In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the fruition of a dream that came to him in 1919 when, as a young army officer, he experienced the rigors of cross-country travel by road. Construction of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly known as the Interstate, began when Congress authorized expenditures to create a national highway system.
Now, almost 60 years later, cyclists may have a similar national highway system designated for bicycles—if the U.S. Bicycle Route System is completed. The USBRS is the brainchild of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). In 1982, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Illinois designated two bike routes among their states. In 2003, AASHTO formed a task force to look at the possibility of creating a nationwide system of bike routes using existing roads for middle- and long-distance bicycling. The goal is to provide more opportunities for people to travel by bike, whether as a means of transportation or as recreation.
Development of the bike route is under the auspices of each state’s department of transportation or similar state agency. Each state provides funding for its part of the route. A road must meet only two requirements to be designated as part of the USBRS: First, any route must connect to another state, an international border or to an existing USBRS route. Second, the state must apply for designation of the route as part of the USBRS to AASHTO.
Utah is already mapping out proposed bike routes. According to Evelyn Tuddenham, bicycle /pedestrian coordinator with the Utah Department of Transportation, I-80 is proposed as a designated route between Salt Lake City and Nevada. However, UDOT recognizes that I-80 west of Salt Lake City is pretty barren and not too interesting. Some thought is being given to U.S. Highway 6 and 50 from Delta through Baker, Nevada. Coming east from Colorado, U.S. 40 is a likely candidate, though Tuddenham says that SR 32 at Kamas might be a better route into Salt Lake City. Also, I-70 appears to be a good choice. As far as north-south routes go, Highway 89 is a logical choice for the spine of Utah.
Tuddenham took part as a vehicular observer in a 487-mile bike ride on Highway 89 to see firsthand the challenges faced by cyclists traversing the state from Logan to Hurricane. That, she says, gave her a greater appreciation for the tourism opportunities available to the state from having long-distance bicycling facilities available.
For a road to be considered as a USBRS route, it must meet these requirements: It must have a wide shoulder for cyclists. It must be in good condition. Another consideration is the availability of facilities, such as food and lodging, along the way. For these reasons, Interstate highways might not be the best choice. The Interstates were intentionally placed to avoid a lot of cities and towns. Contrast that to, say, Highway 89, where one can find small towns and larger cities almost every 20 miles.
Linking together a patchwork of roads and highways to create a USBRS route is a daunting task. Not all roads are under the jurisdiction of UDOT. Some county roads might be very well-suited for USBRS routes, but to include them, UDOT will have to get cooperation from the county or municipality having jurisdiction over the road.
Tuddenham says funding is the major obstacle UDOT faces, especially in this economy, followed by having rights-of-way necessary to develop a road to make it suitable as a USBRS route. In many cases, UDOT doesn’t have a right-of-way to widen a road sufficiently to make it safe for cyclists. Obtaining rights-of-way takes money, as does developing the road once the right-of-way is obtained. UDOT wants any roads designated as USBRS routes to be “up to par” their entire length, she says.
Nationwide, 30 states are currently working on the USBRS. When it is completed, it will be the world’s largest bicycle network, with over 50,000 miles of designated routes.
Steve Chambers is a Salt Lake City lawyer and freelance writer. He has been commuting by bicycle part time for over 10 years.