Last weekend, I visited four communities in Georgia’s central and northeast mountains: Blairsville, Blue Ridge, Ellijay and Dahlonega. The trip had two goals. First, I wanted to listen to bike shop owners, advocates, and local officials to learn about the region’s issues, challenges, and opportunities for safer on-road cycling. Second, I wanted to share our resources and some of the best practices for being bike friendly that I have learned at events like Pro Walk Pro Bike and the National Bike Summit.
First things first: Why bother with bicycle advocacy in the north GA mountains?
Due to topography and low population density, bicycle commuting may not be especially viable in many small mountain communities. The region is extraordinarily rich, however, in opportunities for sport cycling and bicycle tourism.
Despite almost no cycling infrastructure, Georgia’s Appalachian mountains are already a popular destination for avid roadies, racers, and cycling athletes. Events like the huge Six Gap Century·and criterium·and Ellijay’s Italian Road Bike Festival draw thousands of tourists (and millions of dollars) to the area to experience grueling climbs, exhilarating descents, and unsurpassed scenic views. Thousands of sport cyclists visit the region throughout the year to train and test their mettle on roads like Highway 348 outside of Blairsville.
And that’s only looking at on-road riding…north GA is an international destination for mountain biking enthusiasts, as the massive visitor’s guide maintained by Ellijay’s Cartecay Bike Shop clearly demonstrates.
The demand for cycling as an outdoor activity in north Georgia is tremendous, despite, as I mentioned, almost no infrastructure to accommodate cyclists. Bikeable shoulders, uphill bike lanes on steep grades, and/or paved turnouts to allow motor vehicles to pass on winding mountain roads are essential and desperately needed facilities in the region. These improvements will greatly improve cyclist safety and reduce motorist frustration by granting cyclists a dedicated space for their efforts. With a network of safe cycling roads, north Georgia would see an explosion of bike-related economic activity from visiting sport cyclists and their families.
Likewise, a safe network of bikeable roads, using more level routes and incorporating multi-use paths and rail-trail facilities whenever possible, would solidify north Georgia as a well-rounded cycling destination. Imagine if you and your friends could tour the wineries of north Georgia by bicycle, enjoying stunning mountain views and sleeping in quaint, bike-friendly B-&-Bs?
This is the vision I shared with advocates and tourism officials, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. For my presentation in Dahlonega, I was joined by Jim Langford from the MIllion Mile Greenway organization – stay tuned for a very exciting announcement from them about a north GA project in the works!
As noted above, the small towns of Appalachian Georgia may not be the first places you think of when you think of “bicycle commuting,” but there are in fact opportunities for creating safe, usable bike transportation networks, especially in cities like Dahlonega and Young Harris which have significant college student populations. Connecting neighborhoods, parks, and downtown business districts with nearby campuses makes as much sense for these communities as it does for other, flatter cities. From a planning and engineering perspective, creating bike networks in mountainous towns can create special challenges, but there are usually ways to work around (or through!) steep terrain. Creating safe, active transportation options for residents can be particularly beneficial for remote destinations whose tourists pretty much have to arrive by motor vehicle.
Below is a slideshow from my trip to these mountain communities. My sincere thanks and appreciation to the hospitable bike shop owners, Chamber officials, and local leaders who took time to meet with me to discuss these important issues. I look forward to my next visit and have high hopes for a bicycle friendly future for north Georgia!