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Guest Infographic: How bike touring could save rural economies

Posted by on August 8th, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Illustration by Russ Roca/PathLessPedaled.com

Bicycle touring duo Russ Roca and Laura Crawford are well into their Bromptom bike adventure. For Russ, whom I sat down with for a live interview back in August 2009, the trip has given him the opportunity to pick up a new skill — drawing.

Combined with his newly acquired power of the pen and his big ideas about bike touring, Russ put together the illustration above. Here’s more about it from Russ himself (emphasis mine):

“… We’re pretty average as far as touring cyclists, shooting for about 50 miles a day. Far enough to move through the landscape, but slow enough to do some fishing and eat some pie. Because of our limited distance per day and the massive amounts of calories we’re expending a day we eat a lot and require a place to overnight (camp, RV park, motel, etc.,).

I began thinking of how our spending habits would be different if we were driving. Take a 200 road trip. It would be easily accomplished within a day in an automobile. You’d probably stop for lunch, refill the gas tank along the way and get dinner and lodging at your final destination. You might pass a handful of small towns along the way, but since you’re moving so fast and not expending any calories, chances are you probably won’t stop unless you have to use the bathroom. Those small towns would just be a blur from inside your car.

Take that same 200 mile stretch and think of how a bike tourist would move through the landscape. If they’re 50-mile-a-day cyclists like us, they would require 4 nights of lodging or camping. Because we’re constantly burning calories, that same trip would require 12 meals or snacks in between (either cooked with food bought from local markets or meals at the local eateries). We would definitely stop in every town to refill water bottles, stock up on food, use the restroom and spend the night.”

With efforts well underway like the Adventure Cycling Association’s U.S. Bicycle Route System and Oregon’s State Scenic Bikeways program, small towns across America could become more bike-tourist friendly and begin to see the economic benefits of two-wheeled travel.

— Read more about “The Economics of Bike Touring” at PathLessPedaled.com.

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  • Deeeebo August 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Its a start but methinks it incredibly oversimplified. The question should be how does this piece fit into a comprehensive plan for rural revitalization and how does that plan stack up against the alternatives which normally entail a quick infusion of jobs (quality questionable) from your friendly big-box/ chain store retailers.Most people will pave over your Kinkaid painting forever in the hopes of giving their family something better now as opposed to wait 10-20 years for some regional plan to take effect. If its going to compete that plan needs to be concrete and good.

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  • SilkySlim August 8, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Reliance on bike tourism as an economic plan? C’mon….

    I have done six separate week long bike tours in Oregon over the past couple years, and am thrifty as hell along the way. I hardly pay for lodging, dropping maybe $4 at a state park or camping for free in a field. I maybe average $15 a day on food: one meal out, and some cheap groceries to cook at camp.

    Bike touring is a thrifty enterprise!

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  • John Russell (jr98664) August 8, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Having cycled to Canada, Mexico, and this past summer across the country to New York, I would have to say I’m far too frugal to spend a whole bunch of money. Cycling across the country, I never ate out, and only restocked on food when running low, spending around $50 every 10 days at grocery stores, specifically those in Bozeman, Denver, and St Louis. I usually camped as cheaply as possible, and CouchSurfed for free otherwise.

    Last fall, I spent a week in October cycling to California and back. I spent a little money upfront at a WinCo in the Portland area for my food which lasted me the entire trip. I camped for free in the area’s National Forests. The only money I spent once on the road was $20 in Sisters to fix a broken spoke.

    Again, I’m obviously on the frugal side of things, so I could imagine how this could definitely help when you get more people bicycle touring.

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    • dan August 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm

      You only need to buy food every 10 days? I’ve been doing it wrong! What’s your touring menu look like?

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    • was carless August 9, 2011 at 12:11 am

      I burn about 8,000 calories a day. You must have been packing 60 lbs of food. Or only chocolate!

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    • nom de plume August 9, 2011 at 10:08 pm

      But you’re one person. You + nine other frugal cyclists will end up spending $500 on groceries in Bozeman. Then add in the less-frugal cyclotourists that are going to spend that much on dinner and drinks before heading back to the B&B. Ten of them may drop $200 each over just a couple days. It adds up and can make a difference!

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  • francis August 8, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Being able to dedicate a week to a trip is unlikely for a lot of us… More likely rather than go on a 200 mile bike trip instead of a 200 mile road trip, I’d be making a 30-50 mile bike trip. The small town would want to be a destination in itself.

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    • Paul Souders August 8, 2011 at 4:21 pm

      There is something to this logic. My family takes regular bikations in the San Juan islands, and we contribute plenty to the local economies. If I were the potentate of a small town in Oregon, especially near to PDX Metro, Bend, or Salem, I’d be very interested in this kind of tourism development model.

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  • Patrick August 8, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Typically I eat at least one high-calorie meal, an ice cream bar & beer out a day. I also occasionally (once a week) stay overnight in a motel. Not only do I spend a bit all along the way, I meet people and leave good impressions. Bike touring is too much fun not to stop and take in the local color.

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  • Shelley August 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I am the poster child for Mr. Roca’s position. I stop at every wide spot in the road to look at the scenery and local museum’s or tourist attractions. Food stops, wine tastings, the local interesting looking B & B or small hotel will all get at least a little piece of the money that I am not spending on air fare or gas on my vacation.

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  • Paul Souders August 8, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I was going to echo John Russell’s comments above — I rely on cheapo camping and cook my own food while touring — but I put “my” numbers through Russ’s scenario and realized that even for very frugal bike tourists a 200 mi bike trip spends more local money than the same trip in a car. Not to mention: I carry those same frugal habits with me when I travel by car.

    Moving at 1/5th the speed means 5x more opportunities to spend a dollar or two, usually at a small business (easier to park a bike than at a big box shop), and always well away from a freeway (less traffic)

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  • Russ Roca August 8, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    There is a spectrum of bike tourists. From the frugal to comfort tourists. You can read about a graduate student’s research on the economic impacts of bicycle tourism here.


    In her research, she breaks up tourists into Shoestring, Economy and Comfort depending on their spending. Obviously, if you are in the Shoestring category you will be spending very little, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bike tourists that are spending more.

    After almost two years of bicycle touring (15 consecutive months and our current trip) we have run through an entire gamut of tourists. Some dumpster diving, others booking motels and eating out every night.

    While I’m not saying bicycle tourism will singlehandedly lift us out of a recession, it can play a part. We have witnessed first hand businesses and towns who are actively trying to reach out to bike tourists because it helps their business and local economy. They realize the capital investment to attract bicyclists can be very small relative to the tourism (a pump, a sign, some advertising, spare tubes).

    Within the state of Oregon, TravelOregon and CycleOregon have played important roles in developing bicycle tourism in many rural communities.

    See the following videos:





    Further, look up the Cycle Camp in Twin Bridges and see how that came about. A man with a vision saw how he could tap into all the TransAmerica riders to help his town whose average household income is $7000 below the poverty line. Since its inception 3 years ago, it has made an impact on the local coffee cart, market and restaurants.

    When we tour, we stop often, pick up snacks and talk to local business owners. We try to leave a positive impression of bike tourists with the hopes that if they see bicycling related item on a ballot, they will remember their positive interaction with a cyclist.

    Being good to businesses not only helps local economies, but cyclists in the long run as well. We stayed in a bicycle guest house in Rockaway Beach called the Sea Haven motel. The owners were very cyclist friendly and also active members of the chamber of commerce. Having many positive interactions with cyclists made them more likely to vote for cycling and pedestrian improvements in their own town.

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  • bicycleredux August 8, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    i ride like russ… lower milege, coffee shop stops, and local grocery stores. i stay at state and county parks mostly, but occasionally crash at a k.o.a or motel.

    i think the larger picture is one of american culture lacking the ‘work to live’ mentality, and lack of good sabbatical time. i meet europeans who have months off of work to travel by bicycle, but all of my longer tours were financed by garage sales and stolen time by quitting a job.

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  • aljee August 8, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    i like to eat and eat well when on a bike tour. clam chowder?? HELLOOOOO! pie? yes, please. beer? oh yeah.
    i cook too, but i love me some warm and hardy meals from small town restaurants. everything tastes 100x better after a long bike ride (that’s the real reason i ride so far).
    no matter your style, the math works out – your are still spending much more relative to driving.
    “you mean you don’t eat out of dumpsters the whole way?”

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  • craig August 8, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Since MAX can’t accommodate trailers, planning bike camping trips out of town is especially challenging for families with kids (smaller bodies means more gear for adults to haul). We’d love to benefit rural communities with our bike tourism dollars, but there’s a big hurdle to over come first.

    I’m hoping to find someone generous with a van who’ll drop off/pickup me and 4 kids and our bikes and our camp gear at the banks end of the B-V trail next week. No small feat (finding a van/driver).

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) August 9, 2011 at 8:56 am

      Hey Craig,
      I feel your pain. I’d love for TriMet to consider a “Weekender” train program where they encourage bikes and trailers on certain cars on certain trains during certain weekend times. Until that happens though… there are resources to help you.

      Portland Bicycle Tours runs a trip out to the Banks -Vernonia.

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      • craig August 9, 2011 at 10:15 am

        Thanks Jonathan–checking it out.

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  • Rithy August 8, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    My colleague Heidi Beierle did her thesis on this. Its too bad that it hasn’t make it to the University of Oregon scholarsbank (digital clearinghouse of UO research) so I could link it.
    From one I remember from her thesis defense. But I think it depends on the type of touring. Is it cheap and thrifty or is it more relaxed and hotel based. However it was clear that especially on the transAmerican a little signage + hospitality went a long way to get bicyclists to your town.

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  • Deeeebo August 9, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Its a great concept and any little bit of economic investment into rural economies can’t hurt. Sure, you may just drop $20 more if you bike through an area. However, one would need to consider the overall impact on a given community and its ongoing economic prospects. Perhaps this is something that Heidi Beierle (above) did research into but I would guess this type of thing (“bike investment”) would be a drop in the bucket for most communities and is not going to push them over the line from an attitude of development to an attitude of preservation.

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  • Steve Brown August 9, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Bicycle Tourism is a billion dollar a year business in Wisconsin. Sure you can do it on the cheap, but people will travel to the state to ride and spend big bucks to ride rural in Oregon and this above described model works. There is a group coming from Russia at the end of the month and one stop will be the OBRA Masters Championships at Alpenrose. There is a lot more to Oregon than driving to Sunriver or the beach in a car.

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    • Alan 1.0 August 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm

      Colorado, too: “Bicycling contributes over $1 billion annually in economic revenue to the state of Colorado,” said Dan Grunig, Executive Director of Bicycle Colorado… (talking about the bicycle ban in Black Hawk)

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  • Russ Roca August 9, 2011 at 8:19 am

    On a national scale, New Zealand is developing what they are calling “18 Great Rides” and if you look at the story behind the project, one of the main purposes is economic development, supporting businesses and towns along the trails.

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  • Tim August 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

    One of the nice things about cycle touring is that it can be done on the cheap or all out luxury. I have done both, and loved it both ways. In Europe, cycle tourism is big money and offers small villages the chance to cash in on tourists that may not otherwise visit their communities. The rural American west is as foreign to Europeans and many American city dwellers as the hill towns of Tuscany. Europe is set up for cycle touring with picturesque villages every 10 to 20 Km. While the American west is more logistically challenging, I think many Americans and Europeans would enjoy traveling through west and spending time and money in small towns. We have a long way to go before Sumpter and Ukia become cycle tourist destinations, but we will never get there if someone does start.

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  • JF August 9, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    I like the thought but the reasoning seems a little flawed.

    His brief analysis only looks at how he specifically bikes a trip compared to driving the identical trip (same roads, same route, just different speeds and stops). From this, it seems like the only reason he stops is because of biking. Otherwise, having used a ‘faster’ transportation mode, he would not.

    I know plenty of people who also car tour and stop at many quaint and small towns along the way. Sometimes more so then a biker since time is not as much of an issue to them.

    Also, i know plenty of bike tourers whose main goal is to cover as much ground as possible a day without stopping while being almost completely self supported.

    On a bike or via motorized transportation, it is all about the goal of the trip. Site seeing/shopping/eating or get there as quick/cheaply as possible (or somewhere in between).

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  • are August 10, 2011 at 9:48 am

    if someone were to organize and operate a tour package such as vermont cycling tours or backroads here in the northwest, you would have tourists on bikes dropping thousands of dollars at high-end wineries and resort hotels (at one extreme) or you could scale it to something more modest and earth-friendly and concretize the diagram above.

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  • Rithy August 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Perhaps this is something that Heidi Beierle (above) did research into but I would guess this type of thing (“bike investment”) would be a drop in the bucket for most communities and is not going to push them over the line from an attitude of development to an attitude of preservation.
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    I remember from her presentation that for one community that was off the highway but was the only community for many miles, all they did was put a sign on the highway alerting bicycle tourist that they existed and were welcoming to bicyclists. Without the sign she would have cycled on.

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  • On Your Left August 15, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Not only does it save the small town economies, it can save a person’s soul. Bike touring is the best way to see this country (or just about any country) and all of those hours on the bike allow a person to get away from the hassles of every day life and really relax. Plus the people in small towns are so generous and welcoming.

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