May 16, 2013
Last month, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the International Trails Symposium in Flagstaff, AZ. A week before I left, Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois, contacted me and told me his organization had just completed a study about six trails spread across Illinois. He mentioned that the data in this study might be good to use for my presentations about bicycle tourism at the conference. Curious, I took a look. I loved what I saw. Steve used a triple bottom line approach to study trail impact — economics, health, and environment. I thought it might be good to have Steve tell us about the most important aspects of the study in his own words.
Envy. Illinois has comparable trails to what you find in Wisconsin and Michigan. But while their trails are reviving communities and inviting locals and visitors to explore the state, ours are largely ignored, difficult to find, in poor condition with few amenities that make trail use and tourism easy and pleasant.
I decided to start with recasting trails primarily as health and business infrastructure. Making legitimate claims about either require knowing the numbers, and Illinois had zero numbers about the benefits of its trails. That's how I came up with the name, Making Trails Count in Illinois. Counting and surveying really seemed like the right place to start giving trails more clout in Illinois.
I've got three:
1. That we did it, and can do it again. We had to figure out a methodology for counts and surveys, which we did, and we can repeat anywhere in the state. Our data is good, but it's just a start, and its power grows as more data comes in. By daylighting the economic and health activity that's happening on nearby trails, and pointing to the potential for more, we can help any community in Illinois figure out the opportunity that right now is literally passing them by. The Illinois Prairie Path Corporation (IPP) has hired us to make the IPP count this summer. We're ready for more.
2. Reinterpreting trail users as customers. More than 1/3 of trail users purchased something during their trail use in our study. Mostly small purchases, a handful of really large ones. If you're in the grocery, restaurant or bar business near a trail, and you don't think the trail's doing much for you, you're either unaware of their patronage or something is discouraging trail users from being customers. This is going to get merchants on the side of trails, and it's going to help trail groups build support for their projects.
3. Telling people about and showing them these six trails, particularly Tunnel Hill State Trail and Hennepin Canal State Trail. It is so fun to hear people exclaim, "this is Illinois?" It's also fun to share what's happening in Madison County where they're building the most sophisticated trail-transit multi-modal system in Illinois, and maybe the Midwest.
We will begin pushing for a focused tourism program in Illinois, akin to what Illinois Scenic Byways has, and for a pilot Trail Towns program hopefully in partnership with Student Conservation Association/Americorps. Tourism, I think, is the biggest card we can play. Illinois rural towns, which are postcard perfect but completely invisible from our interstates, need our help. That's going to take some help from local officials and state legislators, but I think "Making Trails Count in Illinois" helps us make a compelling argument.
We've had some great conversations with Illinois trail groups who are fighting for trail connections in their communities. The report allows them to be recast as partners, whose project now lines up with the goals of their town (typically economic development).
The low traffic on the Hennepin surprised us. A trail of that scale, 98 miles along a historic waterway, and with a connection to the wonderful Quad Cities & Mississippi River, should be a draw. So what's missing? B&Bs and other overnight opportunities for sure. But also missing are good wayfinding signs, evidence that the trail's being well maintained, and a standing, broadly announced invitation to go explore it. That stuff is relatively cheap, and the local and state administrators are looking right past it.
I think the study also shows an opportunity for private and local funding to pay for more trail development. Like a lot of states, probably, our towns have been addicted to the federal tap for trail projects, while at the same time our towns give away hundreds of millions collectively in tax waivers and incentives to bring in a jail, or a mall. It's really about how they value the return on those investments. We've given them a tool to value trails a little differently, to maybe make some trails possible without chaining ourselves to the shrinking, more competitive federal funding source. We'd love to see communities and agencies take more of their destiny into their own hands by self-funding more trails. There are models in Illinois right now, and we hope our study makes copying those models seem more worthwhile.
Adventure Cycling is lucky to have Steve on the team implementing U.S. Bicycle Routes (USBRs) in Illinois. Steve agreed to help us with USBR 37, which follows the Lake Michigan shoreline, and USBR 66, following the historic Route 66 alignment. We are happy to call him a friend and colleague. Visit Trails for Illinois and download the study or take a ride on the wild side by participating in the annual GITy Up on July 20-21, a great bicycle overnight experience.
Photos of Fox River (top), Tunnel Hill (second), Rock Island (third & fourth), Tunnel Hill (fifith) and Old Plank Road (bottom) courtesy of Thomas Photographic Services.
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