Iowa has been building a reputation as a bicycling destination. As The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa™, RAGBRAI®, begins to celebrate its 40th ride across Iowa, cyclists continue to come from all 50 states and many different countries. The state of Iowa, including most cities and counties, has invested more time and money in trail infrastructure to brand Iowa as the World Capital of Trails.
It is not difficult to determine an increase of quality of life along trails or places where more people bicycle. But from a business aspect, what is the return on the investment? One statewide bicycling group was determined to answer that question.
The Iowa Bicycle Coalition, along with the University of Northern Iowa Sustainable Tourism and Environment Program (STEP), began the Economic and Health Benefits of Bicycling in Iowa study. The project was sponsored by a grant from Bikes Belong, Creating Great Places, and members of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. Research tools were created to survey Iowa bicyclists, bikes shops, and bike clubs.
The study cites the economic impact of recreational cyclists’ spending to generate $364.8 million in direct and indirect impacts to the State of Iowa. This is equivalent to $1 million per day spent on cycling. “The return on investment was much larger than expected. We know that communities recognize the impact that an event like RAGBRAI has on the local economy. But what about the rest of the year when cyclists aren’t concentrated on one route?” said Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.
In addition to being an economic generator, bicycling can curb health care costs. Iowans need more physical activity. The Iowa Department of Public Health reports 29.3% of Iowans do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control report 67.2% of Iowan adults were overweight or obese. Being sedentary and overweight leads to health problems increasing health care costs.
Bicycling can be part of the solution to Iowa’s health issues. The study estimates that bicycling saves the State of Iowa $73.9 million in health care costs for those who cycle recreationally. Another $13,266,020 in health care costs is saved by those who commute to work.
“More opportunities for Iowans to bicycle will help Iowa become the healthiest state,” says Wyatt, referring to the Healthiest State Initiative to make Iowa number one in health and wellness. “We know a lot of Iowans have bicycles, but may not have ridden them in some time. We need to find ways to encourage more bicycle riding.” Trails are an investment in which 41% of Iowans use for physical fitness and 51% of the population is interested in using trails according to the 2006 Iowa Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.
Encouraging bicycling means continued investment in bicycle infrastructure like trails. The study indicates 66.5% of respondents would bicycle more often if there were more or better bicycle facilities. “Bike lanes, trails, cycle tracks, and other treatments make bicycling more convenient than driving,” states Wyatt. “The bicycle facility workshop at the Iowa Bicycle Summit shows how cities can integrate bicycle facilities into their community infrastructure.”
Small investments are made each year through the Iowa Recreational Trails Fund administered by the Iowa Department of Transportation through the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund. In 2011, the legislature invested $3million for trails. $2.5 million is in the budget for 2012. Efforts are underway to see the fund raised to $3 million or more. “This study indicates there is a solid return on investment through trails with more than $21 million being returned to the state in the form of sales tax. This study doesn’t include out of state tourism dollars and the potential in recreation tourism. As demonstrated during the Iowa Bicycle Summit, there is more we can in addition to trails to encourage more bicycling in Iowa.”