Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Trail Towns Grow Communities

In a previous post, I introduced Trail-Oriented Development, an emerging planning tool that has a positive impact on property values of developments around trails.  Next up is an introduction to “Trail Towns” which are towns that have benefited from the development of a trail system that links trails to downtowns and local businesses.

Communities around the country are increasingly utilizing a “Trail Town” model for economic revitalization.  According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), this model identifies trails as the centerpiece of a tourism-centered strategy for small-town revitalization. Trails build strong, economically vital communities and more community leaders and planners are discovering that greenways, urban parks and trails are economic engines for community revitalization.

Along the GAP Trail
Along the GAP Trail

Trails can particularly be of benefit to rural areas.  Many rural communities are rediscovering their recreational and scenic assets and have found ways to leverage these to boost tourism, economic development and community pride as trail users spend money on food, drinks, lodging, souvenirs, and other offerings.  


The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is a 150-mile biking and walking trail that runs between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland.  According to estimates by the Trail Town Program, a GAP-specific initiative designed to help local communities maximize the trail’s economic benefits, the GAP annually hosts more than 800,000 trips. Over $50 million in direct annual spending is attributed to trail users. As a result, says Keith Laughlin, president of the RTC, “a lot of the towns along the route are self-designating as trail towns. They’re using the trail as the centerpiece of their economic development strategy.”

Stop along the GAP Trail.
Stop along the GAP Trail.

In Cumberland, for example, local businesses, in partnership with elected officials, have crafted a well-organized Trail Town model that helps link bicycle tourists to downtown businesses. Cumberland Mayor Lee Fiedler points out the importance of this model for economic revitalization: “The revival of the city is driven, in part, by the trail. No one thought people with bikes would spend money, but they were wrong. Business is spreading back from the trail.”

Bike Storage in Cumberland, MD
Bike Storage in Cumberland, MD

The initial successes of the trail created an economic environment that is drawing other businesses to the trail-side communities.

The bike business in particular been a boon along the GAP.  Eight trail towns now feature bicycle shops that cater specifically to trail riders.  Tom Demagall, owner of Golden Triangle Bike, says “the completion of the trail in 2013 generated significant buzz for the business, drawing in even more cyclists from both the local area and from afar.  My hope is that economic growth continues. That [way] small business owners, like myself, can have the opportunity to flourish all along the trail.”

Golden Triangle Bike in Pittsburgh / credit: Jim Cheney
Golden Triangle Bike in Pittsburgh / credit: Jim Cheney

The success of the GAP has spurred development of rail trails throughout Pennsylvania. The state already has nearly 1,000 completed miles of rail trails; 1,100 more miles are either under construction or in the planning stages.

The Delaware & Lehigh (D&L) Trail in eastern Pennsylvania runs 165 miles from Bristol, just east of Philadelphia, to Wilkes-Barre in the state’s northeast corner.  A 2012 RTC study estimated 282,796 annual user visits to the trail. The total economic impact of these visits? Just over $19 million in 2012, of which $16.3 million was directly injected into the local economy.

Along the D&L Trail
Along the D&L Trail

For smaller towns in Pennsylvania, especially in areas with otherwise limited economic activity, this effect can be significant as these trails connect communities large and small to the burgeoning network.  Car-free tourism will continue to boost the state’s towns, providing opportunities for both new and existing businesses. It will also give adventurous travelers a chance to explore the beauty and history of rural Pennsylvania.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

The positive impact of the Minuteman Bikeway in Massachusetts is readily apparent along Massachusetts Avenue, the primary artery through Lexington’s town center. Here the Ride Studio Cafe, a hybrid bike shop and coffee bar, has occupied a prominent storefront since 2010. “So many people come up here because of the bikeway,” says co-owner Patria Lanfranchi. “Economically it’s awesome. Most businesses are extremely in favor of it. It was definitely a factor in setting up shop here.”



In 2015, Florida authorized $125 million over five years for the developing the SUN Trail Network, a statewide system of trails that impact economic development, active transportation and community health. The Network incorporates well-established rail-trails such as the Fred Marquis Pinellas TrailWest Orange Trail and Withlachoochee State Trail, and smaller connecting trails, many of which will be completed as a result of SUN Trail dollars.


The project has a significant impact to the quality of life by enhancing economic opportunities & providing connectivity to destinations.   Share the Road suggests that these trails are an economic shot in the arm for “trail town” communities including Winter Garden, Dunedin and Venice.  They are a potential draw for a new breed of “eco-tourists,” folks who want to see more of Florida but not necessarily from behind the wheel of an automobile or through the window of a tour bus.  Simply put: When visitors and residents alike have the ability to travel from city to city via a connected off-road greenway system, bicycle tourism will take off in Florida.

In addition to helping promote small-town revitalization, trails are increasingly being used to help more urban communities too.

The Circuit Trails is a 750-mile network of bicycle and pedestrian trails connecting the Greater Philadelphia region.  When completed it will connect the urban, suburban and rural communities of the fifth largest metropolitan region in the US.  "The Circuit Trail System not only is it going to be such an important amenity and benefit to its residents—it’s going to be very attractive to visitors and to workers. This kind of transportation network is what is going to set Philadelphia apart from the rest of the country." says Jerry Sweeney, CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust.


Circuit Trails, Penn Street, Philadelphia, PA

The Schuylkill River Trail is part of the Circuit Trails system.   The Schuylkill River Trail on its own generated $7.3 million in direct economic impact along its 60-mile-long route in 2009.

Other urban examples are outlined in Transit-Oriented Development to Trail-Oriented Development and in ULI’s recent report, Active Transportation and Real Estate: The Next Frontier.

Where are the trails in your community?   Can a “trail town” strategy work for you?


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