Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Economics of Mountain Bike Trail Building

Professionally Built Trail at  Hickory Knob State Park
There's a pretty intense discussion going on over here in the comments section of a blog that was recently posted on entitled "The Science and Math Behind Mountain Bike Trails." The section of the post that I commented on was this:

To give you an idea of the difficulty involved, typical construction costs for bike trails are in the neighborhood of $3-5 per foot (that’s about $15 - 25K per mile) but a foundation jacks that up to $10-15 per foot (as much as $80K per mile)!
Volunteer Built Trail at Levis Mounds
My general assertion was that those figures were really high for simple mountain bike trails, and also that some of the best trails that I've ridden the nation over have been spearheaded and built by volunteers. Of course, the only person to act somewhat indignant was a professional trail builder.  He responded by noting that yes, trails do cost money, and gave examples of great trails across the Southeast that were professionally built.  He also claimed that the difference between professional and volunteer trails were "night and day," and pointed out that if a trail is professionally built, you (the average mountain biker) can go to work and go ride instead of spending your life building trails.  He pointed to the quick 7 months in which the first 25 miles at FATS was erected. He also mentioned that the average cost of trail here in the Southeast was $2 per foot.  I noted that that figure was significantly less than the ones quoted in the article above, and replied:

Of course the professional trail builder will have objections. But you’re already proving my point by saying that $80k is outrageous, and the avg. cost in the area is $2 per foot, which is $10,500 per mile where the previously quoted low-end was $15-20k which is 50-100% more than the price that you quoted Seenvic.
So for arguments sake lets look at the 25 miles you put in at FATS in 7 months. At $15k per mile the cost would be $375,000 and at $20k it would be $500,000 as compared to $262,500 at $10.5k. We’re talking a big difference in prices here Seenvic. And now $80k per mile… that’d be $2,000,000 for 25 miles.
So the price you quoted was substantially lower than all of the prices in the above article.
Now, if developers and land managers see figures like that (the above article) when they think of adding mountain bike trails, we will never see more singletrack than we have now.
Also, the trails you listed are good. And FATS is really good. You have made a great point. But i still stand by my original assertion that some of the best trails I’ve ever ridden have been volunteer-driven masterpieces.
PS I’m not trying to make any personal attacks here, I’m just looking at the economics of all of this. I’m sorry if you took my initial comment as one.
 Trek7k jumped in, and gave support for the speed of which trails are built professionally, which is a good point:
One thing I’ll add here: The guys from Blankets Creek mentioned they spent around $50-60K for the newest loop out there (5 miles or so?) and estimated it would have taken them 3 YEARS to build it by hand using volunteers. Instead they got a new loop in just a few months.
Time is money and building new (sustainable) trails has a big cost no matter how you do it.
 The original poster, Seenvic, fired back with a lengthy post, accusing me of being "naive," which is probably true, and talking about their accomplishments at FATS. He also said:
I gave you a list of trails that were professionally built. Many I know you have ridden and loved. Now do me a favor and give me a list of the best trails you have ever ridden that were volunteer constructed. Name a few of them.
So I responded with a personal example from a place that I am definitely not naive about:

Volunteer built trail Levis Mounds
Sure, fine, I definitely don’t have as much experience as you or a lot of people. And point about the speed that the trails were built well taken.

However, as to my original point, it’s still a lot of money. There are some areas of the country that could in no way afford to spend that much money on a trail system. As I am “naive” I can only speak about areas that I know well, so I’ll take the county I grew up in. My dad is the county forestry and parks administrator, and manages/oversees the expansive forest, parks, trails, etc for the county (no state or federal land) (and the counties in Wisconsin aren’t like the dinky little counties here in the Southeast — they’re large). I know the financial state of the county, and there is no way they will ever be able to spend $35,000 on building a trail, much less $350,000. In fact, there currently is a policy in place banning the building of new trails of any sort anywhere on county land, for just that reason.

Now, anyone from the Wisconsin/Minnesota/Northern Illinois area knows that Levis Mounds (on County forest land of the county in question) is one of the best if not THE best trail system in the Midwest. It was built from the ground up by volunteers, and mainly by two men, both of whom I know, and one of whom I know really well. The latter has been a friend of the family since I was too young to remember, and he got me into mountain biking when I was in high school. I’ve heard the story of how the trails were built and the evolution that they’ve gone through.

The thing is, I didn’t know how good those trails were until I left and moved around the country. I learned to ride on those trails, but I didn’t realize that I had pristine, beautifully built singletrack in my backyard. Being in central wisconsin they don’t have the massive vertical gain or big downhills of the rocky mountain, but as far as quality trail construction and creative engineering complete with plenty of “Holy crap” sections, well, let’s just say whenever I go home for a visit I bring my riding shoes.

In conclusion:
1) Apparently not enough money for trails of your caliber
2) Trails are the best I’ve ever ridden

How does that work? Awesome volunteers.
But as you mentioned, volunteers like that are few and far between.


PS sorry if that was a bit long winded.

Pro/Volunteer Combo. Chicopee Woods
Another user jumped in and added that in his area of Colorado, volunteer-constructed trails tend to be the best quality singletrack.

All in all, it's an interesting discussion about the economics and science going into singletrack trail construction.  I know I've learned a lot over the course of it, so hopefully I'm not quite as "naive" as I started. Yes, it's been interesting! Hopefully none of the responses I posted came off as harsh or bitter or with any sort of heat.  I personally have no axe to grind whatsoever.  But I do think that it is an interesting topic of debate, and that different parts of the nation vary greatly on this topic.  As I concluded in my last comment, there are many areas that will never be able to afford $300,000+ trails. But for the areas that can, that's great!  That means there will be more amazing singletrack for us to come visit!

So what do you think about the economics of trail building?


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Greg Heil is the Editor in Chief for He's been writing and publishing online since before blogging existed.

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