City leaders across Arkansas are placing a priority on multi-use transportation infrastructure, as road cycling, bolstered by the pandemic, continues to grow in popularity. Soon, that infrastructure should include the state’s first officially designated U.S. Bicycle Route, USBR 80, to ferry touring road cyclists across the Arkansas Delta from the Mississippi River at West Memphis to the Arkansas River at North Little Rock.
Just as Northwest Arkansas capitalized on built-in advantages to become a mecca for mountain biking, officials both public and private think Central Arkansas and the Delta could benefit from road cycling’s rising popularity. And in the case of USBR 80, the allure of cycle touring.
Biking, both on- and off-road, has steadily risen in popularity in the United States in recent years, and many local governments are positioning themselves to take advantage of the tourism opportunities it affords. The 2017 Arkansas Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan from the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) reported that almost two-thirds of all Arkansans participate in some form of outdoor recreation, generating $10 billion in consumer spending.
And while precise numbers aren’t yet available, anecdotal evidence suggests that stir-crazy Arkansans with limited entertainment options took to the outdoors more than ever, and in more ways than ever, in 2020.
Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas have been showered with global recognition over the past decade for the forward thinking — emboldened by generous support from the Walton Family Foundation — displayed in building the infrastructure required for the area to become one of mountain biking’s legitimate U.S. hotspots.
Julie Kelso is among those who think the Delta could become a national touring hotspot for road cyclists, as riders discover the often overlooked and primordial beauty afforded by its backroads. As vice president of planning at Crafton Tull, the civil engineering, architecture and surveying firm based in Rogers with offices in Little Rock, Fayetteville, Conway, Russellville, Fort Smith as well as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Kelso helped lead the feasibility study that ultimately determined the route for what will be USBR 80.
The study was commissioned by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, funded through a federal State Physical Activity and Nutrition grant and conducted by Crafton Tull, working with state and local officials to determine the best touring route for road cyclists through east Arkansas.
Kelso said the planning and touring of potential routes alone gave her team a renewed appreciation for the Arkansas Delta and its potential for tourism.
“You’re going through a part of the state that people may not have typically visited as a touring destination. And it really highlights the beauty of the Arkansas Delta. You’re seeing it at a different pace whenever you’re on a bike, and you’re going through towns you may not have noticed when traveling by car, maybe not paying attention to some of the cool characteristics of the town.
“You just experience it a different way on a bike. It’s a great way to see the state. We did some of our assessments when the cotton was in full bloom — you see the agricultural aspects of the Delta, you see the wildlife in the Mississippi Flyway… You’re going through some beautiful country; you’re crossing some beautiful rivers; and it’s just really captivating.”
The route chosen for USBR 80 was one of two assessed by Crafton Tull — northern and southern routes each picking up at the foot of the Mississippi River-spanning Harahan pedestrian bridge in West Memphis and finishing at the north side of the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock. The southern route through Hughes, Marianna, Clarendon, Stuttgart, England and Scott ultimately was selected for its potential to better accommodate the needs of long-range riders through access to food, medical treatment, lodging, bike maintenance and other amenities.
Eventually, USBR 80 would extend westward from the Big Dam Bridge and intersect USBR 51 in western Arkansas.
Kelso said cycle tourism won’t be limited to riders from out of state visiting Arkansas for the first time. The emphasis on riding and the development of trail systems will further promote Arkansas destinations to its own residents.
“All these efforts are starting to gain steam,” she said. “Once we start linking up all these existing and planned trails, people will be able to experience the state in a different way.”
The U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS) was established in 1978 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the same organization that numbers U.S. highways and interstates. And it mirrors the federal highway system — the bike network is maintained by state and local governments and utilizes a similar numbering system. But until 2011, it consisted of just two routes. By 2018, the USBRS had expanded to include 36 total routes covering more than 13,000 miles across 26 states, mostly in the eastern half of the country.
When complete, it will connect the continental United States and encompass more than 50,000 miles of bike routes, all utilizing existing low-traffic roads, off-road bike paths and bike lanes.
The plan is for USBR 80 to connect the North Carolina coast with Oklahoma City. USBR 51, meanwhile, will connect USBR 10 in Minnesota with USBR 45 in south Louisiana west of New Orleans. ArDOT expects to submit the application for USBR designation between Memphis and Little Rock, the first such designation for Arkansas, by the fall of 2021.
Kim Sanders, ArDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said designation of the state’s first USBR represents an important step toward the evolution of cycling from a recreational activity to a true mode of transportation. She cited the growth of cycling in Central Arkansas spurred by the construction of the Big Dam and Two Rivers bridges, the pedestrian conversion of the Junction and Clinton bridges connecting the downtowns of Little Rock and North Little Rock, and the development of the 17-mile Arkansas River Trail System on both sides of the river, a popular ride for local cyclists.
“As we have seen in Central Arkansas, if you build it, they will come,” Sanders said. “Cycling has really exploded in Central Arkansas since their construction.”
She also noted the growing popularity of the state’s Delta Heritage Trail, which includes a state park and by 2025 will connect Lexa in Phillips County with Arkansas City in Desha County. In spots, the trail utilizes parts of the Mississippi River levee and ultimately spans 84.5 miles.
“Recreational cycling is the gateway to cycling as transportation,” Sanders said. “Look at the 38-mile Razorback Greenway in Northwest Arkansas. The Greenway is a transportation spine that gets heavy usage. The next crucial step is for cities and metropolitan regions to look at safer multi-use transportation infrastructure.”
Local and state officials believe introducing Arkansans to the health and recreational benefits of riding is the first step to incorporating cycling as a true alternate mode of transportation. Plus, as Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas have demonstrated, riders from across the country and even beyond will travel to discover new routes and therefore new places. And USBR designation, in the bike touring world, is a big deal. It means a route has been vetted by its host state as the safest and most accommodating available, and perhaps most importantly, it serves as a tourism draw.
Butch House is the mayor of England, the Lonoke County farming community of roughly 2,700 that sits about a half day’s casual ride east of the Little Rock metro. The lonely stretch of state highway between it and Little Rock, cutting through fields of soybean, rice and cotton oftentimes under a canopy of old pecan trees, has long been a popular touring destination for local cyclists. And England sits on the future USBR 80.
House and his city council are on board with the designation, and he believes local residents are receptive as well. The council already passed a resolution supporting it (required of all counties and municipalities through which a USBR route runs).
“I really think it will be a plus for us,” he said of the designation. “It would be a very attractive addition to the city. We already get some cyclists who come through the area. We’re so close to Little Rock, we get a lot of bikes through here.
It would be great to have more of ‘em stopping to get some water or something to eat. It would really add to our downtown if we could do some positive things to help draw them here.”
House’s vision of a downtown teeming with residents and bike-rising day trippers alike was fueled by a visit to Collierville, a small city of about 51,000 within the Memphis metro that was home to two Civil War battles and is known for its historic town square.
“They had a little museum in the old train depot; there were people and bicycles everywhere; and they had facilities set up by the tracks for riders to change tires and other things,” he said. “It was a real draw for the square.”
Such a scene ultimately could play out in towns across the Delta, as USBR designation and attractions such as the Delta Heritage Trail and the Mississippi River Trail draw visitors from other parts of the state and even country.
And more cyclists are expected to head east out of Little Rock to explore their Delta backyard. Road cycling has become a prominent fixture to the Little Rock streetscape, and as more people are introduced to it, cycle tourism becomes more likely. Sam Ellis, who owns Rock Town River Outfitters in Little Rock’s River Market District and rents bikes and kayaks, said business spiked during the pandemic.
“There are more outdoor activities available in Arkansas than many other places,” he said. “We offer opportunities such as bike rentals so people can get out and explore the trails. Biking is an outdoor activity that gets people safely out of the house while social distancing. A lot of people were getting stir-crazy and wanted a way to get out of the house safely with their family, and biking and kayaking were two of those activities.”
Development of bike routes and trail systems to accommodate a growing user base is a proven winner in Arkansas. A 2017 study commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation estimated the total economic benefit of the Razorback Greenway to be $137 million; the value of homes located within a quarter mile of the Greenway to have increased in value by an average of $15,000; and the region to have realized $85 million in health benefits associated with its development.
Daniel Holland, transportation planner for Metroplan, the federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for Central Arkansas, believes a similar impact could be realized in the Little Rock metro through an expanded Arkansas River Trail that will connect to the Southwest Trail. By 2024, the Southwest Trail will link Little Rock to Hot Springs National Park, the Northwoods Trail System in Hot Springs as well as the south loop of the renowned Arkansas High Country Route.
In February of last year, Metroplan directed $55 million over 10 years to help Central Arkansas build out this regional trail network connecting the entire metropolitan area in the same way the Greenway links the downtowns of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville.
In Little Rock, it all starts with the River Trail, Holland said.
“It will act as a fulcrum to major spurs towards Conway, Jacksonville-Cabot, the Southwest Trail and the budding Southeast Trail, which will connect downtown to the airport and river port. Cities will be able to coordinate local bike trails to connect to our regional routes. Our hope is to have trails that rival any system in the nation.”
Later this year, Metroplan and Crafton Tull will launch a 15-month project to identify precise routes and “prioritize investments to achieve quicker results,” Holland added.
As for USBR 80, Holland believes it will play an important role in Metroplan’s regional biking strategy.
“The route will serve local populations by providing multi-modal connections for commuting or recreational travel between our cities,” he said. “We hope that as USBR 80 continues west in subsequent phases, it will directly serve Central Arkansas communities west of Little Rock. The route will be an integral part of our region’s push towards greater multi-modal connectivity and a more healthy and active population.
“Metroplan’s focus on the trail network is to connect communities to provide a transportation option that often does not currently exist.”
The planned USBR 80 is laid out on existing city streets, county roads and state highways. Sanders noted that no routes need to be constructed or any costs incurred outside of potential investments from route communities in spur routes, signage and related accommodations. The Delta stands to benefit from USBR 80, she said.
“Though connectivity to major trail systems in neighboring states and long intrastate cycling tours, the Delta areas could certainly economically benefit from cycling tourism.”
The popularity of the Razorback Greenway in NWA has spawned business and residential development along its route, and Holland envisions something similar for Central Arkansas, which he believes has yet to realize its full potential.
“Examples throughout the country, including from our friends in Northwest Arkansas, show the popularity of trails and parks,” he said. “There is no question that businesses and developers are taking note of these trends. We are beginning to see apartments in Conway pop up along trails with ads boasting about trail access. The Preserve and Centerstone apartments are two examples.
“The River Trail is a great spine but imagine if a cyclist could stroll the riverbank all the way to Conway. Metroplan would love to see communities build off the eventual regional system to connect to all the region’s outdoor offerings.”
The new “Hub Communities” program through the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism should help entice cities and towns to invest in the potential of cycle tourism. The program rates communities from one to four diamonds based on their degree of cycle friendliness.
“These designations help cyclists plan their treks and cities advertise themselves as desirable destinations,” Holland said. “Greater buy-in to cycling culture will increase a community or region’s likelihood of becoming a tourist hotspot. Arkansas is an interesting state. Our regions are topologically varied and have their own unique charm. The draw to cross-country cycling treks is seeing new places and immersing in the local culture.”
Kelso added, “The designation of USBR 80 is an exciting step in expanding the bicycling network for transportation, recreation and touring that highlights communities and landscapes across the Natural State.”