When Washington Bikes, It Brings Billions of Bucks: Part 1

February 4, 2015

A cyclist rides by The Steamliner Diner and Chamber of Commerce on Bainbridge Island, Washington State.

“We’re wallets on wheels.”

I started using the “wallets on wheels” line as a shorthand way of describing the economic benefits of bicycling—bike tourism in particular—as I traveled Washington meeting with Chambers of Commerce, economic development directors, destination-marketing organizations, and others. Thanks to a recently released economic impact analysis of the outdoor recreation economy in Washington State, I can now say, “We’re really big wallets on wheels”—to the tune of $3.1 billion in annual direct expenditures. Outdoor recreation is the green engine of the Washington economy, and bicycling powers that engine to a significant degree.

In 2014 Gov. Jay Inslee appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation, which I was honored to co-chair with Doug Walker, a long-time champion for outdoor recreation who serves on the board of The Wilderness Society. The governor tasked us with addressing the funding challenges for public agencies such as Washington State Parks, identifying ways to get the next generation outdoors and moving to tackle the rising tide of childhood obesity, and examining the economic value of outdoor recreation and how we might leverage and maximize its benefits for the state. We held hearings around the state and at every stop heard people’s desire to have more trails and better bike connections.

Earth Economics conducted an economic impact study of outdoor recreation. Its findings generally validated those from a 2012 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, which had found that total jobs in outdoor recreation in Washington are comparable to those in aerospace and IT combined. No one had ever looked at outdoor recreation as an economic sector, let alone anticipated how big it was.

Economic Analysis of Outdoor Recreation in Washington State is the first comprehensive analysis of the recreation economy in Washington. It offers economic impact data both by geography, by county, and by activity. The study’s authors, Tania Briceno and Greg Schundler, note that the recreation market is one of the largest in the state for moving income from urban to rural areas and building jobs in more rural areas.

John Pope, Washington Bikes board member and U.S. Bicycle Route System coordinator, in Anacortes.

Bike tourism as economic recovery strategy

In 2014 Washington Bikes staff began a special project focusing on bicycling in Snohomish County, which lies just north of Seattle. The devastating Oso mudslide took place within days of our announcement that this area was to be highlighted, killing 43 people and wiping out a trailbed along with a section of highway from Arlington to Darrington.

Once the initial disaster response had passed, we began meeting with recreation interests and local leaders and talking about the power of bicycle tourism to bring money into small towns that needed this type of economic injection now more than ever. In Snohomish County, tourism is the third largest source of economic activity, but until we introduced bike tourism they hadn’t focused on it in a big way. At the same time we leveraged our solid relationship with the Washington State Dept. of Transportation to highlight trailbed restoration as an important part of transportation recovery that would position the area for the future.

Today, bicycle tourism is a core component of the region’s economic recovery strategy. WSDOT rebuilt the trailbed for the Whitehorse Trail as they worked to restore the highway connection. We continue to meet regularly with local leaders and have created a video and blog series highlighting Snohomish County as a destination for bike travel. The mayors of Arlington, Oso and Darrington all want to see the Whitehorse Trail completed and the Snohomish County Parks Department is submitting applications for funding, while private donors came forward and donated around $300,000 for much-needed work on a number of bridges that support the trail.

Without a focus on bike tourism and its economic value, the Whitehorse Trail could easily have been ignored in the wake of such a devastating event, but those towns need our wallets on wheels.

Doughtnuts: the ultimate cyclists' fuel.

Bicycling brings billions to Washington

When Earth Economics ran their model they found that bike tourism provides a significant amount of the economic benefits revealed by the analysis. Among the highlights:

  • Bicycle riding is #3 in recreational activities by total expenditures in Washington state with over $3.1 billion spent statewide.

  • This figure is direct expenditures without an economic multiplier applied.

  • Bicycle riding comes in as the fourth biggest recreational activity, measuring the total number of participant days occurring in Washington state.

  • As compared to many activities where equipment purchases provide the most significant economic impact for their activity, bicycle riders' trip-related expenditures account for a whopping 96% of the economic impact of bicycling. This means that bicyclists contribute to local economies as they eat, drink, shop, and stay the night. Wallets on wheels indeed!

  • Out-of-state visitors play an important role, accounting for 12 percent of total recreation days, but 27 percent of dollars spent on all types of outdoor recreation. Every dollar spent by an out-of-state traveler in Washington generates $1.36 in economic impacts.

  • In total, Washington state residents and visitors spend $21.6 billion per year on outdoor recreation trips and equipment, which translates to nearly 200,000 jobs in the state.

The study included all types of bicycling for recreation: Major event rides such as the Seattle-to-Portland ride that sells out 10,000 spots every year, benefit rides, day trips, bicycle touring, and family outings on a local trail. But seriously--$3.1 billion with a B? How can people on bikes spend that much?

Path Less Pedaled put together a great little graphic that highlights just what it means to be fueled by calories when you’re riding from town to town.

Post by Barbara Chamberlain, Executive Director of Washington Bikes. Check back next week for Part 2 of When Washington Bikes, It Brings Billions of Bucks.

First photo by Don Willott; second photo by Michelle Pope; third photo by Mark Thomas; and illustration by the Path Less Pedaled

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.

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