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Open trails, open minds: biking in Carleton’s Arb

Carleton’s lower Arboretum has been closed to cyclists of the Carleton and local communities for more than a decade. It is a result of the close-mindedness of the arboretum directors, and sadly, Carleton itself. I am writing this to encourage you to ask Carleton’s administrators to reopen the Arboretum trails to cyclists of all kinds.

I came to Carleton for a school that treats all policies, people, and issues with an open mind. You all know that is what we’re about here. The arboretum’s policies, however, have become a hidden refuge of close-mindedness.

We’ll start with the arboretum history that has been explained to me by the Research Supervisor of the Arb, Professor Mark McKone. In 1995, Carleton began a major development plan for the Arb, including natural forests, savannas and prairies. At the time Professor McKone had problems with cyclists riding too fast, and thus putting other Arb users in danger and sometimes riding off the trail.

The early 1990s were also a really important part in the history of mountain biking. Fat tires had just become popular in the US, and trail use was growing exponentially. Bike shop business was great, but sadly, trails started to close. They generally closed for two reasons: the fast expansion of users was too much for local trails to handle, and the perception that mountain biking was dangerous to other trail users and the environment.

In the last 15 years, mountain biking has come a long way. The growth of the International Mountain Biking Association and local cycling advocacy and trail building groups has brought a revolution in the way cyclists work with trails and the way that they are treated. A countless number of trails have reopened to cyclists, and cyclists have built many more.

Carleton is usually ahead of the trend, why are we behind it on trail access?

I recently had a meeting with Nancy Braker, the new Arboretum Director, and Professor McKone. McKone’s fear was that Carleton students would ride off trails or ride “too fast.” I find it extremely hard to believe that someone would try riding their bike through thick prairie grass. I am not aware of anyone that can do that, and those of you that know me are aware that I ride my bike a little bit. But Professor McKone saw it, and I cannot deny that. What I argue, however, is that the number of riders even attempting to go off trail is extremely small. That’s logical due to the near impossibility of the task. Furthermore, that small number is less than the numbers of pedestrians, or pedestrian’s dogs (which would also be dangerous to endangered species) that go off trail.

The next argument was that cyclists are dangerous in the Arb to other users and and specifically Bio classes. I asked Professor McKone if there was ever a cyclist that could not stop in time when he or she saw a class on the trail. They never failed to stop.

Unfortunately there is not a lot of research on trail user conflict, but Gordon Cessford of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation found, “It seems that the perceptions and realities of impacts can sometimes be quite different, and that greater awareness and experience can lead to a reduction in problem perceptions. The generally more positive perceptions among those who actually encountered bikes suggests that some ‘encounter-effect’ may occur that somehow results in reduced negative feelings.”

The perceptions that cycling on trails, including those in the Arb, is harmful are subject to exaggeration. Without experience with cyclists, it may seem dangerous and admittedly the risk is there. But it is no larger than the risk of spraining your ankle. With more cyclists in the Arb, those perceptions and fears of danger will decrease. Think about people riding bikes around campus. The number is huge, and they probably don’t feel dangerous to you. The sidewalks are generally as wide, or less than Arb trails. Cyclists can also warn pedestrians of their presence with a simple “on your left.”

And please, do not bring up the issue of bikes ‘bad’ environmental impact. I can fill your inbox with studies by biologists and trail managers that show, if anything, walking has more impact than cycling.

Mountain biking has changed a lot since 1995. Trails reopened, mountain bikers educated themselves on responsible riding, and now are educating others. There is no reason the same success could not happen at Carleton. We are a community steeped in tradition and very concerned about the environment. Lessons taught by the cycling team or Arb groups would be passed on. Bike shops and cycling groups in the area could be used effectively as well. It’s a simple lesson that is working all over the world: ride responsibly.

I hope that Carleton will not continue to keep the vast majority of the Arb closed due to a few irresponsible people in the 1990s. Will you no longer be able to wear pants during tests because someone hid a note with test information inside their fly? Does Reslife close your hall’s lounge when one person leaves trash there? No. Such rules do not get changed unless they become pervasive problems.

Thus, I believe that Carleton is being closed-minded about the Arb. They are not willing to try opening the trails temporarily to see if these problems really do exist. I ask that they at least be open for Spring Term, or a full year to see the impact.

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