As readers probably know, I'm an academic type who does a lot of complaining about developments that seem to me to be unhealthy for the planet and its inhabitants. But despite the grumbling, I feel extremely lucky to be alive and living in Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas.
Nothing better typifies the artsy, fun-loving, life-affirming, liberal heart of the region better than our trail system. It's a joy to travel and a joy to ponder. In a world that cries out for rational governance and healthy habits, the trails of Northwest Arkansas are a shining example. The Fayetteville City Council, led by Mayor Dan Coody during 2000-09 and Mayor Lioneld Jordan since 2009, deserves abundant credit for their wise transportation priorities that value people and places over automobiles and freeways. The Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville and Tom Walton, a foundation official and grandson of Sam, played a crucial role by giving millions of dollars to the region's trails.
The foundation recently sponsored three studies of bicycling in Washington and Benton counties. The conclusions provide a heart-warming lesson in the benefits of rational transportation planning over the orthodox and really boring approach of laying on more freeway concrete.
Economic benefits alone make the trails a big winner. Cycling benefits for the two counties totaled $137 million just in 2017; $86 million of this went to health benefits, $51 million to business benefits. The business income is mainly from sales of bicycles and related supplies, and tourism spending -- much of it from out of state.
I recall that, during the early days of trail development, detractors argued bicycles are toys that aren't used for transportation and people would not want to live near trails because they were presumed to be dangerous. These critics could not have been more wrong. More than 100,000 bicycle tourists visited Northwest Arkansas last year. Two percent of Fayetteville's population now bicycles to work, and thanks to our pro-pedestrian policies another 6 percent walk to work. This significantly helps relieve the strain our overabundance of cars put on the city. The studies found that houses near bike trails sell at higher prices than houses farther away.
Bicycling keeps people active, happy and healthy, decreasing the chance of heart disease, diabetes, and many other ailments including (in this bicycler's opinion) depression, boredom and laziness. Northwest Arkansas is now competing with such bicycle-famous places as San Francisco and Bend, Ore., as a bicycling mecca. This success can only increase as current planning to expand the system goes forward. We should take our cue not from San Francisco or Bend but from Copenhagen, Denmark, where 62 percent of the population chooses to bike to work and study. Think of the financial, health, time, congestion, environmental, social and psychological benefits to Fayetteville if we were to follow this example.
The Razorback Greenway is a treasure, a 36-mile paved trail linking the cities of Northwest Arkansas. Its use for bicycling and walking/running has increased by 24 percent and 10 percent, respectively, over just the last two years. One Friday last year, Marie and I rode the trail from our Fayetteville home to Bentonville where we stayed in an Airbnb, visited Crystal Bridges Museum on Saturday, enjoyed several good meals downtown, and returned on Sunday. We can attest that it's a fine adventure, it's beautiful, and it's totally not boring.
Please don't forget your helmet. Several years ago, mine saved my life.
Thanks partly to the Walton Family Foundation, bicycling is expanding in Little Rock, the Arkansas Delta, Hot Springs, Fort Smith and Eureka Springs.
Although I do have a few complaints about this fine city -- it has far too much car infrastructure and sprawl (the two go together) -- Marie and I are privileged to live in the city's center, a couple of miles by bicycle from my ivory tower on the campus. Since 2000, the city has taken a welcome turn toward infill, increasing support for pedestrians and bicyclers and pursuing an occasional "road diet" such as a proposed reduction of MLK Boulevard from five to three lanes combined with wider sidewalks and more transit stops in order to reduce vehicle traffic. The city still needs to do more to improve midtown bicycling, perhaps by removing on-street parking and adding bike lanes.
I've been riding bicycles since I was in second grade, and it has certainly helped me live happier and healthier. Fayetteville is a natural for a bicycling lifestyle. Heck, if things get much better I'll soon run out of local stuff to complain about.
Commentary on 04/17/2018
Print Headline: Bicycling benefits region