Like many people in the bike business, Jim Sayer gets a bit misty when he speaks of the late Minnesota congressman James Oberstar, who was for decades the nation’s patron saint of bicycle infrastructure.
“There was a time when Jim Oberstar had a bill with $50 million a year for national bike routes,” Sayer said, sighing. “Now of course it is zero. So that’s where we are with that.”
For Sayer, that is the U.S. Bicycle Route System, an admirably ambitious (“the mother of all bike routes”) and grotesquely underfunded plan to create an interstate bike touring network. The idea stays alive, and sometimes even slowly advances, largely because of the efforts of the Missoula, Mont.-based Adventure Cycling Association, of which Sayer is the executive director.
Adventure Cycling, 40-plus years old, is the self-propelled version of the auto club, for touring cyclists. The organization produces maps of designated riding routes (47,000 miles so far), leads bike tours, promotes bike tourism and sells gear. It has 52,000 dues-paying members.
The interstate biking network idea began in 1982, under the leadership of some state transportation officials. They designated two routes, and then forgot about it. Since Adventure Cycling stepped in in 2005, there are now 14,400 miles of routes in 26 states; more than 1,500 miles have been added annually in recent years. Those disconnected routes, scattered across the country, have been established in partnership with state departments of transportation.
It should be said that those routes are in many cases fanciful, existing only on maps, websites and in the dreams of transportation planners. Minnesota’s Route 41 is a good example. It officially runs, under the auspices of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, from St. Paul to Canada, along the North Shore. But it has no signage and includes some frightful, shoulder-free sections along busy Hwy. 61 above Lake Superior.
But Sayer — who chatted in advance of a three-day Twin Cities visit this week to meet with local Adventure Cycling members and spread the gospel of bike tourism — makes a case for the longer view. Ten years ago, his staff in Missoula was the principal source of information and leadership on interstate bike travel. Now, more than half of the state transportation agencies have committed to some kind of bike touring routes, and more are under discussion.
The vision, Sayer said, is a seamless, integrated 50,000-mile coast-to-coast network of signed, managed bike routes. To build that, he is asking transportation departments to view the development of bike routes with enlightened self-interest: It’s a clean, healthy, sustainable way to create jobs and make money. He points to a 2017 Outdoor Industry Association study that pegged $83 billion in annual spending to bicycle tourism. In Minnesota, a University of Minnesota study estimated that bikers on state trails annually ring up $427 million in spending — and that was 10 years ago.
Sayer, 59, the association’s leader for 14 years, was unwilling to predict when the mother-of-all-bike-route systems will be even close to complete. But he said there is renewed reason for optimism. When the Democrats took over the House of Representatives this year, the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee fell to Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon. DeFazio’s former biking buddy? James Oberstar.
Sayer said he has an appointment with DeFazio this spring to discuss bike touring issues, including funding for the fledgling U.S. Bicycle Route System.
“DeFazio is a retired bike mechanic,” Sayer said. “Personally, I think we need more retired bike mechanics in Congress.”
The final numbers are in for sales across America last year from the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association and the picture is this: Overall number of bikes sold, down 10 percent; mountain bikes sold, down 28 percent; road bikes sold, down 2 percent; so-called “transit/fitness” bikes sold, down 33 percent; and youth bikes sold, down 4 percent.
However, total sales for the industry were up 4 percent on the year to more than $1 billion. The explanation? E-bikes, whose sales were up 78 percent in 2018. The average wholesale price of an e-bike last year was $2,033.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His Bike Guy column appears two times per month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find archived columns online at startribune.com/bikeguy.