More than a half-century has passed since the Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The legislation created a vast network of interstates that changed America (and not always for the better). It coddled gas-gobbling motorists and gave succor to a constellation of vested interests. From asphalt suppliers to zoning experts, nearly everyone found something to like in the superslab!
Unless of course you opt for discretion in motoring and seek out alternatives to life behind the wheel. Then the interstate system’s cost in treasure and quality of life is not so super after all. Indeed, three decades into the ‘cycling revolution’ (to borrow Mapes’s title) we’re still spinning out ribbons of concrete merely to create jobs at whatever the environmental cost. And we’re still battling Auto Club lobbyists in Sacramento – those folks who collect motorist dues to weaken safety protections for those who bike.
If we can’t beat them we ought to join them. Let’s support the emerging national U.S. Bicycle Route System. This summer the Adventure Cycling Association announced [press release] that the Special Committee on U.S. Route Numbering ) approved six new numbered routes in the continental United States. The committee, an appendage to the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO – the folks that came late to the bike party!), conferred official designation in Michigan (USBR 20) and Maine/New Hampshire (USBR 1). These are the first designated routes in 30 years!
And they weren’t just going after low-hanging fruit: four segments are located in the ‘last frontier’ state – Alaska – our nation’s largest by land area but one that gained statehood just three years after the Highways Act passed Congress. That’s an improbably short time for a place where the cycling season is but a few months long.
This cross-continental network of would-be bike routes will one day connect the four corners of the continental United States to put the farthest reaches of a great state like Maine within reach of a cyclist right here beside the Pacific.
U.S. Bicycle Route System
Off the country’s margins, through our vast interior, the U.S. Bicycle Route System is taking shape as a mesh of identified ‘priority corridors’ cobbled together organically (as it were) from our pre-interstate system of state highways. In totality it begins to look a whole lot like the interstate system! Except that it takes the two-wheeled traveler though historic towns that the interstate system essentially left for dead.
While motoring families in hermetically-sealed chambers gaze upon medians and offramps, we will enjoy the sights and sounds of yesterday at a slow pace. The shuttered gas stations and forgettable motels along the historic route sometimes seem frozen in Amber. They are a reminder that once road food came in regional flavors and a potty was always just the next town away.
Of course, towns are largely a thing of the past on the interstate system. A half-century after the interstates began to siphon off back roads tourist traffic to benefit future global behemoths like McDonalds, every next exit is a reminder of what we’ve lost. These new service ‘towns’ are way stations of anodyne stucco boxes constructed simply to meet the minimum needs of financier and franchisee.
So the back roads of America still attract diehard fans looking for local cuisine and a story to go with the many miles between the coasts. They remind us that transportation need not be a passive spirit-killing experience but can again be an active, immersive experience that rekindles in every one of us a two-wheeled romance with the unknown.
It’s Also Local!
The U.S. Bicycle Route System need not serve only iron-butt distance cyclists. Historic local routes are within our reach everywhere. The Grapevine, for example, is a full-on nightmare to drive. Paralleling much of the interstate is a winding two-lane just begging to be explored.
And locally, look no further than Santa Monica Boulevard, which is the original alignment of Route 66. Long ago repackaged as Highway 2 (how not romantic!), this road still shows the remnants of the tourist corridor it was. Old restaurants and improbable motels still beg for your business. It’s a little worse for the wear after decades of abuse under Caltrans, but the prosaic boulevard still delivers if you know where to look.
At the heart of the U.S. Bicycle Route System could be corridors like Route 66 that still live on in the heart (and imagination) of many of us.
We recently highlighted a ‘Bikeway to the Sea’ proposal for the Santa Monica Boulevard corridor from Downtown to Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica through our own Beverly Hills. It’s a great thematic handle for imagining a corridor of bike lanes and street-facing small retailers.
The U.S. Bicycle Route System also has the potential to bring material benefit back to the localities that came to see time pass them by with the stroke of Eisenhower’s pen fifty years ago. The Adventure Travel Trade Association says that bike travel generates $89 billion annually today – a pot o’money that will only increase in tandem with greater interest in off-interstate cycling.
Let’s Make it Happen
For a nation now rekindling a cooled romance with the bike, the U.S. Bicycle Route System would be a 50,000-mile fossil-fuel-free alternative to the superslab and a crowning achievement for our movement. It would suggest to those who remain locked in a death spiral with the car that there is a better way to see the USA.
We’ve got our work cut out for us, surely, but we’re on our way. A group has been formed to bring forth the Route 66 corridor in our region as one of those designated routes. We will keep you posted on the campaign as it develops.