New Bicycle Travel Study Highlights Montana Impacts, Needs, and Opportunities

January 29, 2014

It’s no secret that bicycle travel is booming across the U.S., and the state of Montana is no exception. Over the last decade, we’ve seen the number of cyclists that come through the Adventure Cycling office in Missoula double from 555 in 2002 to 1,087 in 2012. It can be difficult to capture how many adventurers hit the road on their bikes from year to year, but a few states have done bicycle tourism studies and used various means to measure the impacts. No such study had been conducted in Montana until last year, when the Montana Tourism Commission tasked Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR), and her University of Montana Forestry class to research the existing bicycle tourism market and the potential opportunities for the state.

Norma contacted Adventure Cycling last fall to discuss how we could contribute to the study with our bicycle travel connections and resources. We devised a solution that would accomplish ITRR’s initial research goals by targeting those who recently took a bicycle trips to or through Montana. The resulting study, Analysis of Touring Cyclists: Impacts, Needs, and Opportunities for Montana (PDF), provided insight on what is already great about traveling the state by bicycle and what can be improved in order to create a broader geotourism niche.

Researchers queried cyclists who visited Adventure Cycling headquarters in 2013 or who purchased Adventure Cycling maps of Montana sections between 2011-2013. The online survey went out to a little more than 3,200 people with 718 responding. The survey asked cyclists where they traveled, what they spent, what they did while in the state, and what kinds of experiences they took away.

A few highlights from the survey found:

  • Traveling cyclists spend $75.75 per day while in Montana and stay an average of eight or more nights. 41% stayed in hotels/motels or bed and breakfasts.
  • Demographics: median age of 53 years; 56% with median income of $75,000-150,000 (10% earned over $200,000).
  • Respondents hailed from 48 states and 18 countries, including Netherlands, Australia, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Columbia. 
  • Trip highlights included scenic views, local hospitality, and diverse landscapes. 
  • Off bicycle activities included visiting historic sites (40%); wildlife watching ((37%); and experiencing local breweries (29%).
  • Respondents commented on the need for better road conditions, such as better shoulder width and a reduction in rumble strips, driver education/awareness and more bicycle friendly campgrounds.
  • Cyclists spent their time in small and large towns across the state, traveling beyond the recommended travel corridors on the Adventure Cycling maps.

ITRR summarized the report with several recommendations that could improve experiences for cyclists and expand the bicycle tourism market in Montana, these included:

  • Planning for cycle tourism in decision-making processes: Researchers noted that road conditions are one of the most important aspects for a bicycle tour and that the placement of rumble strips, debris and shoulder widths are critical issues for the comfort and safety of cyclists. Building of separated trails improved conditions and also provided an amenity for local community use.
  • Encourage local communities to embrace touring cyclists: Communities that promote bicycling and appeal to this market could see increased economic activity. It was noted that cyclists spend time in all the regions of the state and cycling infrastructure, signs, and welcoming locals would go a long way to embracing the niche market.  
  • Providing amenities for touring cyclists: Towns across Montana could capitalize on this emerging travel market by providing simple, affordable amenities that cyclists desire such as available lodging, accessible dining, and hot showers. The example of the Bicycle Camp in Twin Bridges, MT demonstrated the economic and social impacts to local residents and the communication network touring cyclists have, making these towns popular stop-overs for travelers.
  • Educating the public to share the road: Though locals were friendly, lack of driver courtesy was noted in numerous participant comments. Cyclists noted that they were forced off the roadway, yelled at, and encountered drunk drivers. Clearly, one bad experience can negatively impact cyclists visiting the state. 
  • Future research is needed on cycling and the potential for cycle tourism: Researchers recognized that they know too little about bicycle tourists. They want to understand the difference between mountain biking and road biking, economic benefits, and infrastructure. Bicycle tourism fits Montana’s geotourism principles: supporting local communities, practicing environmental sustainable behaviors, and attracting visitors who are focused on integrating themselves in the culture of the places they visit.

In the press release (PDF) about the study, Norma Nickerson commented, “Multi-day cycling has the potential to be a tourism niche for the state of Montana which could be expanded into a statewide travel agenda. Many entrepreneurial business opportunities could emerge, including bike retail and service shops, campground expansion for cyclists, bed and breakfasts, more small-town breweries, and maybe even the 10-year-olds with lemonade stands along the bike route.”

We look forward to working with Norma and the ITRR in the future and we hope this report helps the state of Montana become a more welcoming place for cyclists in the future.

First photo by Aaron Teasdale | Second photo by Chuck Haney | Third photo by Greg Siple

BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM is posted by Ginny Sullivan and Saara Snow of the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on news related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Mississippi River Trail, Inc.



Deborah January 29, 2014, 10:28 AM

Looking at turning the abandoned UP Railroad from West Yellowstone, Mt to Warm Springs Campground, Idaho, into designated Rails to Trails bicycle trail. Any assistance accepted to accomplish this goal. Ideas?

Stephen Bach February 5, 2014, 9:15 AM

Have you contacted the national Rails-To-Trails organization about this?

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