Rails to Trails as Economic Development Tool

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CED Program Interns & Students


Two CERC community projects involve converting an abandoned railroad right-of-way into a bicycle and pedestrian trail. One might be surprised to learn that there is real economic development potential associated with these trails.

Bicycling visitors to the Northern Outer Banks generate $60 million annually, according to a 2004 NCDOT report. The report also estimates:
• 680,000 people annually bike in the area (17% of visitors)
• 53% cite bicycling as a strong reason to return
• 43% cite bicycling as an important factor for visiting
• 1,400 jobs are created/supported annually by bicycle visitors
• The annual economic impact pays for bicycling facilities nine times over.

Of course, not all areas will attract bicyclists like the Outer Banks. The University of Wisconsin-Madison recently produced a report looking at the economic impact of bicycling across the state and attributed:
• $535 million to bike tourism
• 13,200 bike jobs
• Lower health care costs

If Wisconsin can see such a large return on investment, surely a state with as temperate a climate as ours can take advantage of the bicycling market.

Beyond the economic impact, bike and pedestrian paths offer an opportunity for recreation and exercise. These linear parks can also be used for environmental conservation, flood control, and can be used for transportation by bicyclists and pedestrians depending on the location of the path. And finally, these trails can increase the property values of nearby homes.

There are currently about thirty bike and pedestrian trails in North Carolina according to North Carolina Rail-Trails. If you are interested in researching potential Rail-Trails in your area, or are looking for information on starting the process, the following websites offer a wealth of information for North Carolina and nationally.


Matt Dudek is a graduate student in the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning, the School of Government, and a CERC intern working with the Cape Fear Council of Governments.

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