Cycling in the Rock: It’s OK to coast
August 13-19, 2018
By Harrison Maddox
While riding my bike on an unseasonably cool July evening, I happened upon a newly-constructed bicycle and pedestrian bridge spanning the railroad tracks that run perpendicular to Cantrell Road near downtown. It was a bit of a surprise; I had seen signs of construction on previous rides through the area. But here – suddenly and with very little fanfare – was a gleaming new piece of infrastructure solely for recreation and alternative transportation. And it felt good. It made me proud of my city. It also brought a sense of gratitude; for all the talk about Little Rock not being bike-friendly enough, of needing to finish this trail or start that project, or needing to catch up to other cities, bicycling has come a long way in this town, and we have a lot to be thankful for.
Little Rock bicyclists had very little in the ‘90s. Bicycling was an afterthought, and because there were few dedicated multi-use paths, riders battled for space on the streets and sidewalks. Murray Dam was just a dam. Bike racks were rare.
The bond that would start development of the Arkansas River Trail wasn’t issued until 2003, brought about in part by a new city parks master plan and a renewed focus on community health. The Big Dam Bridge opened in 2006 after eight years of ups and downs over the cost, engineering and feasibility of the project. As tedious as it was, that monumental project opened the door to more infrastructure. I remember riding from my office downtown to the Two Rivers Park Bridge dedication on a sweltering day in July of 2011, feeling thrilled about all the new routes open to cyclists. A few months later, the star-studded dedication of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge changed the landscape of the eastern end of the Arkansas River Trail system.
In 2012, the revolutionary success of Little Rock’s first “Pop-up in The Rock” event on South Main Street helped bring about a road diet, complete with bike lanes that are now among the most-used in the city. Ongoing incremental efforts to “close the loop” (a gap in the Arkansas River Trail in front of Dillard’s corporate headquarters on Cantrell Road) have reduced – though not eliminated – troublesome sidewalk detours.
But good infrastructure will only take a cyclist so far. Fortunately, Little Rock’s policies have improved, too. A mayor-appointed Bicycle-Friendly Community Committee achieved its goal of a Bike-Friendly Community designation from the League of American Bicyclists in May 2016, and the group still meets monthly to discuss and implement ways to make Little Rock a better place to ride. Little Rock also hired its first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in 2013, a position that has been vital in planning and implementing bike-focused policies in the city. Little Rock’s current bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, John Landosky, notes that “Our definitive street planning document has included bicycle considerations since 1995. In 2015, the City passed a nationally recognized Complete Streets Ordinance, which makes planning for bicycles on our street network the norm. We are about to revise our street planning document to better align with the mandate of the Complete Streets Ordinance.”
Outside of city government, advocacy groups such as Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas (BACA) and the newer Central Arkansas Trail Alliance (CATA) are active as ever, pushing for safer streets, more trails and an overall better environment for bicyclists of all types in the capital city and beyond.
With all this, it’s no surprise that Little Rock’s bike culture is perhaps the strongest it’s ever been. Large annual events such as the Big Dam Bridge 100 and the Little Rock Gran Fondo draw new cyclists to the sport every year and introduce out-of-town riders to our wonderful city. Anecdotally, I’ve observed the rise of bicycling as a social activity, running into friends out on casual cruises and riding to grab coffee or run errands. Even the niches of the cycling world, from cyclocross to bike polo, have found homes here. And let’s not forget the business boom: Little Rock has reached a critical mass of bike shops. Plus other local businesses, from international corporations to corner coffee shops, are recognizing the importance of bike-friendliness. Little Rock is also planning to introduce a bike share system in 2019, which will make riding more accessible to all.
So there you have it: this city’s cycling scene has come a long way in an astonishingly short period of time. Little Rock bicyclists have it better now than ever and perhaps we should learn to slow down and appreciate it more often. Just as long as we don’t stop. Our highways are widening and the fabric of urban Little Rock is stretching, and it’s clear that our work isn’t over. But one thing’s for sure: it’s been a heck of a ride.
Harrison Maddox works part time at the Community Biyclist as well as with the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.
(Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)