The National Academies

NCHRP 08-132 [Active]

Accessing America's Great Outdoors: Forecasting Recreational Travel Demand

  Project Data
Funds: $450,000
Staff Responsibility: Jennifer L. Weeks
Research Agency: Resource Systems Group, Inc.
Principal Investigator: Gregory Spitz
Effective Date: 8/5/2020
Completion Date: 8/4/2022

Recreational travel has expanded rapidly in the recent past and continues to stress our nation’s transportation system. Domestic leisure travel increased 2.0 percent in 2018 to 1.8 billion person-trips (U.S. Travel Association). Recreational visits to America’s national parks in 2018 exceeded 300 million for the fourth consecutive year, reaching 318.2 million, which is the third highest since record keeping began in 1904 (National Park Service, Office of Communications). This rapid growth in recreational travel continues to affect urban and rural areas throughout the country, placing new and changing demands (traffic congestion, air pollution, etc.) on transportation systems. Many national parks have experienced rapid, substantial changes in visitation rates over the last 5 years (as high as 40% and 60% increase at some units), resulting in congested access roads, intersections, and entrance stations for many parks as well as gateway or intervening communities (Yellowstone Transportation and Vehicle Mobility Study; Yellowstone National Park Visitor Use Study; Acadia Transportation Plan/FEIS). As a result, managing this travel demand has been increasingly challenging. 

What contributes further to the complexities is that outdoor recreation is also a significant regional and national economic generator, contributing $373.7 billion to the U.S. economy (or 2% of total GDP) in 2016. This value exceeded economic contributions of other industries that access similar lands (e.g., mining, oil, and gas extraction) at 1.4% of total GDP (
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account). The outdoor recreation economy grew at a faster rate than the national economy, 3.8 percent in 2016 compared with the overall U.S. economy’s 2.8 percent growth during that same period. The economy of many communities in rural areas is highly dependent on recreational travel.

As the recreation sector of the economy has grown, transportation system performance has often been degraded, affecting the quality of the travel experience felt by both visitors and local community residents and businesses. Reasoned investment decisions affecting recreation-related multimodal transportation infrastructure, operations, and management are difficult without a greater ability to understand, document, and plan effectively for future system performance. Given these concerns, there is a great need for research to improve understanding of recreational travel demand and patterns and how to build on that understanding to improve overall transportation system planning, forecasting, and investment. Without this information, federal land managers, states, and communities have limited capability to make reasoned decisions about physical and operational transportation improvements. 


The objectives of this project are to develop the following:
  1. A recreational travel demand model component that is compatible with and can be incorporated into, or used in conjunction with, transportation demand models currently in use by state DOTs, MPOs, and other transportation planning agencies. 
  2. Guidelines for state DOTs and other affected transportation and land management agencies on enhanced recreational travel modeling using the recreational travel demand component: 
    1. Description and assessment of existing methods and procedures for evaluating recreational travel demand and associated data gaps, focusing on public lands (federal, state, and local). This assessment will provide the baseline needed for effective analytical approaches to measure the effects of changing recreational travel demand and the impact recreational travel has on transportation system performance.
    2. Identification and exploration of factors driving recreational travel volumes and patterns. The outcome and products of this study should clearly describe which factors are correlated with recreational visitation (number of visitors to a site) versus which factors drive changes in recreational travel (travel to and from sites).

These guidelines will help state DOTs and other transportation and land management agencies integrate recreational travel demand into overall transportation system planning and forecasting, enabling affected jurisdictions to make better-informed decisions about investments in multimodal transportation improvements, economic development, and other issues that may enhance traveler experience and improve quality of life for residents in affected communities.

Note: For the purposes of this RFP, “recreational travel” refers to travel to federal public land units (National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal land management sites); state parks and other state-owned recreation sites; and other public recreational destinations. These public land destinations may be in rural or urban areas. Commercially-owned destinations and theme parks are not included. “Recreational travel” includes both same-day and overnight travel and travel from both nearby and long-distance origins. “Recreational travel” includes both domestic and international visitors.


The research plan  (1) includes a kick-off web conference to review the amplified work plan with the NCHRP project panel, convened within 1 month of the contract’s execution; (2) addresses how the proposer intends to satisfy the project objective; (3) is divided logically into (at least) two phases encompassing specific detailed tasks for each phase that are necessary to fulfill the research objectives, including appropriate milestones and interim deliverables; and (4) incorporates opportunities for the project panel to review, comment on, and approve milestone deliverables.

The research plan delineates the tasks required to build and test a travel demand component that is specific to recreational travel demand, patterns, and demographics. This component should provide a reliable and valid tool to help make informed decisions about transportation system investments that improve access, traveler experience, and asset management. This component will be designed for use by state DOTs, local governments, and other agencies involved in developing and implementing transportation system plans and programs.

Phase I

Work in Phase I will result in a preliminary framework for a recreational travel demand model component built on an analysis of existing conditions, trends, and factors affecting future recreational travel demand. This work will include, but not be limited to, the following:
  1. Document methods and factors agencies typically use to forecast recreational travel demand and how those forecasts are incorporated into state and regional transportation system planning.
  2. Document and describe the state-of-the-practice in recreational travel demand modeling as it affects transportation system planning, design, operations, and investment decisions. 
  3. Explore and document which factors (economic, demographic, marketing, seasonal/ temporal, geographic, etc.) drive recreational travel volumes and patterns and describe how these factors affect recreational travel demand in diverse settings (mountainous, coastal, rural, urban, etc.).
  4. Identify existing and potential data sources that can support these modeling efforts.
The model component framework should be designed to project recreational travel demand on state and local transportation infrastructure to allow responsible jurisdictions to make informed transportation systems management and operations (TSMO) decisions, and decisions about investments in economic development, transportation infrastructure, and other system elements.

The work accomplished in Phase I will result in an interim report that describes the preliminary steps necessary to analyze and understand recreational travel patterns and investment needs for transportation systems and presents the model framework for development in Phase II. The interim report will also include a refined scope of work for developing and validating the recreational demand component along with accompanying documentation and explanation in Phase II. The panel will meet with the research team at the end of Phase I to review and approve the interim report. NCHRP approval of the interim report is required before proceeding with Phase II. 

Phase II

Using the products of Phase I, work in Phase II will develop the model component to understand and predict recreational travel demand on transportation systems at local, regional, and/or state levels. Work in Phase II will also include demonstrating how the recreational model component will work in diverse settings (mountainous, coastal, rural, urban, etc.), drawn from National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, other federal land management sites, state sites, or other public recreational destinations. As part of the work accomplished in this phase, the model component will be tested, refined, and validated.

Final deliverables of Phase II will include at a minimum:
  • The recreational travel demand model component, which can be used in collaboration with transportation demand models to project recreational travel demand. The model component will include documentation of the development and validation process (see Special Note E). 
  • A detailed guidebook for state DOTs and other transportation agencies to accompany the travel demand model component, defining critical steps in the recreational travel demand forecasting process and methods. The guidebook will include a presentation/description of the predictive recreational travel demand component with guidelines and instructions for application at state, regional, or local levels.
  • A contractor’s final report that documents the entire research effort. This report should also include recommendations for additional validation in diverse settings, research on applicable procedures, analytical methods, and tools.
  • A stand-alone executive summary that outlines the research findings and recommendations.
  • Communication material aimed at state DOTs and other transportation and land management agencies that explains why the integration approach and supporting guidance are helpful and how they will be applied.
  • A stand-alone technical memorandum entitled, “Implementation of Research Findings and Products” (See Special Note B).
The research plan includes appropriate checkpoints with the NCHRP project panel: (1) a kick-off teleconference meeting to be held within 1 month of the contract’s execution date; (2) the face-to-face interim deliverable review meeting to be held at the end of phase I; and (3) at least two additional web-enabled teleconferences tied to NCHRP review and approval of any other interim deliverables as deemed appropriate.
Status:  This project is in the process of preparing final deliverables for review and approval by the panel.  

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