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Climate Change and Recreation: Evidence from North American Cycling


There is extensive research documenting the economic consequences of climate change, yet our understanding of climate impacts on nonmarket activities remains incomplete. Here, we investigate the effect of weather on recreation demand. Using data from 27 million bicycle trips in 16 North American cities, we estimate how outdoor recreation responds to daily weather fluctuations. We find empirically that cyclists dislike cold temperatures much more than hot temperatures, suggesting potential gains from warming. However, the overall response to extreme heat is mitigated, in part, by intraday adaptation towards recreating during cooler times of day. Combining these estimates with time-use survey data and climate projections, our models suggest annual surplus gains of $894 million from climate-induced cycling by mid-century.

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  2. Here and throughout the paper, we use the term “leisure” interchangeably with warm-weather “outdoor recreation.”

  3. Even so, we contend that our primary bikeshare estimates are much more precise than estimates based on time use surveys due to the unique nature of our data set and our estimand is more economically meaningful for projecting future leisure demand under climate change.

  4. In complementary research, Leard and Roth (2019) estimate the welfare impact from fatal traffic accidents induced by climate change. They find large costs associated with traffic fatalities by the end of the century. Further, they posit that “voluntary exposure benefits” from more pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists on the roads with higher temperatures offset the costs of fatalities, thus mitigating the consequences of climate change on traffic accidents. This latter finding is in line with our estimates for cycling, although our data permit us to estimate the benefits from climate-induced recreational activities.

  5. Further, using automatic bicycle-traffic receptors, Nosal and Miranda-Moreno (2014) explore a similar dose–response relationship between weather and cycling along 14 routes in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Portland, and Quebec over a span of 1-to-3 years. Their results are consistent with what we find, although we model our dose–response function more flexibly and include a wider variety of cities, over a longer timespan, with a broader set of controls and fixed effects, thus extending the validity of their results. In the present paper, we go several steps beyond Nosal and Miranda-Moreno (2014) to combine our estimates with climate projections and an economic welfare framework to predict climate change impacts on a national scale.

  6. We observe more than 3500 years of cumulative time spent on bicycles in our full 8-year sample.

  7. Note that the daily average temperature is the simple mean of the high and low temperature for that day. Therefore, a day in the \(>80\,^{\circ }\hbox {F}\) bin in our data may actually represent a very hot day with a high of \(95\,^{\circ }\hbox {F}\) and a low of \(70\,^{\circ }\hbox {F}\).

  8. Formally, the temperature bins, in degrees Fahrenheit, are \((-\infty ,30]\), (30, 40], (40, 50], (50, 60], (70, 80], and \((80,\infty )\), with the (60, 70] bin omitted. The precipitation bins, in inches per day, are (0, 0.25], (0.25, 0.50], (0.50, 0.75], (0.75, 1], and \((1,\infty )\), with days with no precipitation omitted.

  9. See Dell et al. (2014) and Carleton and Hsiang (2016) for broad reviews of this literature.

  10. For more details on bikesharing programs, see Hamilton and Wichman (2018) and Wichman and Cunningham (2017).

  11. Further, we interpolate seven observations total in Montreal, San Francisco, and Seattle for missing snowfall.

  12. Because the primary purpose of this exercise is to establish robustness, we do not correct or impute missing values.

  13. Graff Zivin and Neidell (2014) find that individuals substitute from outdoor leisure to indoor leisure at very high temperatures. Although the shape of our dose–response function would suggest a similar trend for bikeshare users, our coefficient on the highest temperature bin is statistically insignificant. This discrepancy may arise because we are studying different activities or because our top-coding of the highest temperature bin obscures the negative effect of more extreme temperatures. We discuss the latter in more detail below.

  14. Because our outcome variables are natural logarithms and our variables of interest are dummy variables, we transform all marginal coefficients, as summarized by Wichman (2018), prior to interpreting our results as percentage effects. Specifically, percentage effects are calculated as

    $$\begin{aligned} \hat{g} = \exp \left( \hat{\beta } - 0.5 \hat{V}(\hat{\beta }) \right) - 1 \end{aligned}$$

    where \(\hat{\beta }\) is our estimated marginal effect and \(\hat{V}(\hat{\beta })\) is an estimate of its variance. Similarly, our measure of variance around percentage effects is calculated as

    $$\begin{aligned} \tilde{V}(\hat{g}) = \exp (2\hat{g}) \left[ \exp \left( -\hat{V}(\hat{\beta })\right) - \exp \left( -2\hat{V}(\hat{\beta })\right) \right] . \end{aligned}$$

    We present our primary results in log scale for comparison in Figure A.2 and in levels in Figure A.3.

  15. We present these same figures with confidence intervals in Figure A.4. We omit confidence intervals in the main text for clarity.

  16. Unfortunately, there are not enough observations in this range to further partition the \(>80^\circ\) bin. As described before, days with average temperatures in this range are actually very hot days, and they are relatively infrequent in our data, particularly for higher latitude cities (see Fig. 3).

  17. See Tables A.3 and A.4 in the Online Appendix for city-specific regression results.

  18. In a model of transportation demand, Cutter and Neidell (2009) categorize trips in an analogous manner. They consider trips during rush hours to be commuting (work-related), while classifying trips at other times of day as discretionary (leisure). They also comment that dividing their data into weekday and weekend samples would help sharpen the distinction between discretionary and commuting trips.

  19. We have membership designations for all cities except Hoboken, Mexico City, and Pittsburgh.

  20. We also find striking parallels between our cycling dose–response functions and those of Obradovich and Fowler (2017), who use survey data on a wide range of physical activity along with month-average weather observations; discrepancies in magnitude may arise because of measurement error from their use of coarser survey data.

  21. Specifically, we construct our binned temperature variables with (1) average daily wet-bulb temperature, (2) maximum daily wet-bulb temperature, (3) average daily dry-bulb temperature, (4) maximum daily dry-bulb temperature, (5) maximum daily temperature in which each weather station within 100 km is weighted equally, (6) maximum daily temperature in which each weather station within 100 km is weighted by its inverse distance squared, (7) minimum daily temperature in which each weather station within 100 km is weighted equally, (8) minimum daily temperature in which each weather station within 100 km is weighted by its inverse distance squared, and (9) average daily temperature in which each weather station within 100 km is weighted equally. We derive the first four measures from the LCD weather data set, and the last five measures from the GHCN-Daily data set.

  22. For context, the minimum temperature projection paired with the maximum precipitation projection (that is, roughly today’s temperature with rain nearly every day, a highly unlikely scenario), we see more than a 60% reduction in duration of trips. This projection aligns with our dose–response function for precipitation, where additional days with a large quantity of rain reduce demand by roughly the same quantity as this projection. Notably, our estimates are positive for the interquartile range, centered at a 4–6% increase, giving us confidence that climate change will tend to stimulate outdoor recreation demand.

  23. For a small number of states, we did not observe positive time spent cycling, and we replaced those values with the national average.

  24. Chan and Wichman (2018) analyze this welfare approximation framework, finding that it will tend to provide conservative estimates of welfare changes.

  25. The Recreational Use Values Database (Oregon State University 2006) reports a mean consumer surplus value of $47.52 per day (2016 USD) for leisure cycling from 17 primary studies. Our analysis of the primary studies suggests an average of 2-h cycling trips, so we divide the given value by 2 to scale consumer surplus into an hourly measurement of $23.76 per hour.

  26. The average state-level annual hourly wage used in our analysis is $27.02 (2015 USD), obtained from the US Census, Table H-8, Historical Income Tables.

  27. This issue is discussed in greater detail by Chan and Wichman (2018). They also show that much of the value accrues via inframarginal recreation activity that becomes more pleasant, and these inframarginal gains in welfare will not be affected by substitution at the margin. Yet, if there are lingering doubts about this approach, we can interpret our welfare estimates as applicable only to cycling while conceding that there may be compensating losses from reductions in other leisure activities. Moreover, our analysis using guidance from the US Department of Transportation helps corroborate the scale of our estimated effects.


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Correspondence to Casey J. Wichman.

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We are grateful to Margaret Walls, Dave Keiser, Mirco Dinelli, Christine Crago, and Arik Levinson for helpful comments and suggestions. We also thank seminar and conference participants at the University of Minnesota, Cornell University, Colgate University, Bates College, Yale University, the Southern Economic Association Annual Meetings, the Heartland Environmental and Resource Economics Workshop at the University of Illinois, and the Northeast Workshop on Energy Policy and Environmental Economics at Columbia University for useful feedback. DaWon Lee provided exceptional research assistance.

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Chan, N.W., Wichman, C.J. Climate Change and Recreation: Evidence from North American Cycling. Environ Resource Econ 76, 119–151 (2020).

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  • Leisure demand
  • Outdoor recreation
  • Climate change
  • Adaptation
  • Nonmarket damages
  • Time allocation

JEL Classification

  • J22
  • Q54
  • R49