Building the U.S. Bicycle Route System in Washington

By Barb Chamberlin and Louise McGrody, Bicycle Alliance of Washington

John Pope is a man with a mission: Ride and map a bike route spanning the entire state and get bicyclists along the way to help him find the best routes through their respective area, while obtaining the official blessing of cities and towns, chambers of commerce, convention and visitors’ bureaus, trail associations, and everyone else who stands to benefit from the effort. He won’t stop until Washington has six such routes east to west, north to south.

Why? Imagine an interstate highway system for bicycles — officially recognized and signed bike routes that crisscross our country. This network of bike routes follows a mix of state highways, scenic byways, quiet country roads, trails and city streets. They connect cities and towns, parks, landmarks, and other popular destinations, and travel through some of the best scenery that America has to offer.

This is no pipe dream. We’re describing the U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS), and portions of it already exist today. The first routes of the USBRS opened in 1982: USBR 1 runs between North Carolina and Virginia; USBR 76 connects portions of Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois.

John Pope.  Photo by Louise McGrody Photo by Louise McGrody

John Pope.

More than 20 years passed before there was any new development on the U.S. Bicycle Route System. In 2003, AASHTO — American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials — convened a USBRS Task Force to breathe new life into the effort. A National Corridor Plan was developed and Adventure Cycling Association is leading the effort to complete the USBRS. Over 40 states, including Washington, are working on growing the system and eight additional bike routes have been added. More miles are in the pipeline.

The U.S. Bicycle Route System taps into the rapid nationwide growth of bicycle travel and tourism, and the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (BAW) is pleased to be leading this effort in the Evergreen State. We have partnered with Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to create the six U.S. bike routes that have been identified for the state in the National Corridor Plan.

We have already begun work on USBR 10, the east-west corridor across northern Washington. John Pope, Bicycle Alliance board member and USBRS volunteer, has been busy making the rounds in Skagit County. He has met with community planners and engineers, bike clubs, active transportation groups, and WSDOT regional staff to develop and map much of the western route. This spring and summer he’ll head east of the Cascades to repeat the process.

Central and eastern Washington towns along the scenic USBR 10 route are looking forward to his arrival. Towns like Winthrop, Tonasket and Colville view the development of a U.S. Bicycle Route System as an opportunity to grow biking in their communities and to attract bicycle tourists.

Some of our political leaders recognize the potential of cycling tourism for the local economy. Senator John Smith of Colville is one of them. A farmer and businessman, he is the former president of the Colville Chamber of Commerce and has expressed his support for the Bicycle Alliance’s work to grow bicycling through tourism.

“In Colville we already recognize the value of bicycle tourism and identified it as a niche to focus on. Having the U.S. Bicycle Route System run through a big swath of northern Washington will help grow local economies all along the way,” said Sen. Smith.

That belief and optimism is not unfounded. A 2010 report published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison valued the economic impact of bicycle tourism and recreation at nearly $1 billion annually in their state. When combined with the economic impact of bicycle manufacturing, sales and service, the total impact of cycling in Wisconsin grew to $1.5 billion. (www.sage.wisc.edu/igert/download/bicycling_final_report.pdf)

Kristin Dahl of Travel Oregon recently spoke in Seattle to more than two-dozen people face to face and many more connecting via webinar interested in learning about the success Oregon has had in promoting bike travel and tourism. Their study estimated a $325.8 million annual economic impact and found that of 17.4 million people who visited the state over the course of a year, 4.5 million of them rode a bike during their stay and 1.5 million had planned on doing so before arriving. That means nearly 10% of travelers had biking as a motivation for choosing Oregon as their destination. BAW will be convening follow-up meetings to capitalize on the excitement expressed by everyone, from trail organization representatives to transportation planners to chambers of commerce, and align efforts to support the growth of bike travel.

North Cascades Highway.  Photo by Louise McGrody Photo by Louise McGrody

North Cascades Highway.

It takes a couple of years to develop, map, and get national approval for a U.S. bike route. The Bicycle Alliance is hoping to have the work on USBR 10 completed and ready to submit for approval sometime next year. We’re already contemplating which route to tackle next and currently talking with local leaders about the benefits.

In spite of the demonstrated economic potential of the USBRS and bicycle tourism, to date there is little to no state or federal financial investment for this effort. The Bicycle Alliance and most other groups working on the USBRS around the country are relying on volunteers who donate time and expenses to help complete this work. Investment in this work by communities that stand to benefit and by the state could produce the six planned Washington routes in four to five years instead of the forecasted 10-12 years. The sooner the routes are completed, the sooner Washington communities and Washingtonians will see the results at the cash register and the multiplier effects that other states are already enjoying from a focus on bike travel.

Meanwhile, we’re growing resources on the Bicycle Alliance website (bicyclealliance.org) to help locals and travelers alike find great places to ride. We’ve already compiled statewide lists of bike maps, clubs, and blogs, and are developing lists of bike shops and tour operators. In addition, we will be holding meetings around the state to bring together people, businesses, and organizations interested in helping attract those “wallets on wheels.” We’ll keep looking for ways to fund and accelerate efforts on the U.S. Bicycle Route System statewide while supporting local and regional advocates for trails who contribute to the incredible riding we have to offer all around Washington.

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