Michigan Reaps the Dividend of Growing Rail-Trail Network

Posted 04/06/12 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails, Success Stories

Photo of North Central State Trail © TrailLink.com/David Yates

At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) 25th Anniversary celebration last year, we recognized the trail-blazing achievements of Carolyn Kane and the late Fred Meijer, two Michiganders who during the past few decades have made a remarkable contribution to the development of America's rail-trail network.

Kane and Meijer would be the first to say it was an honor that should be shared with many in their state--for years Michigan has been a leader in building, maintaining and promoting trails, biking and walking. Driven by a number of strong and effective citizen advocacy and volunteer groups, and supported by proactive and farsighted local and state government agencies, Michigan is a model of how to get trails built, and how to maximize their benefits.

Michigan has the largest rail-trail system in America, with more than 2,300 miles. And they are well-used; there are more than 300 bike tours that criss-cross the state, enjoyed by more than 45,000 cyclists each year.

And, in a state that has had its share of economic struggles, this network of trails is proving itself to be a substantial and sustainable source of revenue.

A recent article in Bridge Magazine found that the bike tour business in Michigan is booming, built on the growing popularity of outdoor recreation vacations and the state's expansive rail-trail network.

Although a statistical review of trail users in Michigan has not yet been conducted, a 2010 University of Wisconsin study found that Wisconsin, which has about three-quarters the trail miles of Michigan, enjoyed more than $920 million in economic benefits due to bicycle recreation and tourism. Of that total, the study credited almost $540 million to out-of-state cyclists.

The Bridge article quotes Rich Moeller, executive director of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, as saying that the average household income of bicyclists is about $125,000 a year.

Photo of Fred Meijer Heartland Trail © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

"They are people who have expendable income, and when they come to tour, they want to spend, and they do," Moller said. "(The) local community is seeing dollars from folks coming in from somewhere else. I think that attracting out-of-town folks to your community to spend dollars is always a good thing, whether they come from another state, country or just another town in Michigan."

Conscious of the importance of trails to the state's prosperity, Michigan continues to build. This June, the Top of Michigan Trails Council will open the North Eastern State Trail, a 70-mile rail-trail that passes through the Great Lakes region and connects to another long adventure, the 62-mile North Central State Trail (above).

"When it comes to trails, Michigan really gets it," says RTC's Karl Wirsing, who rode the North Central State Trail in 2008. "From the local advocates and businesses right up to the Department of Natural Resources and the funding agencies, it is amazing to see how much the state has been able to achieve. It is also great to see that investment returned, many times over, in terms of tourism dollars and quality of life assets for locals."

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