On a Roll
Creating Bike-Friendly Parks & Communities
As the weather turns nice, many of us are thinking about climbing on bicycles that have been in hibernation. But more people are also using two-wheeled conveyances as a year-round mode of transportation, even in harsher winter climates. Bicycling has a lot to offer when it comes to health and exercise, recreation and sport, environmental gains and cost savings. And many communities recognize the benefits of promoting so-called soft mobility or active transportation, and are exploring ways to become more bike-friendly.
Matt Ainsley is a market strategist for a technology company headquartered in France with subsidiaries in Canada and Germany, specializing in counting cyclists and pedestrians in both urban and natural environments. To date, they've installed 22,000 systems in 55 countries, and Ainsley said that these counts are an important tool to enable data-driven management of public spaces.
"Understanding how and when parks are used is essential for parks departments to capture a baseline understanding of how many people use a park or trail," he said. "Automated counters allow you to understand daily, weekly and seasonal trends, including peak hours and how different entrances to parks are used differently. The data allows park managers to justify park development and expansion, optimize maintenance operations, inform security operations, quantify the impact of changes to the park, seek funding grants and more."
Aside from parks and other public spaces, Ainsley said that many communities—from large cities to small suburbs—are looking for ways to safely increase rates of cycling. "Having the right data on how the bike paths, trails and dedicated cycle tracks are used is essential to planning and maintaining cycling infrastructure."
Using temporary counters, a city with no infrastructure can count for two weeks at a time on different streets to understand how cyclists are currently using the streets, therefore informing where infrastructure should be. Permanent bicycle counters allow planners to capture how the infrastructure is used 24/7. "From justifying the existence of that first controversial bike lane to adding the 150th mile of bike lane because of overcrowding issues, count data is a cornerstone tool for informing bike planning," said Ainsley.
The counters can differentiate between motorized vehicles, pedestrians or bikes, and can distinguish the number of cyclists in a group. Ainsley explained that a particular site will dictate which type of counter is optimal. Permanent counters capture data 24/7—providing long-term trends—and they tend to be discreetly installed under asphalt or soil on a trail. Temporary counters—which are useful for quickly understanding how many cyclists are using one street, trail or park—can be attached to existing park infrastructure, "such as a light post, fence post, tree—you name it and we've seen it," said Ainsley.
Ainsley said they'll assist clients with selecting sites and developing a count program, and they also offer starter kits and best-practice guides. "You don't need to be a data nerd to use the software, it's really intuitive and set up to quickly get the trends from your data." The counters can be connected to existing databases, or there are public web pages where the data can be hosted publicly for free, if a client chooses to share it. "Count data is really great for engaging the local community in cycling. We see bike count data communicated with elected officials, nonprofits, local media and researchers, to name a few."
As an example, Ainsley points to California, where the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) monitors bike volumes and commuter trends using different methods, including 74 automated counters located citywide. The data is collected and analyzed to help inform policy and planning decisions regarding street design. Residents can go to the SFMTA site and look at graphs displaying things like hourly bike counts or average weekday bike volumes for counters by location. Or they could view a 2017/2018 monthly bike comparison.
Many bike advocacy groups at both the local and national levels are working to promote better bicycle infrastructure, bike safety initiatives, trail campaigns, biking equity and inclusion and more. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) works to create, enhance and protect great places to ride mountain bikes, believing that everyone should have access to great trails. And Ainsley's firm is excited about their new partnership with IMBA, focusing on success metrics for communities with mountain bike trails. "Together we'll develop and share resources—including best-practice guides—on how to collect, manage and apply mountain bike count data." Those resources will be shared through free online guides, workshops and webinars.
"The cornerstone of the partnership is the new Trails Count Grant Program, which provides assistance grants to jump-start efforts for communities that have the interest and political support to develop trail-use measurement systems but need assistance to get their studies started," said Ainsley. Following a competitive grant process, awardees will receive two pedestrian counters, including the data analysis software, professional assistance and consultation services to set up and manage count programs.
Bicycle playgrounds, or bike parks, are just what they sound like—places to ride and safely build cycling confidence, typically featuring a variety of fun obstacles including ladder bridges, rollers, tunnels and teeter-totters. Like traditional playgrounds, they create places for neighborhoods to gather, and they can provide great opportunities for parents to teach kids to ride, especially in neighborhoods that don't offer kids a safe place to learn.
Pump tracks are structures—typically in a loop—where riders use an up and down pumping motion to propel their bike forward, instead of pedaling. They're suitable for bikes of all sizes, and can accommodate all ages and skill levels. Originally, the berms and other obstacles were often made of dirt, but there are also hard-surface pump tracks, which might be modular, precast concrete or asphalt. Smaller pump tracks are often central features in bicycle playgrounds.
John Hunter is vice president of a Missouri-based designer and builder of skateparks and bike parks. He said that hard-surface pump tracks are becoming extremely popular, since they require less maintenance and can be utilized by a broader user group, including bikes, skateboards, scooters and roller blades.
"Like most park developments, the project variables and goals dictate which type of track is most appropriate," said Hunter. "A composite modular track best serves projects that might want to be able to relocate or reconfigure the layout of the track. Precast concrete tracks are usually a component of a bicycle playground or skatepark design, ideal for smaller developments where the customer is looking for a permanent installation. (An asphalt track) is a permanent installation that can be designed and constructed on a small site to serve a neighborhood or a large development as a regional attraction."
Hunter said they'll work with communities in the planning process to determine which type of facility is most appropriate for their particular project.
A pump track can be a great facility to develop as a repurposing of existing park areas, such as old tennis courts or playgrounds, according to Hunter, potentially saving money on the overall project. "The key is to identify the opportunities and challenges on the front end and work to maximize the site conditions and project budget. Pump track layouts don't have to conform to specific dimensions like a basketball or tennis court, so an asymmetrical site can still be ideal for an organic pump track layout to be created."
Site visits are important in the planning phase to understand how to work with existing conditions and identify challenges and opportunities, explained Hunter. They also like to involve the community and potential user-groups to discuss things like desired features or obstacles, and the spirit or theme of the project. "When possible we try to include unique features that tie the facility to the area or general feel of the community. For example, we've modified a decommissioned helicopter to be a ride-through feature of a bike park in Arkansas that's adjacent to the airport runway in town. A bicycle playground in Kansas that we're currently building has a yellow brick road section and sunflower-inspired bike sculpture, both paying homage to the state of Kansas. The more unique and engaging we can make a facility, the more likely people are going to get out and enjoy it as either participants or spectators."
Features like ramps and tunnels can also be added to existing trail systems, and Hunter said they often get requests for this. "Adding new features keeps the trail interesting and allows users to try something new and develop skills. We even see a demand to add features along paved greenway trails as quick offshoots to spice up the experience."
Site amenities—which might include lights, seating, receptacles or restrooms—are also considerations in the planning stage, and Hunter points out that bike parks can be places for the whole community, not just the users. "For example, a well-designed bicycle playground would have comfortable seating for parents to watch their kids ride while they relax or read a book. Including picnic tables along a trail creates the opportunity to have a picnic along your ride. There are endless opportunities to leverage bike infrastructure, so understanding the project goals on the front end is key to steer the design development."
In the summer of 2016, Ruby Hill Bike Park opened in Denver, featuring a slope-style course, dirt jumps, a skills course and small and large dirt pump tracks. "The park spans 7.5 acres with 12 different lines, from beginner to advanced," said Deak Brown, Bike Park operations supervisor with City of Denver Parks and Rec. "Everything we build is progressive and meant to improve and test every rider's skill level. Being a dirt park, we were able to change and adjust lines from year to year, always trying to keep it fresh and fun."
The park has features for beginner, intermediate and advanced riders, and Brown explained that since the park is built on a slope, one challenge was keeping lines slow enough for beginners. "We have an extra small and small line in our slopestyle section that cater well to beginners and young riders. The pump tracks offer great challenges to all riders. Our large dirt jump and slopestyle lines are advanced; they challenge a lot of riders and can be enjoyed by the best riders."
There's also a multipurpose natural trail around the perimeter of the park that sees all kinds of users, according to Brown. "It has switchbacks and a lot of different terrain packed into the 1.7 miles." No new amenities were added to the bike park, because Brown said the park already featured softball fields, a concert venue, restrooms, pavilions, playgrounds and "a ton of open space that brings a lot of exposure to the bike park."
Brown said Denver has a large bike community, adding that most summer evenings, 60 to 100 riders visit Ruby Hill. "We get families and people of all kinds coming to the park. We've had some great events. We hosted the Colorado Slopestyle Championships. We have a lot of small events such as Ladies Night, Earn a Bike for Kids, Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day, and we do projects with volunteer groups."
Denver has plans to build some asphalt pump tracks around the city, and there are a few other bike parks as well, according to Brown. "Barnum is a dirt jump park that's mainly maintained by volunteers. It has a variety of lines and jumps but is mostly built for advanced riders. At Garfield Lake Park we have a quarter-mile beginner loop with wooden features and a lake crossing that circles the playground. Denver is growing fast, and we'll be adding more bicycle infrastructure."
The Right Stuff
For communities, parks and businesses that desire better bike infrastructure, bike parking and storage is a big part of the equation. According to conservative studies, a bike is stolen in the United States every 60 seconds. Bike commuters are more likely to utilize protected bike lanes and trails if there's dependable, secure bike parking at their destination.
"To encourage more cyclists to use their own bikes for transportation, end-of-trip dry, convenient and secure bike parking is the best solution," said Richard Cohen, president of a New Jersey-based designer and manufacturer of bike storage solutions. "The challenges are finding locations to install them and the funding to pay for them. In addition to applying for grants, getting more sponsors is an option. Incorporating revenue-generating advertising panels (like bus stop shelters) is another way to generate revenue to cover the cost, and potentially generate additional revenue for cities."
There are many types of bike shelters, cages and lockers these days in countless styles and configurations, for indoor and outdoor applications, with some capable of storing hundreds of bikes. Locking bike shelters limit entry to designated users and will accommodate most locks including keypad, swipe card and touchless fobs. Some units store bikes vertically on hangers, and some are modular and can be expanded or reconfigured. Some shelters feature options like solar lighting, custom signage, benches and repair stations. Bike racks come in a myriad of sizes and styles and some are two-tier, with lift-assist ramps for easy loading. Temporary, stackable event racks are ideal for festivals or sporting events.
"Bike shelters are popular with cities/municipalities, college campuses and occasionally business parks," said Ben Hovland, marketing specialist with a Minnesota-based designer and manufacturer of bike storage solutions. "For cities, bike shelters are common at transit hubs, because they offer secure, long-term bike storage for commuters who often rely on bicycling for first- and last-mile connections." Hovland mentions multi-housing complexes and large tech companies with corporate campuses as other entities utilizing shelters.
And who might be utilizing the indoor bike storage rooms? "These are required in a growing number of cities by code and demand," said Hovland. "Certain cities are reviewing code to allow certain multi-family housing units to allow construction without car parking and only bicycle parking. We're seeing a resurgence in older facilities looking to offer these amenities by repurposing basements or tennis courts. High-density locations and around colleges/universities tend to have the densest capacity for bike rooms."
Expanding Bike Infrastructure
So, in general, are cities becoming more accommodating when it comes to bike lanes, trails and parking?
"No question that bike lanes and street markings are increasing all the time," said Cohen. "Larger cities with more progressive and better-funded transportation departments are more likely to invest in bike infrastructure. However, street/sidewalk bike parking is limited by space."
"On-street bike parking, often referred to as Bike Corrals, are definitely becoming more popular," said Hovland. "In the space it takes to park a car, you can fit up to a dozen bicycles. That's potentially 12 users replacing a single-occupancy vehicle. This offers substantial benefits for businesses to increase visits in high-density areas."
Brown is pleased to see that Denver is actively progressing their bicycle infrastructure. "We support the bicycle community, and the trail system is expanding as well as the bike lanes. We have bicycle education courses for kids and have a lot of bicycle advocacies in the city that are promoting bikes. Part of our game plan is connectivity, and connecting the city through bicycles is on the list."
"We've definitely seen an increase in demand for all types of bike parks over the last several years, and demand does not seem to be slowing," said Hunter. He points out that there are many studies touting the benefits of cycling, from the positive effect that biking to school has on test scores to how bike-friendly communities help companies attract new talent.
"There's no doubt that communities who invest in biking infrastructure reap a compounded return on investment. If you search 'Best places to live'…you'll notice mentions of cycling and trails that exist in the communities that rank at the top." RM