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Rural economies can thrive on two wheels

Big roads are extremely important to any community’s economic vitality. But for smaller, more rural communities, some of the most important lanes can also be some of the smallest.

Bicycle-friendly roads and trails are increasingly how many communities around the country are attracting visitors, building their economies and gaining notoriety.

One of the biggest booms in biking right now is gravel bike racing — grueling races held on challenging gravel roads that often involve heavy quantities of mud, steep grades and lots of adventure. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to some, but there are huge numbers of people from around the world who have taken to the sport.

Earlier this month, thousands of cyclists flocked to the relatively small, rural town of Emporia, Kansas — population 24,916 — for the annual Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel bike race. The impact of the race has been so great for Emporia that it now bills itself as the “Gravel Bike Racing Capital of the World” — it’s a selling point for the entire community.

Gravel biking is hardly the only avenue rural communities have for tapping into the economic benefits of cycling. There are biking tourists who visit different places just so they can ride their bikes on the community’s beautiful roads, through small towns, past scenic views, into woods and up mountains. Rural areas have all of the roads cyclists most covet, along with much less vehicular traffic.

Cyclists bring money with them when they travel. Bicycle tourism spent around $83 billion — that’s billion with a ‘B’ — on “trip-related sales” in 2017, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. The OIA study also found that bicycle recreation spending contributes to the creation of 848,000 jobs.

Here in the heart of the Bluegrass, we have no shortage of idyllic country roads, rolling farmland, wooded hills and gravel roads. Big cities can’t compete with us on that, and they never will. We are primed to use these natural resources to our economic advantage by making our roads bike-friendly and adding bike paths and trails.

There’s actually a term already being used for this kind of effort: “trail-oriented development,” according to the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.

“Making a place welcoming, beautiful and usable for the community, while also creating an attractive setting for new business investment is a key step in development and ensuring a vibrant future for communities,” according to CIRD. “This is no small task and there are a variety of economic development and revitalization tactics, however, creating access to high-quality, multi-modal recreation trails is one tool that has been shown to be a powerful economic engine for small towns and rural communities.”

As traffic on bike trails increases, so does the incentive for people to open new businesses catering to those bikers. Trails can also improve property values, increase pedestrian and bike safety and promote better health in the community, according to CIRD.

Beyond trails built specifically for bikes, bike lanes on roads are helpful in creating a community that’s attractive to bike tourists. Spreading the word about bike tourism and what it can do for the economy is also important because the more people understand what it is and why they want it here, the nicer community members and drivers will be to cyclists, further enhancing their enjoyment of the natural beauty of our area with positive, friendly interactions.

Who knows — it might be that someone biking through our state one day in the future likes it so much they decide to move here. Or a business might expand here instead of somewhere else because it sees bike lanes and trails as an amenity it can use to lure high-quality employees.

As we continually search for ways to build our local economy, we are often hyper-focused on the kinds of business that operate on 18 wheels, rails and wings. Those kinds of business are great to have, no doubt about it, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of businesses built on two wheels.

— The Advocate-Messenger, Danville

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