For most of the past 15 years, I have lived within a mile of where I worked in Northwest Arkansas. My commute was short and sweet, a 5-minute bike ride, door to door.
Things changed when I took a new job in downtown Bentonville, 28 miles from my home in Fayetteville. I was thrilled about the career opportunity, but I didn’t relish the 50-minute drive each way. So I made a pact with myself: At least once a week, I’d try to leave the car at home and ride my bike for the 54-mile round trip.
There’s a simple reason I have that option: the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway. Since its completion in 2015, the Greenway has been a boon for cyclists and pedestrians.
This incredible, 37-mile trail connects communities north to south with many protected street crossings – including tunnels that travel underneath existing traffic or bridges over streams. It runs through three out of four major downtowns in the area – and the fourth is being connected now with a spur trail.
The Walton Family Foundation has invested in the Greenway since 2009, and we’re continuing to support its development because of the need – in a region now home to more than 500,000 people – to promote active, alternative transportation choices.
Without this safe and convenient means to travel by bike, I would have never even considered trying to ride to work. While most residents use the trail for recreation, the Greenway has become the primary artery for the growing number of people who commute to work on two wheels.
They include residents like Alison Jumper, a landscape architect from Fayetteville, who bikes 23 miles to work in downtown Rogers a couple of times a week.
Alison calls herself “an avid believer in bicycling as a transportation option” and credits the Greenway for making her bike commute possible.
In the morning, she makes about 60% of her 90-minute trip on the Greenway. In the evening, rather than ride in heavy on-street traffic, she is on the Greenway almost the whole trip.
“If the Greenway wasn’t there, it would be more difficult. The Greenway has enabled me to have a more comfortable ride. It’s a safer way to get to and from work. If the Greenway was not here, I would be less likely to commute on a bike as often as I do,” she says.
For Alison, riding to work improves her quality of life. On summer mornings, she can see the fog coming off the meadows along the Greenway. In the fall, she enjoys the changing colors and hearing the crunch of fallen leaves beneath the bike.
“I choose to have an active lifestyle and build in things into my day that contribute to my health. Riding to and from work helps me relax,” she says.
“It’s all connected to getting outside, not being in a car. You experience the world differently when you are in it. That’s one of the biggest values of having the Greenway. Up and down the corridor, you experience different places, different ecosystems, different downtowns. The human experience is key.”
My own bike ride to work, like Alison’s, is longer than my drive. So why make the effort?
I am not a hardcore commuting cyclist who bikes in extreme weather for long distances.
But I have always enjoyed the reflective time to transition into, or out of, work and the power of my own legs getting me where I want to go.
When I ride to work, I leave at the same time early in the morning, often in the dark. It can feel pretty lonely.
But in these past few months, I’ve realized that I’m not the only one out there. I’ve come to recognize faces and voices (and bikes) heading south as I’m heading north.
Amid the urban intersections and downtowns, there are places on the Greenway where I can grab a coffee, a taco or a beer, depending on if I am on my way to work or heading home for the day. But there are also miles of tranquil, scenic trail along streams, below bluffs, through pastoral settings. Commuting by bike offers a wide variety of experiences, engaging all the senses, all in one trip.
We are building a community of bike commuters in Northwest Arkansas and the Greenway is the gold standard to get more users onto bikes for both recreational and commuting purposes.
Trails like the Greenway alone won’t get more people on bikes. Looking forward, we need to improve on-street bicycle networks to improve the region’s bike commuting options so riding to work is safer and makes sense, to more people. That’s how we’ll sustain a robust cycling culture in Northwest Arkansas.
The Greenway was the start, but there is lots of trail left to blaze.