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Blue Ridge plan alarms cyclists

Published December 12, 2011

Blue Ridge Parkway in Avery County, NC. Photo: Ken Thomas, Wikimedia Commonsk
ROANOKE, VA (BRAIN)—Bicycles makes up less than 1 percent of the traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway, part of the national park system that was conceived of as a motorway. But for cyclists — and area bike retailers — the 469-mile National Scenic Byway is a vital resource.

"The Parkway is near and dear," said Wes Best, co-owner of East Coasters Bike Shops in Roanoke, one of the largest cities along the route. "Almost everyone who rides a road bike in Roanoke rides on the Parkway." The Parkway is part of his shop's weeknight ride schedule and is popular with tourists, including those led by Backroads and Adventure Cycling.

Reports that the National Park Service, which operates the Parkway, is considering banning bikes on the route have alarmed the cycling community in North Carolina and Virginia. A Blue Ridge Outdoors article last week, headlined "Blue Ridge Parkway: Closed to Cyclists?" was linked from several cycling forums and email lists nationally, and the issue generated a TV news piece in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville retailer Claudia Nix was interviewed on air for that piece.

The Park Service's draft management plan spurred all the heat. The service released the draft earlier this fall and is accepting public comments on the plan until this Friday.

No ban proposed

Nowhere in the nearly 500-page document does the Park Service propose banning bikes on the Parkway. The plan includes three options: one is to continue current policies. Another option includes various plans submitted by interested groups, including some options to expand access for cycling. But the option favored by the Park Service would manage the parkway "as a traditional, self-contained, scenic recreational driving experience and designed landscape."

It's the word "driving" that angers advocates like Best.

"It feels to me pretty much like an all-out attack on cycling," said Best, who said his feeling is based as much on years of dealing with Parkway managers as it is on the draft itself.

Best said park employees have stopped cyclists to warn them not to ride in pacelines or ride two abreast (which is allowed by Virginia law), closed down "social paths" that allow cyclists to get on the parkway from neighborhoods and denied mountain bike access to trails. He said the Park Service does little to curtail speeding autos on the Parkway, which has a maximum speed limit of 45 mph.

Little hope for change

In Asheville, Claudia Nix had similar feelings about the Parkway management's long-term attitude toward bikes, and she sees nothing in the draft plan that would signal a change. Nix is co-owner of Liberty Bike, located just 500 feet south of the Parkway.

"My feeling is the Parkway's never been really eager for bicyclists, and now they've had a lot of (budget) cuts. I think they realize they can't just say 'no' to bikes, but what they are trying to do is just not think about bicycles and kind of shove it under the rug."

The draft plan includes an effort to have the Parkway declared a National Historic Landmark, which would make it more difficult to add shoulders or bike paths.

"A lot of people fear that (the Park Service) won't have to do anything to make it better (for cycling)," Nix said.

Nix and Best are working with regional bike groups, Adventure Cycling, IMBA and other organizations to encourage cyclists to comment about the proposal. Comments can be submitted on the NPS site.

Noise clouding the real issues

IMBA's regional representative, Frank Maguire, said there is a danger if many cycling advocates respond to the overblown headlines instead of the draft plan.

"There has been quite a bit of low-level noise that's got louder in the last couple of weeks with people saying that bikes are going to be banned from the Parkway," said Maguire, who is based in Pennsylvania. "That's not exactly what's in the plan, and if that's the word that gets out, the Park Service is going to have an easy response to that: 'we have no plans to ban bikes.'"

Instead of reacting to the hype, advocates are pushing concerned cyclists to ask the Park Service to go back to the drawing board and look for ways to accommodate and encourage safe cycling along the Parkway. They point out that to do so would be in line with recent National Park Service goals for reducing carbon emissions and encouraging community connections.

"There are a lot of improvements that can be made cheaply that would improve things a lot, but they don't seem to be looking at the modern day problems," Nix said. "They just want to keep that 'driving experience' out there."

A representative from the Parkway's headquarters in Asheville did not return phone calls from BR&IN on Monday.

—Steve Frothingham
sfrothingham@bicycleretailer.com

Topics associated with this article: Advocacy/Non-profits

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