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Healthy Community, Healthy Economy: Urban Bike Parks From Seward, Alaska, to Rogers, Arkansas, it's all fun and games . . . until social outcomes improve.

By Philip Armour

PARK AND PARCEL

Biking makes up a significant part of the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy. According to Outdoor Foundation’s 2018 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, 16 percent of Americans—47.5 million people—participate in road, mountain, and BMX biking. It is the most popular outdoor activity for youth (ages 6–17). Those numbers help explain why the past five years have seen an exponential growth in urban bike park construction across the country. There are now at least 150 of these facilities in the United States, more than double the number in 2014, according to Tim Babcock of Progressive Bike Ramps. The list includes municipal bike parks, bike playgrounds, pump tracks, trail features, skills courses, and more.

Over the past two to five years, Progressive Bike Ramps has directly built 10–15 bike parks annually, start to finish, consulting for and designing 50–70 more projects every year, too. Their roster of projects stretches from Seward, Alaska, to Rogers, Arkansas. Five years ago, they were building and consulting for 10–15 projects annually in total. “Municipalities and land management agencies have adopted or accepted that bike recreation is in high demand from their constituents,” says Babcock. And, he adds: “It’s been shown that bike parks receive higher frequency of use than traditional park amenities, like basketball courts, tennis courts or playgrounds.”

Bike parks can be as progressive or cutting edge as communities want them to be. Perhaps equally important, municipal bike skills parks increase community equity by serving as starter environments or gateways to an activity that urban or rural participants might not otherwise experience.

“We know that two-thirds of all outdoor recreation occurs close to home. We’re excited that a lot of cities are taking steps towards creating infrastructure that’s more equitably accessible in cities and counties throughout the country.” — David Weinstein, state and local policy director for Outdoor Industry Association

Barrier Busting

Traditional mountain biking has a host of barriers to entry. For most urban-dwellers or rural communities far from mountain trail systems, proximity is a barrier. So is transportation and skill or comfort level. Municipal bike parks address those issues. What’s more, they provide features for many different skill levels to attract local riders. Bikers of all ages can progress safely in controlled environments, without having to negotiate singletrack in remote areas, which requires additional skillsets.

“We know that two-thirds of all outdoor recreation occurs close to home,” says David Weinstein, state and local policy director for OIA. “We’re excited that a lot of cities are taking steps towards creating infrastructure that’s more equitably accessible in cities and counties throughout the country.”

The types of features you’ll typically see at a bike park include pumptracks, dirt jumps, flow trails, slopestyle courses, skills areas, singletrack trails, dual slalom tracks, downhill tracks, cyclo-cross trails and a variety of other features, all constructed and shaped from wood, dirt, steel, and concrete.

Photo: Progressive Bike Ramps

DOLLARS AND CENTS

Part of David Weinstein’s job at OIA is to identify or even help create opportunities—e.g., state legislation or ballot measures—that could help communities fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects like bike parks. He works at the grassroots level to engage OIA member companies to support and push those initiatives locally. “Voters at the local level are generally way out ahead of their local officials regarding what they’d be willing to pay to create recreational infrastructure that’s close to home,” says Weinstein. Generally, public recreation funds can then be leveraged to pull in additional private money and grants, like those given by bike and recreation nonprofits.

"State Funding Mechanisms for Outdoor Recreation" is a report produced for Outdoor Industry Association by Headwaters Economics. It focuses on state funding mechanisms that support outdoor recreation, including strategies employed across the country, best practices for funding outdoor recreation at the state level, and detailed case studies of seven states: Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Washington.

PeopleForBikes is one of the nation’s largest charitable foundations that advocates for recreational cyclists and commuters. Since 1999, the organization has given $3 million in grants to 400 projects in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The grants range from $1,500 to $10,000. Director for Grants and Partnerships, Zoe Kircos, oversees the Community Grants program, which will dole out $100,000 in 2019 to 15–20 organizations looking to work on bicycle infrastructure projects throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

“Over the last five years, small towns and suburban communities have become very interested,” says Kircos. “It’s not just big cities or sporty towns in the Intermountain West. I’ve certainly seen a huge increase in the number of bike park projects that have come across my desk seeking funding.”

Kircos says they look to fund facilities that serve beginners and youth. “We also look at geographic diversity, the size of the community, and type of facility,” says Kircos.

In addition to its grants, PeopleForBikes donates money to the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), which leverages a good part of its $5.8 million annual budget and 40,000 members—in the form of grants, advocacy and volunteers—to get more bike parks built.

Ruby Hill Park, Denver, Colorado

PLANNING, BUILDING & MAINTENANCE…MORE THAN PUSHING DIRT

IMBA’s fee-for-service trail-building arm Trail Solutions does the heavy lifting to actually construct the parks, and the group’s clientele has change in recent years. “We’re not just doing work for bike clubs any more,” says Mike Repyak, who heads up Trail Solutions. “Since 2010, we’ve seen that stakeholders and clients of professional builders are now municipalities and businesses and state agencies. We work for cities.”

Repyak spoke in February at the Wisconsin chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) spring conference. By necessity, trail construction always includes multiple user groups, and the process can be arduous. By enlisting groups like the ASLA, bike industry advocates can help ensure the cultural shift toward the deliberate visioning, planning, design, construction, promotion, and activation that can lead to spectacular outcomes. That deliberate shift is part of what’s behind the rise of bike parks.

“If they’re not actively constructing bike parks, municipalities are at least incorporating bike parks into larger master plans. Bike parks have transitioned from outlier status. They’ve become a staple to the parks and recreation sector.” —Tim Babcock, Progressive Bike Ramps

Bike parks are one of Trail Solution’s signature initiatives. And thanks to IMBA’s efforts, in part, mountain bikers are better organized than ever before and better able to educate and energize land managers.

The bike parks movement indicates a maturation of the sport, as the public continues to drive park construction for the permanent benefit of local communities. Municipalities are responding and stepping up, too.

“If they’re not actively constructing bike parks, municipalities are at least incorporating bike parks into larger master plans,” says Babcock. “Bike parks have transitioned from outlier status. They’ve become a staple to the parks and recreation sector.”

Ross Swanson, projects manager and landscape architect with Portland Parks & Recreation in Portland, Oregon, concurs. He’s spearheading construction of Gateway Green Bike Park on previously neglected land at the confluence of two freeways, a railroad and a transit line. “We’re a service provider. Open space is one of the services we know people want,” says Swanson.

Bike parks are explicitly designed to be ridable on a lot of different types of bikes by different levels of riders.

Lawson sees evidence of more municipalities investing in bike parks and trails because of the associated economic, social, and health benefits.

“Counties with outdoor recreation economies are more likely to attract new residents with greater wealth and have faster-growing wages than their non-recreation counterparts,” says Lawson. “These trends are particularly true in rural communities.” And these residents are trending healthy: People who bike to work, for instance, have a 40-percent-lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer than those who don’t.

The bike parks movement indicates a maturation of the sport, as the public continues to drive park construction for the permanent benefit of local communities.

Not everyone can afford a full-suspension mountain bike, but almost anyone can pull a beater from the shed and go have fun. Bike parks are explicitly designed to be ridable on a lot of different types of bikes by different levels of riders.

“Bike infrastructure is so exciting and fun, such a people-pleaser, that these projects tend to get a lot of media coverage,” says Babcock of Progressive Bike Ramps. “Media reports on the volumes of people coming out to use these facilities, and the excitement builds on itself. These parks become community gathering places, and neighboring communities want the same.”

Bike parks are particularly gratifying investments because, once constructed, they generate additional energy and enthusiasm that helps perpetuate the sport of biking. They constantly attract new users and calve off experienced riders with a passion for the sport—and often a passion to protect public lands for recreation. As Babcock puts it: “Use breeds advocacy.”

Municipalities, land managers, and local politicians experience the benefits of an activated, healthy community. These multiple feedback loops make bike parks self-perpetuating, net-positive investments.

Chicago's Big Marsh Bike Park

NET-POSITIVE

The local community bike park on a municipality’s public property is a relatively new phenomenon. Twenty years ago, the idea was just starting to gain traction, as mountain biking advocates pulled pages from the skateboard park playbook. Like skate parks or climbing gyms or or even ski resorts—where enthusiasts return day after day to work on moves and increase performance—urban bike parks are a magnet for local cycling communities. Whether indoor or outdoor, privately owned or publicly funded, they are helping grow the sport of cycling.

But the parks benefit more than the bike industry. “A lot of times in these communities, the trail systems [and bike parks] are not being championed just by the bike advocates…it’s the school board, or the chamber of commerce, or it’s the hospital, or one of the bigger employers in town,” says Megan Lawson, a Ph.D. economist with Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Montana-based think tank. “We find that trails and outdoor recreation bring a broad range of benefits to communities and to businesses…in terms of attracting visitors and also attracting new residents and improving the quality of life for the people who are already living in these communities.”

Like climbing gyms or ski resorts or skate parks—where enthusiasts return day after day to work on moves and increase performance—urban bike parks are a magnet for local cycling communities. Whether indoor or outdoor, privately owned or publicly funded, they are helping grow the sport.

Lawson sees evidence of more municipalities investing in bike parks and trails because of the associated economic, social, and health benefits.

“Counties with outdoor recreation economies are more likely to attract new residents with greater wealth and have faster-growing wages than their non-recreation counterparts,” says Lawson. “These trends are particularly true in rural communities.” And these residents are trending healthy: People who bike to work, for instance, have a 40-percent-lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer than those who don’t.

Bike parks constantly attract new users and calve off experienced riders with a passion for the sport—and often a passion to protect public lands for recreation.

Photo: Gateway Green, Portland, Oregon

Not everyone can afford a full-suspension mountain bike, but almost anyone can pull a beater from the shed and go have fun. Bike parks are explicitly designed to be ridable on a lot of different types of bikes by different levels of riders.

“Bike infrastructure is so exciting and fun, such a people-pleaser, that these projects tend to get a lot of media coverage,” says Babcock of Progressive Bike Ramps. “Media reports on the volumes of people coming out to use these facilities, and the excitement builds on itself. These parks become community gathering places, and neighboring communities want the same.”

Bike parks are particularly gratifying investments because, once constructed, they generate additional energy and enthusiasm that helps perpetuate the sport of biking. They constantly attract new users and calve off experienced riders with a passion for the sport—and often a passion to protect public lands for recreation. As Babcock puts it: “Use breeds advocacy.”

Municipalities, land managers, and local politicians experience the benefits of an activated, healthy community. These multiple feedback loops make bike parks self-perpetuating, net-positive investments.

Created By
Phililp Armour
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Created with an image by Yomex Ow and courtesy of Progressive Bike Ramps

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