Can Bicycles Save Small Town America?
We’ve been talking to a lot of people lately about bicycle touring and tourism. Oregon is fortunate in that it has a very active coalition, between TravelOregon (and its bike-specific site RideOregonRide) and CycleOregon and its State Parks, that sees the benefits of promoting bicycling throughout the state. What has been clear is that, although the improvements and amenities ostensibly target cyclists, the benefits of “bicycle-friendly businesses” and “bicycle routes” have larger ramifications.
Can bicycle tourism save small town America? From our own experience, we would stop at many small towns (sometimes nothing more than a post-office and a general store) and take a break, buy some snacks and maybe chat up a local. We would also spend money on lodging, groceries, and, I swear, I think I bought one small thing from every bicycle shop we passed. Bicycle touring is ripe with these small interactions that probably would not happen if you were just driving through. When people go out and ride to “see America” this is what they mean. Bicycles allow us to travel fast enough to move across the country, but slow enough to interact with the landscape and people.
There is often the perception that bicycles fall on the urban side of the rural-urban divide. While there are certainly more bikes in cities, it doesn’t mean that there’s terrible biking in the country. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Small rural communities often have the best roads with scenic riding and low traffic volumes. They have, as Tara Corbin, of CycleOregon, and Kristin Dahl, of TravelOregon, have pointed out in our recent interviews, many of the “assets” that make ideal cycling – they merely have to connect the dots. Simple actions with very little capital investment – like advertising a motel as “bicycle friendly,” having some spare tubes and a pump handy, and offering bag lunches to cyclists-on-the-go – are inexpensive ways to attract cyclists.
We fear what we don’t understand. When conducting the interviews, I was plying the thesis that rural towns are naturally antithetical to bicycling. From my interviews so far, it doesn’t appear to be the case in Oregon. Oregon benefits by having a one-two punch combination with CycleOregon (a bicycling event that acts as initial contact with small towns to demonstrate bicycling’s economic impact) and TravelOregon (a quasi-governmental organization that works to further develop bicycle tourism and infrastructure with interested small towns). Unfortunately, not every state is so lucky.
This is where a project like the US Bicycle Route System, being spearheaded by Adventure Cycling, is so important. Not every state or region has organizations working to delineate good routes for bicycling. Most people that bike want to know what the best roads are for riding, and while this is certainly possible with lots of independent research and trial and error, it is infinitely easier to have designated routes. We see this daily on a micro-scale in cities with bike paths, bike boulevards, and bicycle lanes. Think of how convenient it is to know these routes on your daily commute, how you are much more free to enjoy the riding and your city. Now imagine that on a macro scale. Suddenly, the anxiety and burden of finding a route is lessened. You are free to just pedal, to stop at the small general stores and strike up conversation and to “see America.”
The fundraiser for the US Bicycle Route System is winding down and we feel its a worthy project to support. Click here to donate and support the USBRS!