The state of bike commuting

FROM RECREATION TO TRANSPORTATION: LaneShift’s Ryan Hale wants Arkansas to change how it thinks about bicycles.

FROM RECREATION TO TRANSPORTATION: LaneShift’s Ryan Hale wants Arkansas to change how it thinks about bicycles.

Lots of progress, but much work ahead, advocates say.

By Lindsey Millar

In 2016, Governor Hutchinson said he wanted Arkansas to be known as “the cycling hub of the South.” That doesn’t seem far-fetched, considering the infrastructure in place already and ongoing developments. We’ve got five “epic” mountain bike trails, tied with Colorado for the second-most in the country, and the bike-loving grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton seem dedicated to making Northwest Arkansas an international destination for mountain biking. Increasingly, too, they’re pushing the Walton Family Foundation to spread its many millions beyond its home base, including to Hot Springs’ Northwoods and the State Parks’ Monument Trails throughout the state. 

Meanwhile, Central Arkansas’s Arkansas River Trail and Big Dam Bridge and Northwest’s Razorback Regional Greenway have helped ignite a recreational cycling boom in the state’s most populous areas, and cycling advocates salivate over a future in which even bigger trail projects have been completed, including the 84-mile Delta Heritage Trail, running from near Lexa to Arkansas City, and the Southwest Trail, between Little Rock and Hot Springs.  

Joe Jacobs, marketing manager for Arkansas State Parks, is the chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Cycling, which Hutchinson established in 2016. He’s naturally bullish on cycling in Arkansas. It’s become a top tourist draw, he said. But Arkansas’s weakest point when it comes to cycling? “Commuting,” Jacobs says. “We’ve not done a good job in our cities to create a safe way for cyclists to get anywhere.” The Arkansas River Trail is great, he said, but “it’s mainly a recreational trail.” Jacobs lives in midtown Little Rock in the Leawood neighborhood, six miles away from his office in the Capitol Mall. As an experienced rider, he can manage the commute on his bike, but there’s no safe route. “We don’t have a good hub-and-spoke system” in Little Rock, he said.

John Landosky, the city of Little Rock’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, says there’s a typical cycling evolution cities follow. “People aren’t really biking all that much, and then people are doing a lot of recreational riding and that eventually leads to a culture where there’s more bike commuting.” 

But he acknowledged that the latter jump can be a quite a leap for many riders. He pointed to a survey of 900 Arkansans produced as part of the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s 2017 Arkansas Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan, where respondents cited the lack of dedicated bike trails or lanes and automobile-related concerns as the primary reasons for not bicycling more. He also noted a 2011 survey from a Portland State University professor who found that about one-third of Portland residents were not at all interested in cycling, 13 percent were confident in their abilities and 56 percent were “interested but concerned.” A follow-up survey sampling the 50 largest metro areas found similar numbers. 

Landosky and other advocates mentioned the importance of drivers understanding the 3-feet rule — by law, cars must give cyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing. But “if you want to really have a major shift to bike commuting, you have to build facilities,” Landosky said.

Ryan Hale has experience doing just that. The former Arkansas Razorback and New York Giants football player spent five and a half years with the Walton Family Foundation overseeing its grants for trails. That meant working on the Razorback Regional Greenway that connects Bella Vista to South Fayetteville, Rogers’ Lake Atalanta Park trail system and Bella Vista’s Back 40 trail system. He now runs LaneShift Mobility, a consulting company that helps clients develop spaces that are biking and pedestrian friendly. 

“What I know to be true is that cities and developers are recognizing that people really want to be active and the data shows that people are valuing more walkable, bikeable environments,” Hale said. “When you look at trends of all age brackets and demographics, people are craving more walkable, bikeable experiences.”

Leaders in Northwest Arkansas have embraced that mentality. A 2017 study commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation that found that cycling generated $137 million in annual economic benefit for the region has gotten a lot of attention nationally and around the state. Hale and LaneShift regularly lead out-of-town clients through tours of the region’s bike infrastructure. 

What’s next for the region? Hale says it’s that shift Landosky described, from viewing biking as primarily recreational to thinking of it as a viable form of transportation.

“When you change from thinking of bike as recreation first to thinking as biking transportation, it changes how you view your roadways, how you build your neighborhoods, how you develop your communities, how you invest in your streets, roads and highways,” Hale said. “If we viewed biking as a viable form of transportation, we would design our cities completely differently.”

He said part of making that shift is adopting new language.

“Culturally and from an infrastructure standpoint, we’ve got to evolve from seeing bikes as the spandex crowd. When you think of the word ‘cyclist,’ you have a certain image that pops in your mind. It’s usually spandex, jamming down the road at 20-25 miles per hour. The shift we’ve really tried to make as an industry, those of us who are working on infrastructure and advocacy, is referring to ‘people on bikes.’ When you think of a person on a bike, it puts a completely different image in your mind.”

LANDOSKY: The Little Rock bike and pedestrian coordinator is working to improve the capital city’s cycling infrastructure.

LANDOSKY: The Little Rock bike and pedestrian coordinator is working to improve the capital city’s cycling infrastructure.

“People on bikes,” for instance, includes all the people who use a bike for transportation because they can’t afford a car, Hale notes. 

Guest editor Dave Roberts, vice president of business development and planning director at Crafton Tull, has a lot of experience developing municipal bike and pedestrian plans. His firm has worked to create plans for El Dorado, Batesville and Camden. It’s at work now with the Toole Design Group on a bike and pedestrian plan for Bentonville. The process can take eight months to a year and involves working with city leaders — the mayor, city council members, the parks department, usually a chamber of commerce — and hosting many public meetings, Roberts said. 

“All the cyclists in spandex will come out to a meeting and say, ‘We need routes. But it’s pedestrians, too. We’re looking at active mobility — whether it’s off-road trails or on-road, we’re looking at how to connect the community to all the amenities.”

Roberts often leads city leaders on “walk audits” of a small area of a downtown to point out barriers to different modes of mobility — people in wheelchairs, people walking, people on bikes. “A city leader who grew up in a community might not notice that there’s a power pole in the middle of the sidewalk or that there are a bunch of curb cuts along a bike route,” Roberts said.

“All the cyclists in spandex will come out to a meeting and say, ‘We need routes.

But it’s pedestrians, too. We’re looking at active mobility — whether it’s off-road trails or on-road, we’re looking at how to connect the community to all the amenities.”

When Crafton Tull provides cities bike and pedestrian plans, it offers “a literal road map that says, ‘Do this first. Do this second, etc.’ There might be 20 phases,” Roberts said. That way, cities can go after grant funding and try to build on their infrastructure incrementally.

In 2015, the city of Little Rock passed a Complete Streets ordinance, which requires that the city design its transportation infrastructure to “accommodate all anticipated users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation users, persons with disabilities, freight haulers and motorists.” When Little Rock builds or resurfaces streets, the city is supposed to consider all those people and riders. Last year, Little Rock received a $50,000 Metroplan Transportation Alternative Grant for which the city is required to provide at least a 20 percent match. It has a request for qualifications out now to redo the city’s Master Street Plan. Landosky anticipates much of the work redoing the Master Street Plan will be redeveloping the city’s bike plan, which was developed by advocates, not planners. 

There’s no agreement on a fix for getting folks biking or walking the Arkansas River Trail safely through the stretch of Cantrell Road in front of the Dillard’s headquarters and Episcopal Collegiate school, but the city does have funding and is working on connecting the River Trail to Central High School and in making all of the downtown portion of the trail, the Medical Mile, off-road.

In Northwest Arkansas, Bike NWA, with funding from the Walton Family Foundation, developed protected bike lane pilot projects in Fayetteville, Springdale and Siloam Springs that began in December 2018 and will run until December of this year. LaneShift is a consultant for the Springdale and Siloam Springs projects. 

“Hopefully, there will be enough data to compel the cities to make the projects permanent,” Hale said. “There have been people who love it and people who don’t. Change is hard.” Narrowing roadways to allow space for bikes is something a lot of people have a hard time grasping, he said. “The fact of the matter is that we used to believe that wider streets meant safer streets, but what the data shows now is that wider streets means faster streets,” Hale said. “When we’re able to narrow the lanes, it calms the roadway. A narrower lane in most circumstances makes it safer in all cases.” 

Jacobs would love to see that kind of thinking codified across the state. He said the Department of Transportation’s state Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan was a good start, but he hoped the state might one day adopt a Complete Streets plan with requirements for building roads and other infrastructure that accounts for all kinds of transportation.