ON JANUARY 13, I was standing under a tent at Blessings in a Book Bag’s annual Unity 5K On MLK & Music Festival in Forsyth Park. I’ve come to call this my, "natural habitat" since I spend a lot of time under the tent talking with people about bicycling and handing out copies of the Bike SAV map and safety guide at community events.
Invariably I meet tourists who stop to ask questions about riding bikes in Savannah and this day was no different. Visitors from South Carolina, Texas, and Montreal approached my tent and asked the same question: Where are all the bike trails in Savannah?
My answer displeased them. There aren’t any, really, within the city limits.
“In such a beautiful city, that’s really a pity,” one responded in a rhyme.
Nine days earlier, the New York Times ranked Greenville, S.C. No. 12 on its “52 Places to Go in 2017” global travel list. The city’s restaurant scene was noted in the recommendation as was the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 22-mile greenway that connects parks, schools and businesses.
It is certain that people plan trips to Greenville primarily to ride bikes on the Swamp Rabbit Trail. I know because I am one of them and I read the New York Times story the day I returned to Savannah.
If our city had a similar multiuse trail, it would no doubt bring visitors from far and wide.
Big deal, some might say. Savannah has no problem attracting tens of millions of tourists every year without trails.
This is true, but our lack of modern multiuse trails prevents us from welcoming more of a very desirable type of visitor to our city. Bicycle tourists, as a demographic group, are better educated, spend more money, and stay longer than average visitors.
They don’t compete with locals for our most cherished civic resource—sarcasm alert—on-street parking.
While people on bikes are more sensitive to damaged pavement (try riding a bike around Chippewa Square to see what I mean) they inflict no wear and tear on our streets.
Finally, these folks aren’t likely to start brawls in Ellis Square at 2 a.m. They get up bright and early to ride.
The question about how much tourism is too much is debated each time a new hotel is proposed. And it’s a valid question.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a newspaper column fretting that the Historic District had become some sort of historical theme park. Two decades, dozens of hotels, and hundreds of vacation rentals later, it’s clear I underestimated Savannah’s potential as a travel destination and overestimated the importance of its history as a driver of tourism.
Today I suspect go-cups may be becoming a bigger attraction than Gen. Oglethorpe’s masterful city plan. That’s why I relentlessly promote bicycling as a way to attract tourists without baggage, that is to say, visitors who cause fewer negative impacts for residents.
Yet my own behavior suggests I’m missing a bigger issue. As a resident, I’m leaving my city to ride on safe and appealing trails more often these days.
In addition to the trip to Greenville, in the last three months my wife and I have taken our bikes and our money out of town to ride the trails of St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Amelia Island, and Beaufort (twice). Each of these trips was planned around bicycling and we were not alone.
In a trailhead parking lot at Beaufort’s Spanish Moss Trail, I saw license plates from New York, Pennsylvania and Alabama. More notable, however, were the scores of Beaufortonians of all ages, races, and abilities enjoying a sunny January afternoon on their local trail.
Walking—with dogs and without—and riding everything from skateboards to adult trikes, they seemed happy (lots of smiles, waves, and greetings) and healthy. Or at least trying to be healthier.
A Parker’s store near the trail features bike racks, picnic tables, and a paved connection intended to lure people and their bicycles off the trail. They were working as intended. The racks were full of bikes as families enjoyed snacks and drinks at the tables.
On New Year’s Eve, despite the cold temperatures and intermittent drizzle, Greenvilleans were out on the Swamp Rabbit Trail and business was booming at the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery.
Last Saturday the Super Corsa Cycles bike shop was bustling, as locals steered their bikes off the Amelia Island Trail to browse the merchandise and warm up with a free cup of coffee on a cloudy, chilly day.
Trails aren’t just good for people; they are good for business. In a city without trails, the benefits are passing us by.