springing up in downtown Freemansburg, in an abandoned store front in Allentown, or on an old railroad property in Cementon. Imagine commuters traveling from Bethlehem Township to Easton on the Palmer Bike Path or from Egypt to Coplay on the Ironton Rail Trail. Devoted individuals and organizations have been working for decades to make these images a reality, but they need our support to convince policymakers to protect land and invest in trails. If we frame our argument in terms of economic impact, we might attract some unlikely recruits to the cause.
Silas Chamberlain, a doctoral student at Lehigh University, works with the Delaware and Lehigh National Historic Corridor
(Originally published in the Alliance’s 2009 directory of Organizations That Promote Sustainable Communities.)