To better understand the benefit of physical activity in society and the investment related to public trail projects, a multi-disciplinary research team is studying the cost effectiveness of using such trails to promote physical activity.
West Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Science Christiaan Abildso and Sam Zizzi joined the project team. Abildso serves as a health data analyst and program coordinator for WVU’s PEIA Weight Management Program Research and Evaluation grant. Zizzi, a co-author on the study, is a professor in Sport and Exercise Psychology at WVU. Other researchers include Steve Selin, a professor in WVU’s Division of Forestry and Natural Resources, and Paul Gordon, who formerly worked in WVU’s Division of Exercise Physiology and is now with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Michigan.
In an article published recently in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, the researchers combined trail counts, on-trail user interviews, and cost data to paint a broad picture of the health promoting effect of rail-trail expenditures.
Results suggest that one community resident becomes more active for every $122 in annualized trail costs. A community resident moves from being sedentary to active for every $330 in costs.
“This compares very favorably with physical activity lifestyle change interventions,” Abildso said. “What is really fascinating is the substantial societal impact that a relatively small amount of money could have.”
Multiple states are spending money on trail systems. Abildso says that the study attempted to quantify the benefit that comes from creating the trails. The group evaluated the benefits based on the amount per dollar spent. The results? More people are becoming active, he said.
Zizzi adds, “The study also found that the rail trail was particularly appealing to new exercisers because of its safe, flat surface and the ability to participate with family members.”
The investment in trails can be enhanced by making sure that new trails are connected into existing networks of sidewalks and streets in a functional way to make it easy for community members to use the trails for recreation or commuting forms of activity, suggests Zizzi.
According to the study, the useful life of the trail is 30 years and the total cost for the land and engineering for the 51 mile system totaled $1.6 million. The group studied the eight miles of pathway within Morgantown. The cost to build this section of trail was reported at $400,000.
The investment in the health of the community combined with area economic benefits and increase in tourism is a winning combination. The study served to quantify the investment in people and communities in supporting the benefit of the trail.
Abildso explained that by increasing money spent on trail upkeep, communities can expect more use and further gain for the area. “It’s a wise investment because trails increase the quality of life and economic benefits. It’s a transportation mode. We can quantify the health benefit of investing in this form of non-motorized infrastructure.”
Abildso, who uses the local Mon River Trails system almost daily to commute to work, said, “This trail is a transportation, health, cultural, and economic asset to Morgantown. We need more research and public funding to understand the impact of these vital resources.”
Depending on the season, walkers, cyclists, runners, skaters, and even cross country skiers can be found traversing the Mon River Trails system. Originally, the trails served as a home for the region’s busy railroads that carried coal, glass, sand and limestone through the area. Many communities have converted the abandoned rail beds into popular, multi-purpose paths.
The trend to develop public trails has obvious benefits for the community. By increasing access to places for physical activity, health professionals and governments can expect to see lifestyle changes. However, accomplishing the transition from rail beds into rail trails comes with a price for the communities they serve.
To see a pdf of the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration article, see: http://js.sagamorepub.com/jpra/article/view/2655/2560
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CONTACT: Kimberly Cameon, CPASS