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.
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:
- They typically are well-educated, older adults from upper-income households with higher than average discretionary income. A survey in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, for example, found that 81% of bicyclists had a college degree and 78% reported household incomes of $75,000 or more.
- They usually travel in groups of friends or family members. In an Adirondack survey, the average group size was five bicyclists.
- Having already chosen a slower-paced mode of travel, they will take time to explore towns they visit and enjoy what makes them unique. They like to visit museums, discover unusual shops, tour wineries and farms, browse art galleries, and sample local restaurants.
Will they spend money?
Spending by bicycle tourists varies, but available data yield several conclusions:
- Those who undertake longer (multi-day) trips and come from farther away tend to spend the most, not just overall but per day.
- Surveys in Pennsylvania and Vermont found that on trips of two days or longer, cycling tourists each spent an average of at least $100 per day.
- Our own experience indicates that on longer trips (more than two days) expenditures can reach $200 to $300 per day.
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.
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:
- Off-road trails and low-traffic roads with marked bike lanes/shoulders
- Easy to moderate cycling
- Detailed maps and route descriptions
- Convenient lodging/dining options
- Services with a bicycle-friendly orientation
- Scenic landscapes, historic sites and parks
- Unique, interesting and readily accessible communities to explore
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:
- Support trail development in your town and region:
- Identify potential trail corridors in or near your town
- Find out what nearby towns are already doing
- Include trails in your Comprehensive Plan
- Encourage your county or MPO to develop a regional trails plan
- Become a bicycle-friendly community:
- Understand bicyclists’ needs. The best way to do this is to be a bicyclist! Bike from a nearby trail or bike route into your town; imagine you do not know the community but are seeking key services (rest rooms, drinking water, bike shops, restaurants & lodging, bicycle parking) or attractions (historic sites, parks, unusual businesses). Can you easily find them? Do you feel safe? What barriers do you encounter?
- Form a Bicycle Advisory Committee to help address needs such as safe access (marked bike routes/lanes, off-road paths where feasible, signage to alert motorists, bike-safe drainage grates, etc.), secure bike parking facilities, a “bicyclists welcome” outlook among businesses/residents.
- Create a “community gateway” for bicyclists that conveys the message “You have arrived!” with space to safely park bikes, a welcoming sign, a “you are here” map showing locations of services and amenities, and information about your community that makes cyclists want to explore further.
- Learn more. See Bicyclists Bring Business (www.ptny.org/publications or call 518-434- 1583); although focused on communities along NY’s canals, the ideas and checklists apply anywhere.
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:
- Its 360 miles can be ridden in a week with time to enjoy sights along the way, with shorter options available.
- And what sights it offers! Scores of historic and unique communities with museums, convenient restaurants and lodging, parks, and many other attractions await as riders traverse beautiful rural landscapes. Plus, there’s the canal itself, an American icon, with locks, aqueducts, lift bridges, and more.
- The cycling is mostly easy with some moderate challenges.
- Good maps and guidebooks are readily available.
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 email@example.com