Ever since our experience on the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand, where we saw first hand how a trail can re-vitalize a rural region, we’ve been looking for a similar stories in the US. A few weeks ago, we had a whirlwind trip traveling from Iowa to Ontario, Canada to San Diego. We were in Iowa for a week and explored some of the numerous trails the state has to offer. Unbeknownst to us, there is a pretty robust trail system in the state. Many of them passing through small towns and are slowly being recognized as tourism attractions.
Perhaps the most significant trail that everyone was talking about was the High Trestle Trail, so named because of an architecturally stunning bridge that spans the Des Moines River. The bridge’s design pays homage to the mining in the area. Looking straight down the trail, you get the visual illusion of looking down a mine shaft. Since the opening of the bridge, it has become the darling of the region attracting visitors from all over the US. It has become a new tradition to ride through the bridge, especially at night when it is illuminated. More significantly, the 25 mile trail is beginning to make serious economic impact to the towns it traverses.
We interviewed Scott Olson, co-owner of the Flat Tire Lounge, that literally sits right next to the trail in the town of Madrid, Iowa (pronounced “MAD-rid”). It was fascinating to hear how their sleepy town was being rediscovered because of the trail and particularly about the new businesses that were opening in town because of the trail.
We have to admit, when we first heard about bikeshare, we were a bit skeptical. The real cause of low ridership, we thought, wasn’t a lack of bikes, but a lack of safe places to ride. Bikeshare has since rolled out in many cities and we’ve had a chance to ride multiple systems over the last year.
We first tried them out of curiosity during a business trip, to see what the big deal was. When we threw a leg over, we weren’t that impressed. The bikes were heavy, awkward, and had the grace of pushing around a loaded shopping cart. But after a few minutes, we got used to the lumbering beast of a bike, and actually started to have fun, despite ourselves.
When we were in Austin, TX (which has a fairly robust system), we were surprised at the range of people using the bikes. They weren’t “bikey” people, but casual riders running errands or curious tourists giving them a try. In Fort Worth, TX, we saw parents on bikeshare bikes riding the Trinity Trails with their kids, and tourists riding them to the different pop-up restaurants along the river trail.
That was our “ah ha” moment, because it was a completely different use than we had expected. The bikes weren’t used as a strictly utilitarian transportation device, but as a tourism asset for visitors to more efficiently explore and enjoy waterfronts, restaurants, and retail districts. We were sold.
During our current trip through the Midwest, we’ve used bikeshare systems in both Omaha, Nebraska and Des Moines, Iowa. We are on a pretty grueling schedule of speaking, presentations, and conferences, without too many chances to get some exercise. As an alternative to spinning away in the stuffy and sweaty fitness rooms of various hotels, we’ve taken out bikeshare bikes at every opportunity. In this context, the heaviness of the bike just adds to the workout. Not only do we get to stretch the legs but we get to do some sightseeing as well. Speaking with a person from the chamber in Des Moines, she said that they were also finding visitors among the highest users of bikeshare.
This makes a lot of sense. Bikeshare bikes are relatively inexpensive compared to a bike rental, and they are often placed near popular civic spaces (parks, waterfronts, bike trails, business districts). This combination of affordability and accessibility, in desirable locations, make them a great mode for pedaling tourists. As “business travelers” during the last few weeks, they have been a blessed alternative to hotel fitness rooms.
While we were skeptical at first, we’ve turned the corner and have become fans. When/if Portland does get its own bikeshare system, we probably won’t use them, since we already have a stable of bikes at our disposal. But when we travel without bikes to other cities, we’ll probably ditch the cab whenever we can and throw a leg over these odd lumbering beasts.
For the last two years we’ve been following the fascinating story of TREO Ranches, a bird hunting lodge owned by Phil Carlson and his wife Cathy. They had been looking for a way to create a second income during the hunting off-season to keep their staff employed and through a serious of fortuitous encounters, decided to cater to cyclists. A few months ago, we finally got the chance to make a visit and interview him about his TREO Bike Tours.
Phil is not your typical bicycle business entrepreneur (he freely admits to not riding a bicycle), but his ranch is situated in a veritable bicyclists playground in Eastern Oregon with hundreds of miles of empty paved and gravel roads. While he doesn’t ride a bike himself, he sees the potential value in bicycle tourism. Phil is not the sort of person to take half measures. He has invested heavily into making the bicycling portion of his ranch a success, both with time and money. He took the week long bicycle mechanic course at UBI, he was a common site at Sunday Parkways in Portland this year and he has purchased and outfitted a full service bus and trailer to run his bicycle tours.
Phil is also important in that he provides a rural voice that is supportive of bicycling. He can speak about the positives and potential problems with bicycle tourism. He talked at length (though not included in the final edit) about how being bike-friendly is a two way street and that bicyclists have to be farm-friendly as well. There are signs in his lodge instructing bicyclists to share the road and respect the property rights of the local farmers.
We are pretty excited to share this video since we feel it provides a great rural perspective on bicycling that is lost in our current dialog. Bicycling on the national level focuses primarily on the urban story, often forgetting that a lot of the country is rural. The problem with that is that if we can’t make the case for bicycling in rural America, we are disregarding and ignoring a lot of potential supporters. Sit back and enjoy!
A few months ago we took a little sojourn out to Eastern Oregon to capture some interesting bicycle tourism stories out there. We visited with Kim and his wife Anita, who use to own Mountain Works bike shop in La Grande, Oregon (their daughter and son-in-law run it now) and are now embarking on a new venture during their “retirement.” They are running one of the few pedal rail cars in the US!
What started out as a whim has become a pretty serious business for them and came about through some rather fortuitous circumstances. Unlike most rail in the US that is owned by a railroad company, the stretch of unused rail they are operating on is owned by the county. Through lots of meetings, conversations and perseverance they were able to get their pedal powered excursion machines up and running. One of the toughest obstacles was finding insurance, since there are virtually no other operations like it in the US. The insurance had lots of safety stipulations, so riders are required to wear a helmet and a seat belt.
Safety accoutrements aside, the rail riders are a blast! The current route goes from Joseph to Enterprise and back and takes about two hours depending on your pedaling speed. There are plans to offer a longer day route in the future. We crashed a large party that rented nearly all the cars for a family event. Everyone we spoke to were extremely excited about it and were all having a great time. The Joseph Branch Rail Riders is seasonal and doesn’t operate during the winter, but start planning your Spring and Summer trips now!
Bicycle tours, bike touring, bicycle tourism….the terms all sound similar but they mean different things. To clear up some terminology, we made a little video that gives a definition of bicycle tourism and what sort of behaviors it captures. Sit back and enjoy!