Slow-speed Trail: Bicycle Tourism and Local Economies in New York State

Wally Elton, Project Director, Parks & Trails New York
Reprinted with permission from the September/October 2010 issue of ‘Talk of the Towns & Topics’, the newsletter of the Association of Towns of the State of New York. Photos provided courtesy of Parks & Trails New York.

In this era of email, tweets and talk of high speed rail, many Americans seek escape from their fast paced daily lives through a slower, more active style of vacation: bicycling. According to the U.S. Travel Association, bicycling is now the third most common vacation activity, and more than 27 million Americans have taken a bicycling vacation in the past five years.

Not surprisingly, towns across the state desire to tap into this expanding market. While the economic benefit of attracting bicycle tourists varies with several factors, it can be substantial. At a minimum, bicycle tourism can strengthen the economic base of a community. In seeking to attract bicycle tourists, it helps to understand who they are, what type of vacation experience they seek, and how to become a bicycle-friendly town.

Cyclists bike the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in Ulster County.
Cyclists bike the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in Ulster County.
A trailside restaurant is shown in the background

Who are bicycle tourists?

First, of course, they are potential customers who, like other tourists, can bring new revenue into a community. But they also have other characteristics that make them desirable visitors:

Will they spend money?

Spending by bicycle tourists varies, but available data yield several conclusions:

This can add up! A group of five cyclists each spending, say, $250 per day on a six-day tour would leave behind $7,500. Fifty such groups would bring in $375,000. What’s possible? Missouri’s 225-mile Katy Trail, one of the oldest multi-use trails, draws 350,000 bicyclists annually.

Several bicycles parked outside a local grocery store
Several bicycles parked outside a local grocery store demonstrate the kind of
business boost a bicycle tour can bestow on a town.

What do bicycle tourists seek?

Surveys of many bicycle tourists (including those on our annual Cycling the Erie Canal tour) reveal general preferences in selecting destinations:

Most bicycle tourists seek trips up to seven days long and typically ride 30 to 50 miles per day. Such trips may be a mix of trail and on-road riding. Others look for places to ride shorter trails as one of several vacation activities.

What can towns do?

NY is well along toward becoming a preeminent trail state that will attract visitors from across the nation and abroad to experience our scenic landscapes and varied communities. Parks & Trails New York has been pushing for a statewide multi-use trail network plan. In the meantime, town/community leaders can help move NY forward:

A “signature” trail for NY’s future network

With a growing number of multi-use trails, some future bicycle tourism corridors are emerging. The Genesee and Hudson River Valleys are examples.

Spanning upstate NY, however, is a resource tailored to become a world-class bicycle tourism destination: the Erie Canal. Today, an off-road trail, the Erie Canalway Trail, parallels 75% of its length. When complete it will boast almost everything bicycle tourists seek:

Already, the trail draws thousands of visitors. More than 500 riders from throughout the U.S. and other countries join Parks & Trails New York’s Cycling the Erie Canal bike tour each July. As the state and municipalities work together to “close the gaps,” the trail will become both an international bicycle tourism magnet and a “backbone” for a statewide trail system linking bicycle tourists to many other towns.

Parks & Trails New York is the only nonprofit organization working to expand, protect and promote networks of parks, trails and open space throughout New York State. Wally Elton can be reached at welton@ptny.org

Summer 2010

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This work by the Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.