Trail building has become a cottage industry for the new millennium.
In less than a generation, pedestrian and bike trails have exploded in popularity across the country and in most parts of the world, fueled by the convergence of heightened awareness of healthy lifestyles, thousands of miles of abandoned railways, the lure of a safe venue for family biking, the growth of adventure travel, and other trends.
In fact, trails have even become vacation destinations unto themselves, with amateur enthusiasts spending millions each year on extended trips along scenic rail-trails from coast to coast.
Today, there are nearly 25,000 miles of converted rail-trails in use throughout the United States with thousands of additional miles being added each year.
One of the most popular is the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), which spans 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where it connects with the C&O Towpath and extends to Washington, D.C.
“Last year, cyclists and walkers made over a million visits to the Great Allegheny Passage, and drove tens of millions of dollars into towns along the trail,” says Bryan Perry, Executive Director of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, which organized and led the development of the GAP.
Indeed, a 2008 study by the Alliance found that the trail generated over $40 million in direct annual spending and another $7.5 million in wages, making it an important economic generator in the region. Since that time, the GAP has only increased in popularity and usage, and trail-related businesses throughout the region have grown as a result, and many small, family businesses have grown right along with it.
“Over the last decade, entrepreneurs have launched bed-and-breakfasts, cafes, and shuttle services,” says Perry. “Towns like West Newton, Connellsville, and Confluence have attracted new trailside businesses, including bike shops and campgrounds. Trail traffic is growing in whitewater-friendly Ohiopyle. Garrett and Dunbar are poised for growth where the GAP draws riders from linking trails. Because we draw thousands of through-riders, multiday journeys are common, and people spend money — not just on ice cream, but on lodging, entertainment, gear, and meals.”
Among the most striking success stories is that of Confluence, Pennsylvania, population 834.
A small town with a total area of 1.6 square miles on the Youghiogheny River, Confluence is the first GAP trail stop after the ever-popular Ohiopyle. Sister’s Café, a small diner in the center of town, was a favorite spot for area residents, since there was virtually no other restaurant in town. But Sister’s is just a short hop off the GAP, with trail signage showing the way into town, and bike riders looking for a place to stop, eat, and rest quickly found their way.