Austin's bike scene rolls out lessons

If you want to see the future of Northwest Arkansas, you don't need a time machine. You just need to get yourself to Austin, Texas, and get on a bike.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Austin and came away feeling I had visited a fully matured version of our region. I took part in a three-day study tour of the city's bike infrastructure to see what makes Austin the best biking city in Texas.

Ryan Hale's Bentonville-based company, Lane Shift, planned the tour. It did a fantastic job keeping our group feed, organized and constantly moving throughout the trip. Our rides took us through Austin's downtown, its iconic neighborhoods and streets, including 6th Street and Congress Avenue, and along scenic trails around Lady Bird Lake.

Over the days, we toured nearly all of Austin's 100-plus miles of protected bike lanes and trails. Experts from local nonprofits and government offices explained to us the history and context of what we saw on our rides.

That much biking helped ease any guilt around indulging in Austin's amazing food scene. I never knew there were so many ways to fuse BBQ with other cuisine. Pulled pork sushi anyone?

Austin is a metropolis of nearly a million people, a state capital and a tech boom hub. Yet it does have some similarities with Northwest Arkansas: a flagship state university, national recognition as a leader in cycling and a "Keep Austin Weird" ethos that inspired "Keep Fayetteville Funky" bumper stickers.

The contrasts and similarities play out in its bike infrastructure as well. To start, its on-street bike lanes far surpass those in Northwest Arkansas. In Austin, we rode in "protected" bike lanes, meaning that a curb or some other physical barrier separates people on bikes from passing cars. This made riding in the street feel just as comfortable as riding on a trail.

But as for the trails? I have to give the edge to Northwest Arkansas. Many of Austin's trails are decades older than ours and really show their age in places. In one sense, they offer a view of what our trails' future may hold if we don't make their upkeep a priority as we grow.

What I found surprising were the number of unpaved trails in Austin constructed of decomposed granite. Decomposed granite looks like a mix of red dirt and kitty litter; it's a great material for trail construction because it compacts hard enough that a skinny bike tire won't sink in (even when wet) while offering the look and feel of a nature trail. There's just something so satisfying about the steady crunching sound of a bike tire rolling over that tiny gravel.

Austin is perhaps the most likely model for what Northwest Arkansas could look like in coming decades. Austin has a similar footprint as NWA, but with about four times the population and double the housing cost.

Despite being eminently bikeable, Austin's sprawl has pushed people to drive more. The average work commute time in Austin is 40 minutes versus just 17 minutes in NWA. If we grow smarter and denser, we can keep our hills green and our commutes short.

We should always learn from other cities such as Austin in hopes of duplicating their successes and to avoid repeating their mistakes. I for one can't wait to go back -- even if it's just for the food.

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