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A bicycle commuter who rides four miles to work, five days a week, avoids 2,000 miles of driving and about 2,000 pounds of CO2 emissions each year.

Report shows impact of trails in Illinois

The case for more investment in trails in Illinois just got a boost with the release of a new report that surveyed users of six trails in Illinois, including two in the Chicago region.

The report shows that trails in Illinois attract hundreds of thousands of visits a year, generate local economic activity, attract tourists, provide needed access to the outdoors, and likely improve the health and quality of life of Illinoisans.

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The report is the result of a nearly 13-week study of trail use by the non-profit Trails for Illinois and its partners Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the University of Illinois Office of Recreation & Park Resources, and trail agency and volunteers around the state. Between mid-July and mid-October 2012, the study counted and surveyed trail users on six trails statewide:

  • Fox River Trail, west Chicago suburbs
  • MCT Goshen Trail, St. Louis metro area
  • Hennepin Canal State Trail, north central Illinois
  • Old Plank Road Trail, south Chicago suburbs
  • Rock Island State Trail, Peoria area
  • Tunnel Hill State Trail, southernmost Illinois

Trail visits, when averaged for annual use, soared above 100,000 at some locations along trails near metro areas, such as the Fox River Trail, Old Plank Road Trail and MCT Goshen Trail. But trail counts on rural trails — Hennepin State Canal Trail, Rock Island State Trail and Tunnel Hill State Trail — still measured on some segments in the tens of thousands.

“To bars and grocery stores and B&Bs in towns like Toulon and Bureau Junction and Vienna, numbers like that count,” said Steve Buchtel, executive director at Trails for Illinois and former Active Trans staffer.

The report looked at money spent by trail users on gear, restaurants and bars, and grocery stores, as well as overnight stays and visits to the trail from outside the area./

Also included in the report is demographic information of trail users and their reasons for using the trail. One important finding is the significant role trails play in the healthy lifestyles of Illinoisans, including their access to nature, particularly for middle-age adults and seniors.

“It’s tough for a local or state official in a cash-strapped state to green light projects that can’t show a return to the tax payer on their investment,” said Buchtel. “And it’s tough for businesses or tourism to capture the customers they don’t see. We’re showing the return on trails. We’re pointing out the customers.”

Buchtel believes the report will help spark new relationships to build and promote trails. “The more people out on trails, the more economic benefits, the more health and environmental benefits. This report opens an invitation for healthcare and tourism to get involved in trail development and programming, in promoting the trails we have.”

Trails for Illinois wants to expand the study to more trails. This summer, the organization will count and survey users on the historic Illinois Prairie Path near Chicago. “These six trails are just the start. We’ve got a baseline of data that gives us a sample of how trails are benefiting Illinois, and we want to grow and leverage that,” said Buchtel. “The more trails we count, the more trails will count in Illinois.”

Old Plank Road Trail is pictured in both photos above.