Prove your humanity

Friends of the Riverfront, a local nonprofit managing the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, recently released a study of the impact of the trail network that runs more than 33 miles along the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. The report was conducted by the firm Fourth Economy based on an estimated 1.3 million visits to the trail in 2023.

The 2024 impact assessment said the Three Rivers Heritage Trail has a total economic impact of $26.5 million to the region. 

Trail spending at restaurants, lodgings and retail shops supported $16 million in earnings for local workers. Local spending and income tax from trail jobs also accounted for an estimated $5.7 million in tax revenue, including $1 million for schools and more than half a million dollars for municipal governments.

The last time a study on the trail was performed was in 2014 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Over the past decade, trail visits have doubled, while the economic impact has more than tripled.

Kelsey Ripper, Friends of the Riverfront’s executive director, called these results “phenomenal.” 

“It really gave us the confidence and justification that we need to continue to invest in trails,” she said. 

A couple walks on a paved trail along a riverfront. Cherry blossoms frame the image and a dock juts out over the water in the background.

Photo: Carolyn Doyle / Courtesy of Friends of the Riverfront

More mileage and trail development are to come

Courtney Mahronich Vita, director of trail development and government relations, said Friends of the Riverfront is currently developing 35 additional miles of trail in Allegheny County to improve access for more people.

“We are trying to engage people from a broad spectrum and background, including different races [and] age groups,” she said. “[We’re] also going to communities that don’t have the trail now to help engage more lower-income communities.”

Part of the development process, Mahronich Vita added, is engaging with communities and local businesses to understand what they want to see in future trail development.

“What drives our mission is being able to not only provide that experience for those who have the trail now, but also provide it to future generations and future communities as well.”

A man bikes along a paved trail. The Pittsburgh skyline and a major bridge can be seen beyond him.

Photo: Carolyn Doyle / Courtesy of Friends of the Riverfront

Improving trail users’ quality of life

The report also highlighted the mental and physical health impacts on trail users. 

Mahronich Vita said she’s heard from many trail users post-Covid lockdown that “being outside just really helped them reground themselves from being trapped indoors, and [the trails] help get them back outside and get them reconnected with people in a unique way.”

Ripper added a statistic from the report’s survey results: 79% of trail users had a positive change in mood or self-esteem after using the trail. She said personal testimony from trail users was even more powerful than numbers. 

“I love being able to pull out data, but hearing those stories about … how they used [the trail] to recover from medical issues, how they spent time with their loved ones on the trail …  that’s probably one of the most enjoyable parts of my job,” Ripper said. 

According to the study, more than half of people said the amount of time they spend exercising has increased since they started using the trail, and a majority said they use the trail with others.

The study also found that approximately 2,100 people utilize the trail to commute, reducing their collective carbon footprint by walking or biking.

Friends of the Riverfront also aims to offer more opportunities for people to interact with the trail, such as plant identification walks or community craft projects. Ripper said she hopes these experiences will encourage people to return to the trail again and again.

“If you can have a space that is readily accessible, that’s low cost to access, and that provides these types of benefits, you’re really providing those quality of life opportunities for communities in the county,” Ripper said.