How did you get to work this morning? Chances are good that we all used some kind of mechanized transport. Personally, I rode a motorcycle amidst a sea of cars driven by commuter zombies. This makes me ponder our layout -- the cities we live in and our country in general. I’m talking about our geography. It’s too bad that I didn’t wrap my head around our existing problems at an earlier age, but my first experience with the subject was in junior high. It was a class taught by a prematurely graying, distinguished, and beautiful woman who, beyond her valiant attempts to captivate me with maps and population statistics, did so with her shapely behind wrapped in 501 Levi’s.
Anyway, some good college courses opened up the idea that we’ve created some issues for ourselves. Certainly in light of our recent fuel crunch and tighter budgets, many folks have re-examined the idea of using alternative transportation for our daily mileage. We’re bike riders so that’s what we think about. The problem is we don’t want to get killed in the process. How do we ride safely? How do we have a good experience? There was a recent report on Cyclingnews about the Mayor of London getting a good scare when out on a ride prospecting possible routes for new bike paths. During the ride, a truck smashed into a parked car nearly flinging it on top of the group of cyclists. Luckily, none of the Brits were injured. I’m sure that bike path priority went a few rungs up the ladder.
A majority of our issues are 100 or more years in the making. Our country is based on the notion that everyone can be a landholder, ‘Go out and stake your claim.’ We have visions of scenes from the landrush of the late 1800’s -- masses of 40-50 thousand settlers lined up awaiting the cannon shot. At the end of the day, when the dust settled there were 10,000 settled homesteads. Everyone wants their own space. This is what we’ve grown up with. Now, we find ourselves spread from coast to coast. Our cities and towns have grown, for the most part out and not up. Land has historically been too cheap and easy to get.
As downtown areas get more crowded and older houses succumb to the ravages of time, their luster fades. Prosperity and the ingrained promise of security and privacy have given rise to the new land rush. Now we call it suburban sprawl. Most city planners have realized that unchecked sprawl can have many negative impacts. What many cyclists know is that sprawl often takes us farther away from work. Daily commutes are a grind. Personally, we’re lucky to do ours in 30 minutes or less. We feel for those that endure an hour or more in gridlocked traffic. We’ve heard stories from customers about 90 minute commutes being 30 minute bike rides, if only they were safe during rush hour. Riding on crowded city streets with intersecting driveways and parked cars makes a cyclist all but invisible -- and in most drivers’ eyes, a nuisance. If only there was a safer alternative.
There are too many communities around our country that have found themselves landlocked with little or highly fragmented park space. With the clarity of hindsight, many of these communities are seeking ways to connect parts of their town with greenways, or linear park spaces, and paths for biking and walking. Here’s the rub. Imminent domain is not something a city or town can exercise for a silly little bike path. We know of a few cities here in Arkansas that are struggling to make important connections with their paved path systems. Sometimes private landowners just say no. When negotiations fail, city planners might have to wait for the land to change hands or in worst-case scenarios for the old codger to die off. Often, the city cannot simply buy property to add parks or greenspace. We can hear the outcry from old ladies about unchecked potholes because the city was spending their money on worthless floodplain.
The point is, those of us lucky enough to live in a forward thinking town know how valuable bike paths are. Here in Little Rock/North Little Rock, one only needs to visit our Big Dam Bridge to see the human reaction. People are everywhere, in every combination possible. I live 8 miles from the new Competitive Cyclist HQ and 7.5 miles of that distance is on dedicated bike path along the river and over the bridge. I’m a very lucky cyclist! On the way home, I can hammer down on some 12 miles of singletrack, burn a few laps on the pumptrack, or catch some air on the dirt jumps in a city park. Then I can lollygag downtown, have a beer, and finish the last 10 minutes of the ride home. Call me lucky, lucky, lucky.
These connections are what make riding to work a better choice than driving. Cities that work are cities where people can get to work, the grocery store, and entertainment venues easily by bike or on foot. Kids need to be able to ride to school safely. We did back in the day, but we hardly see bikes in the rack outside the schoolhouse anymore. Luckily, changes are afoot. We already know that our communities are going the right direction, albeit slowly. There are a few other places we’ve read about or seen that are making great strides. Here’s a great story about New York City’s bike riding history (http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_history/bicycling.html), much of it including cycling-specific infrastructure. Although, the Big Apple has less park space per capita than nearly every other city in America they are working hard to rectify that with an aggressive plan.
Portland, Oregon is a city with a great reputation among cyclists. They’ve been a leader in redeveloping unused creek/river corridors and utility easements to build paved paths to make connections for recreation or commuting by bike. We have friends there who get monetary incentives from their employers to ride to work. The website bikeportland.org is a website that highlights that city’s efforts to ride. An article there, illustrates the sad but true story of the hard fight that a few folks do for the many. Often it takes years and years to see major projects come to fruition. Our hats go off to anyone who fights for trails -- dirt or paved!
In any town or city, greenway development leads to good things. Unfortunately for some, there is a belief that a bike path curving through their back lot invokes fear of vagrants or hoodlums running amuck terrorizing all who make the mistake of passing through. In our experience, that is just not the case. Evidence from cities that have made the investment, shows that as residents begin to utilize the paths they develop a sense of ownership in the cities greenspaces. In a weird and unchoreographed way, beautiful spaces create beautiful people. Most people tend to steward these spaces and cherish them, because they realize that their town is better for having them.
In the process of writing this, we searched for images and information regarding bike paths and green community development. The good -- make that great news is that there is lots of activism going on out there. It seems that many communities around the country have greenways and path development started with more plans and shovel-ready projects waiting for funding. This makes us feel very good about being cyclists. We’re also proud to have staff members who put energy into developing and maintaining trails and facilities in our regional area. We’ll just look forward to some serious June flowers to ride by after the all too common deluge of our Arkansas May.