Arkansas is known as a state with incredible natural beauty, and it has long been a mecca for mountain bikers, but the state boasts no bicycle friendly communities, and it was ranked in the bottom third (39th out of 50) in the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly States program.
Gerard Matthews of the Arkansas Times offers a look at the state of bicycling in the Little Rock, Arkansas region:
Every Sunday at 1 p.m., members of the Arkansas Bicycle Club and Bicycling Advocacy of Central Arkansas gather at the end of River Mountain Road near the Arkansas River and set out on a 35-mile ride. It’s laid-back but fast, challenging but fun. Riders of all levels are invited to come and if you fall behind someone will always be there waiting for you.
The ABC ride is just one of many you can join any given week. It’s part of a biking infrastructure that has grown up around Pulaski County over the years. Central Arkansas’s reputation as a bike-friendly culture has grown with it but there are still some improvements to be made. For every cyclist that says Little Rock is a bike-friendly town, there’s another who says the city doesn’t have enough bike lanes, signs or cool-headed drivers on the road. And while almost all can agree that the Arkansas River Trail has been a boon to not only bikers, but joggers, walkers and skaters too, critical parts of the trail remain unfinished.
“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have believed it but we’re a biking destination now,” says David Holsted, who is organizing the 6th annual Tour de Rock bike race that takes place in June. “People come here from out of town and they know to bring their bike, and that reputation is going to continue to grow.”
Part of the draw is the soaring Big Dam Bridge pedestrian and bike path over the Arkansas River, which connects the North Little Rock and Little Rock portions of the River Trail. But the River Trail’s planned 14-mile loop is incomplete, and a group called Close the Loop, a task force created by BACA, is pushing for completion of the trail.
North Little Rock’s portion of the trail is ideal — bikers share only a tiny portion of the 7-mile route with automobiles. The rest is dedicated to bikers and hikers, a wide asphalt path that takes a scenic route along the river and includes a side loop through woods near the Big Dam Bridge. But less than half of the Little Rock trail is on a dedicated path and when it emerges from Rebsamen Park Road to climb to downtown Little Rock, it requires bikers to share the four-lane Cantrell Road and take some complicated turns on city streets to find their way to Riverfront Park. To cross the river again, bikers have to share the road with traffic on the Broadway Bridge or use the Junction Bridge, which requires an elevator ride.
Holstead says completing the trail — which would include turning the Rock Island Railroad Bridge on the Clinton Library grounds into a pedestrian bridge, a long overdue project — would make the ride safer for younger and more inexperienced riders, and also bring business into the River Market.
Dan Lysk, manager of Arkansas Cycling and Fitness in Sherwood, says that Central Arkansas has a trail system like no other state in the South, offering both long, smooth rides and off-road routes.
“Arkansas has some phenomenal mountain trails and the River Trail provides access to a lot of them,” Lysk says. “You’ve got Burns Park, Camp Robinson, Allsopp Park. I can’t think of any other metropolitan city that has the trail infrastructure of Arkansas.”
It’s good to see another city in the region waking up to the fact that building cycling infrastructure and making streets safe for cyclists not only offers health and recreation benefits, but can make a major economic impact, saving its citizens time and money, reducing the wear-and-tear on streets, and attracting visitors and new residents.
And beyond the health and tourism benefits, there’s something more: “The success of the Big Dam Bridge is now showing everyone that it was the right thing to do,” says Lysk. “There are a lot of people that use the trails and the bridge that normally wouldn’t see each other. People are down there, smiling at each other and connecting with others from different parts of the city. It’s really improving the community.”
Sounds like thinks are looking up in Little Rock!