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Unless one has paid little attention in Northwest Arkansas in recent years, it's obvious the region has rolled purposefully into the Age of the Bicycle.

The two-wheeled contraptions, as they once were viewed, have been around 200 years, but their current popularity has emerged in the last 50 years. In this country, development of the automobile stifled popularity for bicycles until attitudes about their place in healthy living began changing in the '70s and '80s.

What’s the point?

A move to reduce speed limits in Fayetteville neighborhoods from 25 to 20 mph will make a pro-biking statement, but seems likely to inconvenience auto drivers without a real impact on safety.

In the 21st century, it can rightly be said a surge in cycling is inspired by a desire for recreation, for exercise and, among the truly devoted, transportation. That surge has certainly been felt dramatically here in Northwest Arkansas as municipalities have laid ribbons of concrete into a network of trails attractive to walkers, runners and cyclists.

The expansion of cycling opportunities have been fueled to a great degree by the Walton family, of Walmart fame. The family's philanthropy in 2009 provided $15 million as a matching grant to local communities to plan the Razorback Greenway, a 36-mile north-south trail linking six cities and the University of Arkansas. The greenway is the spine of an ever-expanding system of trails developing in the region's cities.

Perhaps nowhere in Northwest Arkansas more than Fayetteville has bicycling been advocated not just for recreation and exercise, but as a mode of transportation capable of replacing the ubiquitous automobile to get to and from work, shopping and other activities.

City leaders have largely embraced the concept, declaring in Fayetteville's master plan for future development that "we will grow a livable transportation network" with "desirable access opportunities" for all modes of travel: cars, public transit, walking and bicycling. The City Plan 2040 draft says that approach includes a desire to "make walkable, cyclist-friendly road designs with slow design speeds, block and street layouts the standard."

There really can be little question that the American love affair with the automobile heavily influenced community design for much of the 20th century. That's how most towns ended up spreading out wide and far, with shopping and jobs far enough away from housing that hopping in the car became a daily necessity.

Given this new age of enlightenment and its push to de-emphasize the automobile, it's no surprise Fayetteville now will consider reducing speed limits on neighborhood streets to 20 mph. The idea arose from Fayetteville's Active Transportation Advisory Committee, a group understandably predisposed to favor a shift of attitudes and approaches to the benefit of non-automobile modes of transportation.

The city, at the committee's behest, is testing the lower speed limits in some residential areas, a precursor to a broader application of the municipal slow-down. Why test? City officials say they want feedback from residents. We trust that the advocacy groups for cycling will be sure to get their feedback in. Indeed, the way Fayetteville does its unscientific surveys of residents' attitudes is really custom-made for strong advocates to be able to move the needle on community issues. As popular as automobile transportation is even in Fayetteville, we know of no automobile advocacy groups ready with a mailing list and prepared to respond en masse to a request for feedback.

Here's ours: The predominant 25 mph limits in residential areas is adequate in most cases.

Police Chief Mike Reynolds, newly appointed and perhaps not fully indoctrinated into the city's "correct" way of viewing the automobile, noted it's difficult for an automobile to travel at speeds below 25 mph. The department, he said, doesn't get requests from neighborhoods wanting slower speed limits; complaints usually come when people exceed posted speed limits. We suspect that remains true whether the posted limit is 20 or 25 mph.

"I don't think in my whole time I've ever gotten a complaint from anybody who said we need to lower the speed limit in our neighborhood from 25 to 20 or to 15," Reynolds said. "It seems pretty low to me."

Paxton Roberts, who chairs the active transportation committee and introduced the idea of lower speed limits in February, cited the growth of the measure's popularity globally. But lower speed limits won't be enough, he said. More traffic-calming features and street designs to encourage slower speeds will make a difference, too.

"Ultimately, we need to design slower streets," Roberts said. "In the meantime, we can do things that make the existing conditions safer. It's truly like chipping away at a problem."

Yes, it's chipping away at something, but is it a problem? Or is it an adoption of a global initiative just because it's ... well ... there?

If advocates for cycling are talking about ways to slow down the people who drive recklessly down neighborhood streets, who exceed speed limits, take turns too fast and act as though they own the streets as their personal raceways, that seems a problem worthy of a solution. But it's not the people driving 25 mph who are the threats to pedestrians and cyclists. And those drivers are the ones who will be affected by a push down to a 20 mph speed limit.

We understand the folks who advocate for cycling are earnest in their drive for a "bike friendly" city, and certainly none of the cities in Northwest Arkansas should be unfriendly to such a mode of travel. But let's slow people down further where there are problems. Unfortunately, that requires enforcement, which costs considerably more than putting up signs. Installing signs might make everyone feel good, but we suspect enforcement of 25 mph limits hasn't been fully attempted. Without enforcement, what makes anyone believe 20-mph signs will actually result in a safer community?

Commentary on 10/25/2019

Print Headline: Pedaling a slowdown

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