In what is being characterized as a severe blow to local mountain biking and the general advancement of cycling in Eugene, the newly constructed multi-use Ribbon Trail connecting Hendricks Park to 30th Ave was closed to cyclists as of 5pm Thursday. In a letter to stakeholders (see PDF at the bottom of this post) Neil BjÃ¶rklund, The Eugene Parks and Open Space Planning Manager explains:
“Based on our conversations with a variety of stakeholder groups, there are enough concerns about safety of allowing both hikers and bicycles on this trail that we cannot with confidence recommend both uses on this trail.”
The letter also states that maintenance concerns and the trail’s proximity to Hendricks Park also factored in to the decision, but local advocates retort that the trail was designed with bike use in mind, and that these concerns do not warrant the closing of one of Eugene’s only mountain biking trails.
BjÃ¶rklund’s letter references several reasons why the trail was closed to cyclists. It states that the 2006 Parks Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Project and Priority Plan lists “[developing] mountain biking trails and free-riding designated areas” as only a Priority 5 (lowest priority) project in the South Eugene planning sub-area. It goes on to say that the Hendricks Park Forest Management Plan explicitly prohibits bicycling on unpaved trails within the park– the north end of the Ribbon Trail enters the park about 200 yards from the nearest paved trail. However, the letter also states that the Ridgeline Area Open Vision and Action Plan concept map shows the Ribbon Trail as a “shared use” trail that “will be built to a standard that would also accommodate mountain bikes where feasible.“
In an October 2009 letter to BjÃ¶rklund, the Greater Eugene Area Riders (GEARs) cycling club stressed the importance of this multi-use designation: (emphasis mine)
The Ribbon Trail was designed and planned as a multi-use path, and has been identified on the City’s bike map for years. Every other multi-use path in Eugene is shared by bicyclists and pedestrians, and the Ribbon Trail should be no exception.
The issues specific to Hendricks Park could be dealt with in a variety of ways. Clearly marking the park boundaries and posting the rules is essential. In addition, installing a barrier that requires bicyclists to dismount, paving the short section of trail between the paved section and the park boundary, or modifying the Park Master Plan are among the strategies that could reduce, if not eliminate, the use of bikes on Park trails.
BjÃ¶rklund’s letter also relates several safety concerns leading to the closing of the trail. These concerns were echoed by The Obsidians Board and the Friends of Hendricks Park Board. Both groups opposed allowing bikes on the Ribbon Trail. However, GEARs, the Lane County Mountain Bike Association (LCMBA), Disciples of Dirt, Safe Routes to School, and the Poplollies women’s cycling group all supported allowing bikes on the trail. The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory (BPAC) was notably on the fence about the issue: a motion to recommend allowing cycling on the trail was defeated. Ultimately, they passed a motion to make no recommendation.
The safety concerns were explained by BjÃ¶rklund:
Staff concerns included tight corners and steep slopes at the south end, side slopes within the trail bed that might lead to trail degradation in wet conditions, and limited space for hikers or bikers to move aside to allow safe passage. Staff also noted the relatively short length of the trail (~3,000 feet), and its relative isolation from other bike-accessible forest trails.
However, sources close to the project claim that this trail was originally designed to be a multi-use trail, but wasn’t built to the correct specifications. An error in construction resulted in the trail’s less than perfect standards for mixed use. This shifts the fault of the “‘unsafe” conditions the Parks Department.
There are examples all over the country of trails just like the Ribbon Trail being very successful as multi-use trails. Mountain bike trails are rare in Eugene, partially due to the closing of most of the Ridgeline Trail system to bicyclists in the early 90’s. This results in community fears that stem from a lack of experience. Many Eugene hikers don’t have any experience sharing a trail with cyclists and are not aware that this is usually very successful – like at the nearby McKenzie River Trail. There is nothing special or rare about the Ribbon Trail that makes it uniquely dangerous when compared to thousands of other shared use trails all over the country.
The GEARs letter to BjÃ¶rklund further addressed the issue:
While we recognize that conflict among various user groups on the trail could occur, this problem is not unique to the Ribbon Trail. The possibility of conflict is no reason to close the trail to bicyclists. Bicyclists should not be presumed guilty of bad behavior with no opportunity to demonstrate that they can share the trail responsibly.
There is a silver lining in the announcement, though it does not stem from the process itself. BjÃ¶rklund states that there were two goals that the Parks and Open Space (POS) division heard from cyclists:
(1) A commuter route to the top of the 30th Avenue hill for bicyclists en route to LCC, and (2) general expansion of opportunities for mountain bikers to ride trails in an attractive natural setting within or close to the urban area, to avoid the need to drive somewhere outside the city for this recreational experience.
The good news is that a planned EWEB summer 2010 construction of an unpaved bike path connection along a new water line between Central Blvd and Spring Blvd should create a commuter route to the top of 30th Ave from the north.
However, the second goal of creating and expanding mountain bike routes near the urban area has been completely unfilled. BjÃ¶rklund explains the trail’s relative isolation from other mountain biking trails and its short length of just over 1/2 mile means that it is not a good candidate to expand the urban mountain bike trail system effectively. However, if the POS uses this logic on all its newly built trails, all new trails will be in relative isolation by default. This also prevents the possibility of linking together several short mountain biking trails in the future. In addition, while a 1/2 mile isolated trail may not be great for adult cyclists, it’s perfect for introducing children to mountain biking.
BjÃ¶rklund’s letter to stakeholders gives the impression that cyclists should not “hold their breath” when it comes to the creation of urban mountain biking trails in Eugene: (emphasis mine)
Sites or trails other than the Ribbon Trail may better accommodate the larger needs related to bicycle access in the Ridgeline trail system. While we cannot commit to a time line for conducting a systemâ€wide trail access study, given the current budget picture and other priorities already identified in the PROS Project and Priority Plan, it is our intent to conduct such a study when it is feasible.
However, in a followup letter in response to an outcry from stakeholders, BjÃ¶rklund’s tone was more optimistic, but firm: (emphasis mine)
Although we did not open this trail to bicycles, we have heard, loud and clear, the community desire and need for additional mountain biking opportunities, and we will continue to explore opportunities for expanding the network of trails open to mountain bikes.
The Parks and Open Space Division intends to review the status of the Ribbon Trail in the future as part of a system-wide study of trails and trail access throughout the Ridgeline system. However, due to current and upcoming budget reductions and constraints, as well as previously established priorities for the park system, we are not currently able to commit to a particular time frame for completing this system-wide trail access study.
This is sobering news, because if Eugene doesn’t begin to make this a priority we risk having many of the same problems that Portland has recently experienced. There is clearly a demand for local mountain biking trails. If the city does not provide trails then illegal trail building could proliferate, much like what happened in Portland’s Forest Park.
Urban mountain biking trails are also important to Eugene’s overall status as a bike friendly city. One of the areas Portland was highlighted as lacking in their Platinum status was in their lack of mountain biking trails. This is also one of the reasons why Portland was ousted from its 15 year run as Bicycling Magazine’s #1 bicycling city by Minneapolis, which has several urban mountain bike trail corridors.
Bragging rights aside, there are even more tangible reasons why Eugene needs to re-prioritize developing urban mountain bike trails. A high school representative was at the Ribbon Trail “bike stakeholder” meeting and mentioned that allowing bikes on the trail was a very important issue for him and his friends since they don’t drive and would like something near enough to ride to. The Citizens for Appropriate Transports (CAT) local Trips for Kids program must also drive participants out to Oakland to mountain bike since there is no good location in town for kids get active in this great way.
I am not trying to demonize Neil BjÃ¶rklund with this article. He was clearly pressured from both sides of the issue, and he and his staff no doubt made the decision that they felt best served the interests of everyone involved. The message that we, as cyclists, should take away from this decision is clear. If we really want urban mountain biking trails, we need to pressure the city to re-examine their trail priorities. We also need a dialogue with pedestrian-oriented individuals on the BPAC and groups like Obsidians to explain that cyclists and hikers co-exist on thousands of trails just like the Ribbon Trail all over the country. The pressure to close the trail to bikes stemmed from inexperience and mistrust of mixed-use off-road trails. This is an issue that we must resolve if we are ever going to see change.
Below is a PDF of Neil BjÃ¶rklund’s letter to stakeholders.