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Bicycling tourists are older, wealthier, and in demand

| Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Cities and states have long urged their residents to ride bicycles, as a healthy form of recreation and as a green alternative to driving. Now they're recognizing pedal power's economic potential.

Tourism officials and cycling advocates sometimes refer to tourists on bicycles as “wallets on wheels.” That's because they stay longer in a state and spend more per day than other tourists.

Oregon, for example, has found that bicycle tourism contributes $400 million a year to its economy — roughly $1.1 million a day. It was the first state to create a Bike Friendly Business Program that helps businesses market to bicycle tourists.

Other states are pursuing similar strategies.

In September, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper declared that Colorado would spend $100 million over four years to make itself “the best state for biking in the country.” Washington, ranked the most bike-friendly state for eight consecutive years by the League of American Bicyclists, in July committed more than $500 million in state and federal funds over 16 years for biking and walking projects. This summer, Florida approved $25 million annually to connect bicycle paths around the state into a new, statewide network.

“Biking can be such a positive force, and I think being the best biking state is going to fuel economic growth and tourism,” Hickenlooper says. “It's going to lead us toward a cleaner environment, and it's going to help us be the healthiest state in America.”

Touring cyclists, who tend to be older and wealthier, are especially valuable to a state's economic health. They stay in smaller towns and support locally owned bed-and-breakfasts, motels, cafes, craft breweries and shops.

In Montana, which welcomes about half a million bicycle tourists a year, “it was an eye-opener that bicycle tourists spent more” than other tourists, says Norma Polovitz Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.

“This might not be the largest tourism niche, but everybody's interested in boosting the local economy. Bicycle touring has very little impact on the landscape, and it comes with a nice economic bonus,” she says.

Nickerson conducted a study in late 2013 that found touring cyclists in Montana were on average 52 years old, spent on average $75 per day and stayed eight nights or more.

Touring is defined as spending at least one night away from home, state residents included. The average nonresident vacationer during summer months spent $58 per day and stayed six nights in the state, the study found.

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, an avid cyclist, has tried for years to raise his state's profile as a cycling state. A robust system of bicycling trails would not only make cycling safer and more fun but would help recruit younger people to move to Florida, he says.

This year, Gardiner, a Republican, pushed through a change in the way vehicle registration fees are spent to redirect $25 million every year to a statewide network of bike paths.

“It's a lot of money for a long time,” Gardiner says. “This will put us onstage with other states.”

States spend, on average, less than 2 percent of state budgets and about 2 percent of federal funds on bicycling and walking projects, the group says.

But the numbers are increasing.

“Some states now recognize that bicycling is an attribute that cannot only make a state healthier and fitter but can also draw high-quality employers, economic growth and tourism,” says Douglas Shinkle, a transportation policy expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL.

“The new way of thinking emphasizes looking at bicycling as a legitimate means of transportation and worthy of transportation dollars,” Shinkle says. “That's much more the case now than 10 or 15 years ago.”

Democratic Mayor Jeri Muoio of West Palm Beach wants to make her Florida city of 102,000 residents one of the most bike-friendly in the nation. She was among the officials from 13 U.S. cities who visited Copenhagen in September on a Knight Foundation-funded trip to learn how the European city makes bicycling easy and safe.

Massachusetts is studying bike paths that are separated physically from motor vehicles and pedestrians. Such protected lanes have been in use in Europe for decades but are rare here.

But Randal O'Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute questioned the wisdom of that approach. O'Toole, a devoted cyclist who said he has never commuted to work by car, says separate bike trails are expensive and many cyclists don't end up using them. O'Toole also is opposed to narrowing city streets for separate bike lanes because that could increase traffic congestion.

Rather than building “glitzy projects,” he says localities should choose streets parallel to major thoroughfares and minimize the number of signals and stop signs cyclists encounter there, remove rumble strips and widen shoulders.

If you want to encourage tourism and spur economic growth, he says, sponsor bike races and other events to bring in cyclists and temporarily close off city streets.

“What needs to be done is figure out ways to make streets safer for bikes without being hostile to cars,” O'Toole says.

Marsha Mercer is a writer for stateline.org.

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