Biking infrastructure on streets key to future
In late June, thanks to a Walton Family Foundation grant, more than two dozen Northwest Arkansas business leaders, city engineers, philanthropists, activists and elected officials — including mayors Peter Christie of Bella Vista, Greg Hines of Rogers and Doug Sprouse of Springdale — joined their counterparts from across the country for PeopleForBikes’ inaugural PlacesForBikes conference in Madison, Wisc. Our mission? To discover how places like Madison, Austin, Denver and others blossomed into healthier, wealthier, happier cities by embracing bikes.
Over the course of the conference, we learned time and again that with respect to protected bike lanes, the old adage is true: build it and they will come. Not only that, they’ll come and they’ll build something new, too, whether it’s a family, an industry or a business.
We’ve already seen this play out with the Razorback Greenway and our mountain biking trails. Families are flocking to the increasingly valuable areas close to these amenities, a new tourism industry has sprung up seemingly overnight, and bike shops, cafes, breweries and restaurants have cropped up to serve tourists and residents alike. And so the cycle goes.
To encourage the continuation of this growth trend, we must complement our existing infrastructure with an extensive network of on-street, protected bike lanes, like Fayetteville’s cycle track (funded through a 50/50 matching grant from the Walton Family Foundation) that will soon be built on Old Wire Road between Ash Street and Gulley Park. This kind of infrastructure makes biking accessible to a broad range of ages and abilities, and it connects people to where they work, live, play and explore, thereby empowering Arkansans to ride not just for recreation, but for transportation as well.
Don Marr, chief of staff for Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville and a member of the Northwest Arkansas delegation, understands this. Upon returning from the conference, he said, “We need to put the same emphasis on building bicycle infrastructure that we put on building trails back at the beginning of the trails program.” To that end, Marr says Fayetteville “needs to hire a fulltime bike/pedestrian coordinator to look for safe bicycling opportunities, work to promote bicycle ridership, seek funding opportunities to build needed infrastructure, create a master plan for safe on-street bike connections, and build champions on the City Council and in our citizenry as to why these are good economic development investments.”
If Fayetteville and other cities throughout the region do what Marr proposes, we can expect big results. During his keynote at the PlacesForBikes conference, John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Co., pointed out sales figures for independent bike dealers were eight times higher in Boulder, Colo., than in Bloomington, Ill. The two cities are demographically similar but for one metric: bike infrastructure. Boulder boasts more than 300 miles of it, while Bloomington has very few.
And the economic boon associated with bike infrastructure extends far beyond bike shops. After all, people who ride bikes to get from A to B spend less money on gas and less time stuck in traffic, which means they have more money and time to invest in their communities. (They also inflict less wear-and-tear on existing infrastructure, thereby extending the lifespan of extant investments.) It’s a well-established that “bikes mean business,” and those cities that take it to heart are thriving. Take Denver, for example. According a Denver Business Journal interview with Tami Door of the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Mile-High City is “the number one destination for Millennials in the country.” Why? Door explains that “the number one thing they want is bike lanes,” and Denver is building them. Aylene McCallum, also of the DDP, simplifies the formula thusly: Businesses want Millennials; Millennials want protected bike lanes; Protected bike lanes attract Millennials; Millennials attract businesses.
But they don’t just attract businesses — they also create businesses of the sort that infuse a place with culture, creativity, innovation and excitement, and these elements in turn attract new talent. And so the cycle goes.
Kelly Syer, executive director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance, appreciates the applicability of McCallum’s formula: “If we are intentional about identifying and cultivating ways to encourage bicycling through our downtown, Springdale’s efforts to revitalize the area will see a measurable benefit resulting from increased bicycle traffic.”
Later in that Denver Business Journal interview, Door goes on to explain that “ten years ago, we never would have thought that walkability or bike lanes would be economic development tools.”
So why wait a decade and get left behind? Let’s start rolling now and stay ahead of the curve.