Rolling Right Along
Expand Biking Options in Your Community
By Joe Bush
From Mike Repyak and Andy Williamson, executives with the Trail Solutions arm of the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA), you can get a cycling two-fer: an update on how bike trails and bike-optimized facilities are gaining popularity with communities across the globe, and how they can help your community with everything from planning to funding and construction advice for your own bike park or mountain bike loop for all levels of riders.
Linear bike trails like those created and promoted by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy get connected with each other and side features such as skills courses to provide recreation as well as transportation. Communities that aren't checking out greenways, bike trails and bike parks as potential offers for their residents are not doing due diligence, said Repyak, Trail Solutions senior projects manager.
"Communities are seeing the benefits of greenways and those greenways making connections to bike-optimized trails, bike parks, hiking trails, trails in general, seeing what they do for health benefits, building community, economic benefits and getting people outdoors," he said.
"You see industries and commercial operations looking for cities that have opportunities to put their workers near facilities like this. I am heading up much of our business development, and I am getting requests for proposals daily from all over the nation for bike park facilities, single track with skills loops, interfacing with greenways. We are very busy chasing work all over the place, and we are not the only consultant out there doing this work.
"While the economic downturn slowed things down, we now have this wave of communities realizing we need to get on board here, or we're going to fall behind our peers across the region and across the United States."
There are two types of trail-related biking venues: linear for lower-key riding with enough room for two-way traffic, and the kind IMBA advocates, higher energy and rugged single-track paths and courses for jumping, bumping and fat-tired bikes. Williamson, Trail Solutions' director of programs, said there are reasons for the surge in attraction to the latter. Simply put, the present younger generation and the one to come are looking for a customized and adrenalized experience.
"Young professionals, they're looking for this active lifestyle that includes these kinds of activities," Williamson said. "Kids love it. Young millennials expect it. They're getting doctorates and moving to Portland and Boulder and cooking hamburgers, for a reason. It's changed drastically to where we are a core component of an economic revival in the nation's strategy. Outdoor recreation. To me, my work on the ground has totally changed."
Communities that aren't checking out greenways, bike trails and bike parks as potential offers for their residents are not doing due diligence.
Repyak added, "There's demand for this outdoor recreation experience that's not team-based—it's not soccer, it's not baseball, it's not football, it's got an X-Games factor, where you've got these kids, now millennials, who grew up watching X-Games and alternative sports. Communities have picked up on that and realized that these are facilities that the initial costs are similar to or less than building a large field complex, but maintenance is lower than some of these very developed sports facilities."
The 20 employees of Trail Solutions provide services such as market assessment, tourism development, trail planning and design, and trail construction. Williamson said their purpose is far from being directed at only hard-core mountain bikers; there is loads of growth in the sport, as attested by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association's 2015 Sports, Fitness, and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report.
The study showed that mountain biking is in the top 15 of both actual growth and percentage growth. The rise is a testament not only to a generation's desires, but also the changing perception of the sport's participants, Williamson said.
"We're no longer dirtbags with our hair on fire," he said. "Communities need to realize, we are riding $5,000 to $10,000 bikes. We are educated and affluent. We don't sleep in the back of our pickup truck and ask for money. We are staying in nice hotels and eating at restaurants. We have a full spectrum."
Repyak said the communities that have seen the light have two goals for adding mountain bike trails and parks.
"They say, 'We want to do this for our local community, but we also want to turn this into a destination community that brings people seeking out these trails because they're out doing a road trip and they're hitting the top spots and they're going to come here and spend money at our bike shops, at our restaurants, at our breweries, at our wineries,'" Repyak said. "Bikes bring an awesome demographic. They come with expensive bikes and like to spend money on food and beer, too."
One clear example that Trail Solutions worked on is the Allegripis Mountain Bicycle Trails System in Pennsylvania. Working with federal, state and local economic development agencies, as well as bike enthusiasts, the IMBA crew helped create a trail project for an economically depressed area.
It resulted in approximately 55,000 mountain bicyclists per year who have accounted for more than $7 million in annual revenue to the community. Based on the better-than-anticipated results, there are plans to accelerate construction of a parking lot and camping area to keep up with demand.
Not only has the increase in mountain biking interest and activity boosted the economies of communities, it has also created the need for businesses like Trail Solutions and specialty construction contractors and manufacturers of equipment used for bike parks.
Repyak said choosing to install mountain-bike-specific trails or facilities need not be an either-or proposition. Trail Solutions and its competitors will incorporate its work into greenways and leisure trail systems.
"We try to get as creative as we can," Repyak said. "Greenways can connect to bike parks, and within that bike park you can have a skills loop that introduces new mountain bikers to try features that challenge them and provide progression through ability levels. It all depends on what your stakeholders are looking for, how they're going to manage it and what they're able to allow on their properties.
"Straight paths aren't as attractive to all the people we want to attract, especially the teenagers. Let's add a little spice, a little adventure; you're cruising along (a linear trail) and you can jump off and hit a little roller and jump back on or maybe stop and play on some track under an overpass."
Companies like John Hunter's Progressive Bike Ramps produce features designed to take the straight and narrow out of biking. Bicycle playgrounds do the same as regular playgrounds, said Hunter, the company's owner and president.
"Even if your community has world-class cycling infrastructure with access to paved and natural surface trails throughout, a bicycle playground is still a great idea as it complements what already exists by providing a place purposefully built for young riders," Hunter said. "Maybe your community is trying to figure out how to become more bike-friendly but is not sure where to start, or how to get the literal and proverbial wheels turning. Start with the kids, and start with a bicycle playground."
A bicycle playground is exactly what it sounds like, Hunter said: an area with features like ladder bridges, rollers, tunnels and even teeter-totters specifically designed to offer fun obstacles to build cycling confidence safely. Recreation professionals like that these playgrounds get kids outside to learn balance, gain strength, focus on and complete tasks, and interact with other kids.
"They literally teach kids to take turns, taking turns as they complete laps around the track," Hunter said.
And because bikes are used on the playgrounds, unlike regular playgrounds with their kid-sized equipment, there is no age limit for participants. These are the types of facilities that can work together with traditional linear paths and systems, like the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.
The Midtown Greenway is 5.5 miles and connects with the area's Chain of Lakes to one side and trails along the Mississippi River to the other. The vast majority of it is disconnected with regular streets, either running above or below; it is plowed in the winter, open 24/7 and lit at night.
Owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and maintained by the city of Minneapolis, it is a prime example of the success possible when all parties work together—government, volunteers, users, donors and nonprofit organizations like the Midtown Greenway Coalition.
Soren Jensen, the coalition's executive director, said the cooperation has come from all areas of public life: funding from four government levels; a municipal task force that meets regularly to discuss greenway status, issues and improvement; and a volunteer-staffed watchdog group named Trailwatch that patrols the trail, helping fix tires, cleaning up and ready to call 911 in case of trouble.
Money comes from donors, grants and coalition memberships, and economic boosts to the community derive from the greenway's proximity to Lake Street's multitude of businesses and construction projects from developers who want to be near the greenway. The greenway's popularity and strong ties to the city's political figures helped it defeat a power company's bid to string high-voltage lines above a part of the greenway. The lines were buried instead.
A USA Today story named the Midtown Greenway one of the nation's top 19 urban bike paths.
"Ever since it went in (it was finished in 2006), it's been hugely popular," Jensen said. "It kind of kicked off a biking renaissance in Minneapolis. Five thousand people use it on busy days. Over a million trips a year. It's the key east-west commuter bike trail used to get to and from work. It's faster to take the greenway, especially during rush hour."
One of the coalition's priorities has been to make sure the greenway is used by as diverse a group as possible. Every neighborhood the greenway touches has a resident on the coalition's board of directors, and the coalition's focus on murals as beautification includes art from residents of underserved areas. Two more murals are scheduled for this summer.
Even if your community has world-class cycling infrastructure with access to paved and natural surface trails throughout, a bicycle playground is still a great idea.
"People care about this corridor. People care about this trail. There are people putting art here," Jensen said. "It brings more people to the corridor to see the art. We also like art from an equity standpoint. We are purposefully hiring local artists of color from underserved communities near the trail to come and create outreach, and there's a lot of meetings with different communities saying, 'Hey, here's an artist, he's from your community, let's talk and say what would you like to see in a mural, what would you like to see represented in the mural?'
"The idea is to say, 'Hey, you are welcome here.' This public space is open to everyone and we believe that having art that is reflective of all the diverse cultures in Minneapolis can serve as a greeting and a welcome. Also, the process of creating a mural, there's a lot of community."
What there isn't a lot of is amenities along the trail, like water fountains, picnic tables or bike parking, but that issue is lessened by the proximity of the Lake Street businesses and Midtown Global Market, an indoor space with several international eateries and shops. Jensen said there is a building on the trail that houses the coalition and a bike shop and a café.
A Minneapolis-based manufacturer of bike racks and repair stands donated four Fixit stands—equipment and tools for basic bike repairs—along the route, each sponsored and maintained by a different bike shop. The company also offers trailside installation air pumps as well as parking stands and covered shelters for bikes and people.
"We're always trying to make the greenway a great place to bike and to walk and to run and to garden, to visit," Jensen said. "If we protect the resource and work to enhance it, the people will come, and they have, and they do."
Lisa Potts, the senior greenway planner for the parks, recreation and cultural resources department of the City of Raleigh, N.C., oversees another popular and successful greenway, the Raleigh Capital Area Greenway System. Begun in 1974, the system boasts 117 miles and is planning for 100 more over the coming years. In the past five years, it has added 50 miles.
"This is a result of the overwhelming support we receive from the
residents as well as elected officials," Potts said. "The Capital Area Greenway is one of the city's most valued assets, and residents consistently rank the enhancement and expansion of the CAG as one of their top priorities."
Potts said that besides the value to humans, the greenways also preserve natural characteristics of land, preserve wildlife corridors, preserve riparian buffers as a means of protecting water quality, preserve stream corridors to manage stormwater runoff, provide buffers for multiple land uses, and provide opportunities for passive recreation.
The Midtown and Raleigh greenways have in common the appreciation for the value of strong partnerships with government and residents, continuous evaluation and planning, and regular communication among the stakeholders. Potts said Raleigh was off to a great start before planning began in the 1970s because the city had development regulations in place, giving it the means to acquire land to preserve before any development tried to encroach.
Just as in Minneapolis, the success and popularity of the Raleigh system have resulted in challenges, such as safety issues, maintenance and connections to other trail systems, Potts said.
"Some of these issues include directional signage, emergency response, shared use between recreation users and commuters, deployment of trail amenities to meet the demands of distance users, access and parking needs," Potts said. "The city continues to address an ongoing program for the repair and long-term maintenance of the current trail system. There is also the need to address continued growth and expansion of the system to provide connections to the areas of the city that do not have access. It's a dynamic, evolving program."
Once partnerships and planning are taken care of, how does a community design a linear path system or a network of trails and areas more specialized for mountain bikers? Setting aside unique geographies, there are general rules, said Patrick Gilbery of Bike Saviours, a nonprofit and volunteer-run group that helps Tempe, Ariz., residents learn how to fix and build bikes.
Gilbery said the first and most important step is knowing the population of riders who will use the systems.
"An important thing to remember is that a bicycle is used differently by different people," he said. "For some, it is merely a toy for leisure or exercise, but for others it can be their primary or even only form of transportation. A path that is pleasant for those out on a weekend cruise is unlikely to be as useful for a bike commuter who needs to get places quickly. When designing any sort of bike infrastructure, one should consider the needs of all bicyclists."
He said that if greenways are intended to be used for transportation, the design should reflect that. A good path for getting around will be wide enough for bicyclists to safely pass each other and relatively straight and flat, as allowed by geography. Intersections with major roadways are best bypassed with a bridge or tunnel, but real traffic lights are acceptable as well.
"Ideally, there would be a parallel, but separate, path for pedestrians so that everyone can feel safer," he said. "Lighting is also important, especially for getting less experienced and confident bicyclists out on their bikes."
Mountain bike facilities and areas need more feedback from the ridership, Gilbery said.
"Local riders know what sort of riding they will want to do," he said. "One tendency is for public bike parks to be overbuilt and 'sanitized,' meaning that in an effort to make every section rideable for everyone it no longer poses a challenge to those with even a modicum of experience."
Repyak of IMBA's Trail Solutions has seen plenty of expensive mistakes made because communities didn't plan enough, wanting to spend consulting money on construction, for instance, or failing to engage with the biking population. Careful consideration is crucial, he said.
"There's just so many areas where a more holistic engaged planning process will maximize the efficiency of an area, the environmental sustainability of an area, and of course be suitable for the riders you're trying to serve," he said. "You're doing the public a disservice as an agency if you don't go through the appropriate steps to ensure you've answered all the questions."
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