The northwest part of the state has built an impressive network of bicycle infrastructure—thanks, in part, to the Walton Family Foundation.
Kelsey Miller likes to play a game with herself to see how many days she can go without driving her car. On most days, she bikes to work and to run errands.
This car-lite lifestyle may be unremarkable for many coastal urbanites, but Miller lives in Bentonville, Arkansas, population 47,000 and home to Walmart’s headquarters.
Northwest Arkansas might not be the kind of place one expects to find a bike renaissance, but it’s having one anyway. Municipalities across the region, which encompasses the main cities of Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, and Springdale, as well as several smaller towns, have been steadily building up their biking infrastructure over the past several years. A mix of federal transportation grants and the Walton Family Foundation, the nonprofit led by the children and grandchildren of Walmart’s founders, helped fuel the bike boom: The organization has invested $74 million in the region’s trails, which now comprise a network of about 350 miles of shared-use and mountain biking trails, including more than 130 miles of shared-use paved paths.*
That’s a pretty big change for her small town, says Miller, who grew up cycling in Bentonville. Back then, there were few trails or bike lanes; she often had to ride on the sidewalk. Now, she really only gets her car out to drive to bike trails further away. “It’s been really cool to be someone who likes to ride my bike and the infrastructure be set in place for me,” she says. “The way Bentonville is set up, the bike infrastructure has been reaching further out from downtown, so it’s really conducive to ride your bike to and from places.”
A new trail usage report prepared by the Walton Foundation claims a striking statistic to back up the region’s bike bona fides: The area’s most-used bike trails have a higher daily cyclist volume than the cycling infrastructure of densely populated big cities. The study determined that the daily per capita cyclist count for the top three trails stood at 5.45 per 1,000 in population—higher than San Francisco’s at 3.2. Weekday cycling volume in Northwest Arkansas increased 32 percent from 2015 to 2017 to about 187 daily cyclists.
“The usage of those amenities and the continued investment in them is something I think that people just have come to associate with certain coastal cities, like Portland or San Francisco,” says Karen Minkel, home region program director for the Walton Family Foundation. “There's kind of that surprise when it’s a region in the heartland not necessarily known for having those types of recreational amenities. Hopefully it’s making people take a second look at what rural America really has to offer in terms of quality of life.”
Another study commissioned by the Walton Foundation showed that in 2017, cycling brought an estimated $137 million in economic benefits to the area, which is also home to corporate giants Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport.
“I think, when those numbers came out, it was hard for us to believe we’ve come so far,” says Paxton Roberts, executive director of BikeNWA, a local cycling advocacy group. “At those busiest spots, when we are on par with big cities, that really validates our investment as a region in cycling.”
The bike culture of the state got a boost in the late 1990s, Roberts says, when the area’s first shared-use paved trails appeared in Fayetteville. In 2006, the Walton Foundation developed Slaughter Pen, a mountain biking trail in Bentonville. That same year, the Big Dam Bridge—the largest span in the U.S. built for bikes and pedestrians—opened in Little Rock, in the central part of the state. Then came the Razorback Regional Greenway, which opened in 2015 with close to 40 miles of off-road, shared-use trails. That $38 million project was funded through a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, a Walton Foundation gift, and support from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and the cities along the trail: Fayetteville, Johnson, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, and Lowell.
Use of the greenway has mostly been recreational so far, but Roberts says things are evolving: More residents are beginning to ride it for transportation, and more businesses have opened along the trail, which connects several cities and towns. Several local attractions, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, lie along the path, and development continues to appear along the trails, luring more riders.
“People want a destination to go to,” says Miller. “It’s not uncommon for us to ride our bikes about 15 miles to Springdale on the greenway just to get tacos, and then ride back. Just seeing the development and economic growth that it’s brought to the area has been huge. Bentonville is kind of a weird and awesome proof of what cycling development can do for an area.”
Nationwide, riding to work is growing. Commuting by bike increased 51 percent over the past 16 years, a 2016 analysis by the League of American Bicyclists found, and is growing by about 7.5 percent annually. Much of the attention in the bicycle advocacy world focuses on the big gains for bike commuters in major cities like Washington, D.C., or on the (often contentious) efforts to build dedicated lanes in urban areas. But it’s smaller towns that can see some of the biggest health and economic impacts from bike-friendly policies, says Kyle Wagenschutz, director of local innovation for PeopleForBikes. “Small communities have big potential for bicycling,” he says. “The question is whether or not they’re seizing those opportunities that exist and capitalizing on them.”
Smaller communities can be fertile territory for bike infrastructure. Not only are they less likely to suffer from the traffic congestion that can trigger “bikelash” battles with motorists over street redesigns, they’re, well, small: The dense business districts and modest scale of older towns in particular make bicycle travel a more viable mobility option—if riders feel safe. The economic benefits associated with building biking infrastructure can help the case, as a study by the League and the Alliance for Biking & Walking emphasizes. Businesses in Memphis’s Broad Avenue Arts District reported a 30 percent increase in revenues after bike lanes were added to the area revitalization. In Iowa, recreational and commuter cycling generates more than $400 million in economic activity for the state and a health savings of $87 million.
But there are special challenges in small-town bike advocacy, too. In Northwest Arkansas, building the region’s trail network required a partnership of seven municipalities, two counties, and a couple dozen small towns, all coming together to adopt the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission’s long-range plan. And there was pushback from privacy-loving rural residents who didn’t want the trails near their homes. But Roberts says the shared vision of the region eventually brought everyone together, with the local mayors signing agreements.
Northwest Arkansas now has two officially recognized Bicycle Friendly Communities, Fayetteville and the region of Benton and Washington counties. Amelia Neptune, director of the Bicycle Friendly America Program at the League of American Bicyclists, says she’s been seeing more smaller communities participate in the program, which gives communities resources to improve bicycling and national recognition. Communities can use the designation to attract new business, residents, and tourists; some have leveraged the brand to gain political support or grant funding for new cycling initiatives.
“Biking provides a lot of solutions to problems that can be common in those areas,” Neptune says. “There’s a lot of access issues, safety disparities, health disparities, and wealth disparities in rural areas compared to highly urban areas, and bicycling usually yields improvements for everyone on the road.”
BikeNWA’s Roberts, who’s native to the region, lives in Fayetteville, about 26 miles away from his Bentonville office. This area still has a ways to go in building on-street bike lanes—having a more robust network would make his commute easier. The greenway’s usefulness for many commuters is limited, since few communities have added connective bike lanes so far. Many users have to drive to the different trail heads, he says.
But overall, biking has come a long way in Arkansas. A decade ago, seeing someone walking or on a bike in downtown Bentonville was a rare sight. “Now, you can’t drive through the town without seeing both of those happen,” Roberts says. “I don’t think anyone ever thought life would be this good in terms of being a cyclist in Northwest Arkansas. We keep painting a vision that sets the bar even higher.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the network’s total mileage.