“You’ve heard about the storm we had here the other day.” Julie Huck, Membership Director of Adventure Cycling Association was referring to the freak thunderstorm that knocked power out of most of Missoula two days ago; a prominent topic of local conversation. “I was riding my bike home just before it began. It’s 1.8 miles from our office to my house, and at least six people came outside and offered me shelter. They were gestures of neighborliness. But they also highlight that, when you’re on a bike, you’re special. That’s why what you’re doing works.”
Missoula MT is Mecca for long distance cyclists; headquarters of Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). ACA publishes long distance touring routes with detailed maps, several of which go through Missoula. Their downtown headquarters includes a lounge with free ice cream and drinks for long distance cyclists where I ran into several guys I’d been crisscrossing. I also had the opportunity to talk with Julie, cofounder Greg Siple, and Executive Director Jim Sayer.
Julie is keen on encouraging more people to become cyclists. “I organized a trip for six women on mountain bikes in a remote area for six days. It wasn’t strenuous, but we kept getting delayed because of all the interactions. People just stopped to talk with us. When you’re on a bike, you break up someone’s routine.”
In addition to my usual question, I wanted to know how the folks at ACA thought we could move cycling from a recreational pursuit to someone’s primary mode of transit. Julie said, “We have to make cycling easier, and we have to make it a habit. For most people, cars are their habit. It’s what they use without thinking. That’s why we have things like Bike to Work Week, to introduce the idea that cycling can alter that habit.” At first, biking to work is special. But if it becomes your habit, cycling becomes your norm.
Greg rode his bicycle from Alaska to South America with Dan Burden and their wives in the early 1970’s; the first cyclists to traverse the hemisphere north to south. Dan’s articles about their trip heightened awareness of long distance cycling, so they created BikeCentennial, a ride across the United States to coincide with the 1976 Bicentennial. It was successful beyond all expectations, popularized long distance cycling, and prompted them to start Adventure Cycling. Now, ACA supports more than thirty staff. But Greg feels the mission has not changed. “We research and create route maps, we offer tours, and we publish a magazine. That is our core. We have been doing more advocacy; that is where we will grow.”
“BikeCentennial was an epic ride. Now we want to convey that bike travel can be anything.” Jim Sayers has guided ACA’s 50% growth over the last few years. “I use my bike for everything, and that is starting to happen for others as well. Look at the increase in bicycle infrastructure in this country since 2000. We are challenging the perspective about cars. One of our ingrained assumptions is that everyone needs a car. Cars are money pits, expensive to buy and maintain; yet they are our rite of passage.
“Streets used to belong to everyone. Now cars reign. Look at what the automakers did to our streetcar systems. They introduced the term ‘jaywalker’ to make streets clear. Our street markings and traffic lights are all auto-centric.” The message is to keep auto traffic moving, fast, at the expense of other modes, and at the expense of interactions.
ACA is well known for its long distance cycling support, but Jim sees it becoming more involved in shorter trips. “We are stressing one and two night trips. If you have a bike, you have all you need to go visit a friend and return the next day.
“We’re a non-profit. We take our net proceeds and put them into improving biking conditions. Our focus is on improving the rural to urban connections.” I appreciated his concern since I have found, without doubt, the most dangerous cycling is in the suburbs.
Jim asked if I use ACA maps. “No, because they don’t go where I go. I visit every major city along my route, ACA routes avoid cities.” Jim laughed and acknowledged that their latest project is to create a New York to Chicago route. It takes time and leg power to create an ACA designated route. “We begin with a big swath, like going from New York to Chicago. We map out possible routes and analyze them for traffic loads, road conditions, services, and terrain. We test the route before it’s published. Then we have to update, constantly, because conditions change.”
AASHTO (American Association of State Highway Transit Organization) created a task force of three non-profits: ACA; East Coast Greenway; and Mississippi Travel, to develop national bike routes. The idea was adopted in 2008 and states began to make approved bike routes in 2011. “This will be the mother of all bike routes. 9,000 miles to start; 50,000 miles eventually.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“ACA will keep doing what it does best.” – Greg Siple
“In a broad sense, I feel great dismay over our increasing population and decreasing resources. That’s why I support cycling, which can mitigate resources. If we keep tearing away, we will either tear the world up or trigger chaos.”- Jim Sayer