By Lacey Thacker
“Bottom line – this generation of students wants to ride more for transportation and drive less,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications Bill Smith said. “The future is more active transportation in our state, and those of us at local universities can provide the leadership to make that happen.”
As a part of its Bicycle Friendly America program, the League of American Bicyclists has a special division for Bicycle Friendly Universities. To achieve BFU status, applicants must meet or exceed standards established by the League in five areas: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation. The applications are reviewed by league staff, local cyclists and outside experts.
The state of Arkansas now has four Bicycle Friendly Universities with Hendrix University, University of Central Arkansas and University of Arkansas in Fayetteville joining the first, Arkansas State University. While the state is only 35th in the LAB’s Bicycle Friendly State rankings, its four BFUs are more than all of its bordering states except Texas, which has six.
A longtime cyclist, Smith arrived in 2013 as the new communications and marketing director. He’d worked on projects with other cities and universities for bicycle friendly applications, and he saw that there was potential for growth. In a meeting with campus architect and planner Bill Hall, they discovered that with a little additional investment Arkansas State could become bicycle friendly.
At the time, Jonesboro was home to the only Silver Bicycle Friendly Business in the state, and A-State had a system of unmarked mixed-use paths.
“I could see we had all the elements,” Smith said. “There was a bike share program. There was the start of a trail system. We’d just opened a residence hall with indoor bicycle storage. But the bottom line – the generation of students we were seeing come to town wanted that space to be a more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly campus.”
Smith and Hall proposed usage of on-road marking to encourage the use of campus core pathways. At the same time, the Student Government Association raised concerns about the need for more campus bicycle racks for residents. Bringing together the students, faculty and staff into a campus bicycle master planning committee, the result was the PAC (Pedestrian and Cyclists) Paths. At just over eight miles of marked paths and roads, the PAC Paths became the key engineering and encouragement portion of A-State’s BFU application.
Combined with more promotion of the campus bike share and enhanced involvement to grow the Tour Duh Sunken Lands, a 50-mile bicycle event linking together several tourist locations – including A-State Heritage Sites like the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home at Dyess and the Southern Tennant Farmer’s Museum in Tyronza – Arkansas State became the first Bicycle Friendly University in Arkansas during the fall of 2014.
“Achieving status as the first BFU in the state has opened the door to more improvements,” Smith said. “We see ourselves as providing leadership and opening the door for more bicycle-friendly improvements in the city of Jonesboro and our region. There’s a strong bike community here, but creating our campus master plan and other enhancements is our way of giving back to the city.”
The university commitment to enhancing its bicycle community led to a $500,000 Transportation Alternatives Program grant in 2016 to build a mile-long separated path along West Aggie Road and the University Loop. Taking the PAC Paths to almost ten miles with other additions, A-State is planning additional separated bicycle lanes to provide connectivity through its campus to other sections of Jonesboro.
In fall 2017, A-State achieved another milestone by partnering with LimeBike to become the first dockless bike share in the Mid-South. With almost 500 bicycles accessible by mobile app, the A-State partnership was featured nationally and is one of the top four universities in rider traffic for LimeBike.
Where Arkansas State moved to provide leadership within its community, the University of Arkansas sought to leverage the power of the burgeoning bike culture of Northwest Arkansas. With the city of Fayetteville considered one of the first, and strongest, Bicycle Friendly Cities in the state, the Razorbacks jumped into the Bike Friendly University rankings as a Silver-level member in 2016. But the U of A is working to move up the ladder.
“We’re proud of the Silver Bicycle Friendly University accomplishment, but we haven’t hit our stride yet,” said Eric Boles, director of the UA Office for Sustainability. “There are exciting bicycling improvements in the works. We’re determined to help bicycle commuters stay safe and have even more fun!”
With an on-campus bike shop and UA police officers patrolling campus on bicycles, U of A also hosts fall and spring special events for students. The Razor Bikes program provides loaner bicycles to students, and the UA cycling team is the strongest USA Cycling collegiate division team in the state. The Fayetteville campus also received a major TAP grant in 2016 to build to better connection to the city trails that lead up to the edge of the largest university in the state.
The connectivity allows UA students to live anywhere along the currently 34-mile-long Razorback Greenway that spans the two bike friendly counties of Washington and Benton in northwest Arkansas.
In the fall of 2017, nine representatives from the UA and the city of Fayetteville traveled to Colorado to tour platinum BFU Colorado State University and gold-level University of Colorado. During the tour, delegates met with university and city staff to discuss how their vision of a bike-friendly community was made a reality. They also experienced first-hand the thriving cycling cultures in Fort Collins and Boulder through a multitude of bicycle tours.
“Part of our goal is to integrate our two systems to make Fayetteville an eminently bikeable city,” Boles added. One of the steps in that direction was the establishment of a bike-ped coordinator who splits time between UA and the city.
Conway may want to counter that it is the college campus biking town. The state’s second BFU was Hendrix University in 2016, joined by the University of Central Arkansas in 2017. Touting itself as the city of colleges for some time, the effort to connect UCA and Hendrix to its downtown area began in 2014 though sharrows and other trail elements in the Conway bike-ped plan.
Meanwhile, at UCA, students were the driving force according to Peter Mehl, chair of the campus bicycle friendly committee. Starting with a push for bikes that could be checked out from the health and fitness center and the establishment of a campus bike club, it was student interest that led UCA to join with the city to bring Zagster, a docked bike share system, to campus.
“UCA is joining forces with the city of Conway to expand recreational and commuter bicycling because we know that quality of place is an important consideration when students, faculty or staff choose where they want to live, work and study,” Mehl said.
Mehl is quick to point out that having former UCA President Tom Courtway behind the initial push was important. “He’s a cyclist himself,” Mehl added. In fact, having a cycling chancellor or president is something common to most of the state’s BFUs.
Both Hendrix and UCA share a common investment in infrastructure. For UCA, it was adding to its existing on-campus bike paths with a bridge across Dave Ward Drive that will connect the south side of its campus to its main core. Hendrix has a similar flyover that connects its main campus to the Hendrix Village and athletics fields across Harkrider Street. Hendrix’s “Bike Revolution” student organization led the way for programs, including supporting Bailey Library in maintaining the fleet of campus bikes which are available for free check-out.
While the current four BFUs in Arkansas get the attention, the movement to enhance the student cycling experience has spread to every corner of the state.
In both Fort Smith and Russellville, city leaders have seen the value of making the connection between their four-year university campus and downtown. The Blue Lion Bikeway was a collaborative effort of UA-Fort Smith, the city, and the local Arvest bank management. With Arvest providing a $50,000 grant, the city utilized a mixture of on-road markings and signage to create the seven-mile path from UAFS to the Arkansas River and downtown in August 2016.
Russellville’s 1.5-mile El Paso Avenue Trail is a traditional side path that separates riders and pedestrians from traffic. Ending at the gates of Arkansas Tech University’s football stadium, Buerkle Field, the trail is featured as a case study example of a separated bike lane by the Federal Highway Administration in the recent Small Town and Rural Multimodal Networks publication. Published in 2016, the “STAR” handbook is the resource for rural and lower density localities to adapt national design standards.
Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia joined the bicycle share trend as the Mule Rides, a traditional docked system, was launched in January 2018. UA-Little Rock added to its on-campus mixed use trail offerings with the state’s second dockless bike share, welcoming Bike.FM in February.