It used to be that "bike friendly community" was a term you thought you could pigeonhole. Oh sure, Portland and Seattle, right? And dense, hip, urban metropolises, yes? New York, D.C...
Yes, and Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The third largest city in a state that was this year judged the least bike-friendly state in America, Fayetteville has for the past decade put an urban trails system, and bike and walkability, at the heart of its development plans.
And it's booming. Fayetteville's population has grown 27 percent in the last decade, and in the past few years has been ranked one of the best places to go to college, to do business, to retire, or to live, work and play. It is no coincidence that this acclaim has come as the city's long-range trails and greenways planhas started to come to fruition.
"The success of the Fayetteville trails system grew from the community's vision back in the 1990s for a viable alternative transportation system," says City of Fayetteville Trails Coordinator, Matt Mihalevich. "Over the past 10 years, we have worked toward providing a connected network of trails, and are currently up to 21 miles of 10- or 12-foot-wide paved trails within the city. The primary goal of the network is to provide an alternate form of transportation. And we are seeing this goal realized, with more than 2,000 people using some of the busier trails each day."
One of the key segments of that system is the Frisco Trail, which utilizes both active and inactive sections of rail corridor running north-south through the heart of the city. Although relatively short at 1.3 miles, the historic layout of the rail corridor, bisecting the downtown area, makes the Frisco Trail a natural "spine" for the broader trail system. It also connects locals and visitors with the vibrant entertainment center on
Dickson Street with newer developments on the south side of Fayetteville. Like the best urban rail-trails, it provides users with human-powered access to a myriad of restaurants, arts centers, schools and libraries, neighborhoods and open spaces. And the Frisco Trail provides a seamless connection with the Scull Creek Trail, which itself connects with the Mud Creek Trail further north of downtown.
Mihalevich says the Frisco Trail and its connections have now become a focal point and catalyst in Fayetteville's development.
"In the last few years the city has experienced a steady increase in residential and commercial urban projects close to the trail, creating a positive and sustainable economic impact for the city," he says. "The trail system has been instrumental in advancing our planning goals of discouraging suburban sprawl, prioritizing urban infill development and growing a livable transportation system."
One of the developers drawn to the city by its trail system is the Specialized Real Estate Group, which is currently building an apartment complex for more than 600 residents close to the Frisco Trail. The Sterling Frisco development will target students and staff at the nearby University of Arkansas and young professionals.
Last month, Sterling executives partnered with Mihalevich and a local business school on a bike tour which featured discussion of the benefits of transit oriented development, and an exploration of opportunities for business development along the Frisco Trail corridor.
"The trail is such an integral part of the character of the site that we chose to name this project after the Frisco trail and historic rail corridor," says Specialized Real Estate Group President Seth Mims. "The people we serve love the connectivity and health benefits of the trail. There are obvious environmental benefits of choosing walking or biking over using a car, and these benefits give our developments an edge over conventional apartments built on the outskirts of town. In addition to our proximity to campus, we chose to build on the trail to give residents access to the entertainment district and greenspaces."
Mims says the company plans to offer a bike loan program to encourage residents to take advantage of the trail.
A natural offshoot of the popularity of Fayetteville's trails is the strong team of volunteers that has grown around it. In a great piece of community organizing, the local parks and recreation department created the Trail Trekkers program. The goal of Trail Trekkers - local people who use and appreciate their trails - is to serve as models of proper trail etiquette, help others with trail navigation, report hazards and maintenance needs and keep an eye out for potential safety concerns.
What the Frisco Trail, and Fayetteville's network, has done for Fayetteville has not been lost on the other cities in Northwest Arkansas. The Fayetteville system is now the anchor of the planned Razorback Regional Greenway, 36 miles of active transportation pathways connecting Fayetteville to the cities of Springdale, Lowell, Rogers and Bentonville. When complete, the Razorback Regional Greenway will link six downtown areas, three major hospitals, 23 schools, the University of Arkansas, the corporate headquarters of WalMart, JB Hunt Transportation Services and Tyson Foods, shopping areas, parks and residential communities. Having witnessed firsthand the connection of active transportation infrastructure to Fayetteville's residential and commercial growth, regional planners and politicians know a good thing when they see one.
But the development of the Frisco Trail suffered the same opposition as many rail-with-trail projects. Arkansas & Missouri Railroad, which owns and operates the active (though lightly-used) line, were worried that putting a trail close to active train tracks would be a public safety hazard and liability concern.
"But what we have seen from the real-life operation of rail-with-trail pathways is typically the opposite," says Kelly Pack, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) director of trail development and one of the authors of an upcoming RTC study on rail-with-trails. "Creating a designated, safe pathway reduces the inclination of people to make their own way along or across the tracks. And through good design, such as a fence or natural landscaped barrier, for example, the users can be kept very separate and exist without incident."
Such was the case in Fayetteville. Prior to the creation of the trail, the rail corridor was often used as a makeshift pathway in and out of the popular entertainment district, and there had been several accidents involving trains and late night revelers.
"The trail and fencing provided a safe alternative, and people no longer walk the tracks like they had in the past," Mihalevich says. "The railroad is pleased."