MDOT report measures impact of bicycling on state & regional economies, health and tourism

BIKING WEB

By Benjamin Gohs

News Editor

A new report commissioned by the Michigan Department of Transportation on the economic and community benefits of bicycling confirms what locals in the field already know—biking is a boon.

The study, entitled “Community and Economic Benefits of Bicycling in Michigan,” looked at cycling’s effects on the economy, health of citizens and tourism in five larger Michigan cities.

“The combination of the statewide and community specific research provides an opportunity to examine the specific ways policies and infrastructure impact local businesses and residents in the context of bicycling statewide,” it is stated in the report. “Additionally, the diverse nature of bicycling in the five case study communities gives stakeholders throughout Michigan an understanding of the many roles bicycling can play in a local economy.”

The closest was Traverse City, which has a population of nearly 15,000 residents and serves a micropolitan area of nearly 143,000 residents.

The Traverse Area Recreational Trail (TART) and Leelanau Trail stretch east and north from the city, offering more than 60 miles of trails; with nearly five miles of bicycle lanes and five miles of shared-use paths in the city limits.

“I think it’s huge,” said Boyne Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Baumann of the Boyne area’s bicycling-related economy. “This last weekend was huge with all the DALMAC (cycling event) riders—I think there were well over a thousand of them … and what started with the Michigan Mountain Mayhem is now three different bike rides now, and then there is the Pink Ribbon Ride—so there’s some good events that bring many people to town.”

According to the study, the main barriers to cycling were cited as a lack of infrastructure (45 percent), weather conditions (42 percent), safety concerns (40 percent), distance (26 percent), and a lack of facilities at destination (24 percent).

Baumann said the non-motorized trails being planned from Boyne City to US-31 and to Boyne Falls will only increase the interest of Boyne as a biking destination and enhance cycling opportunities for both locals and visitors.

“We do get calls from people asking us are there bike trails in the area and we have to tell them not at the moment,” Baumann said. “Hopefully, in five years or so we’ll have two really great bike paths … so it will only get better.”

Baumann said the city also plans to create a trail-head in Old City Park with an informational kiosk, free WiFi and other amenities attractive to cyclists.

According to the study, household spending on bicycling related items in Traverse City total $1.8 million annually, with another $1.6 million avoided in healthcare costs, $1.3 million realized in reduced work absenteeism, and event and tourism spending totaling $765,000 for a total benefit to that region of nearly $5.5 million annually.

The total benefits from bicycling in the state are estimated at nearly $668 million, with an estimated $175 million of that spent on bicycles and related equipment.

“Additionally, a study of 58 projects across the country showed that for every $1 million in investment in bicycling infrastructure jobs, a total of 11.4 jobs were created in the state where the project was located,” it was stated in the study.

Boyne City resident and business owner Paul Nicholls is the founder and operator of several local cycling events, including the Michigan Mountain Mayhem, The Spring Classic, The Beat the Heat Tour, and The Gravel Grinder, the last of which will debut this Saturday Oct. 4. Limited to 2,000 riders, the Gravel Grinder will offer a 20-mile, a 45-mile and a 60-mile race.

“The spring ride brought people from 24 states this year and Canada,” Nicholls said. “Of 1,300 riders, I want to say like 38 percent stayed for the weekend and brought family members or two to three friends, and the average family spent quite a bit of money—it was like $600,000 that came into the area.”

A 2013 study reported that more than 3.3 million visitor trips were made to Traverse City in 2012, leading to direct spending of more than $1 billion at local businesses.

A Traverse City Tourism survey showed 10.9 percent of respondents stated outdoor recreation was the primary reason for a most recent trip to Traverse City, with bicycling as one of the top activities listed.

Over the past 26 years, Traverse City has invested over $6 million in bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Nicholls estimated the total from all the Boyne area’s bicycling events at over a million dollars each year.

According to Nicholls, the area’s good roads and beautiful scenery are attractive to riders; but, he would like to see more education for both motorists and cyclists.

“The big problem we really see is lack of knowledge for the law, and it comes from both cyclists and motorists,” he said.

Nicholls added that he would like to see regular classes concerning the rules of the road made available for everyone who uses the streets and highways.

Nicholls said he supports the trail concepts, adding that casual riders would rather use non-motorized trails, while many serious cyclists prefer to use the roads.

The study showed that nearly 20 percent of Michigan residents rode a bicycle in the past year, with nearly two-thirds of bicyclists being male, and roughly three-quarters of bicyclists over the age of 35.

Also, just under half the state’s cyclists rode for recreation at least three days per week.

“According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Michigan has the most rail-trail miles of any state with 2,716 miles of trail across 121 trails,” it states in the report. “The Conservancy also reports that Michigan has over 250 miles of potential project trails planned.”

Bo Mayfield, owner of North Country Cycle Sport of Boyne City and Petoskey said the demand for trails will continue to grow as the sport grows, both for serious athletes and casual riders.

“It’s a very active cycling community for such a small town, and I think that is probably from a combination of very good mountain bike trails and some traffic-free roads,” he said. “I think the only thing missing is a little more comprehensive trail system, and that’s trying to take shape.”

Mayfield said he believes much of the necessary amenities are already in place to attract cycling tourists, adding that Boyne City could use more lodging.

A cyclist for nearly 35 years, Mayfield has worked in the business for 14 years, during which he said the sport has become more and more popular.

“It’s definitely grown and I think it will continue to grow,” he said. “I think people are just becoming a little more active, and cycling is a great way to get fit while still being relatively low-impact on the body.”

According to the study, trails—like the proposed Boyne City to US-31 non-motorized trail—are more expensive to construct than non-separated bicycle lanes. The cost can begin at $500,000 per mile and go as high as $1 million per mile.

However, the study found that the total cost savings in reduced instances of heart disease and stroke is nearly $256 million.