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Bicycling pumped $137 million worth of benefits into Northwest Arkansas last year, according to the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, which has provided $74 million to help build 163 miles of bike trails in Benton and Washington counties over the past decade.

The $137 million amounts to $86 million in health benefits from cycling and $51 million in business benefits, according to a study commissioned in partnership with PeopleForBikes of Boulder, Colo.

"These findings validate cycling as a regional economic engine that supports local businesses, attracts tourists and builds healthier communities," said Tom Walton, chairman of the foundation's Home Region Program Committee and a grandson of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.

"My grandfather used to say you can't just keep doing what works one time because everything around you is always changing," Tom Walton wrote in an email to the foundation's mailing list announcing the studies. "And that to succeed, you have to stay out in front of that change. The world is paying attention to the growth of our region, so we must continue to challenge ourselves to think even bigger and try new ideas that define Northwest Arkansas as an innovation hub for trail building."

The foundation unveiled Thursday the results of three studies concerning bicycling in 2017 in Benton and Washington counties -- the area defined as Northwest Arkansas in the studies.

According to a news release from the foundation, the region has "reaped these positive economic, social and health benefits while still managing to keep its trail building costs lower than many regions with comparable bicycle infrastructure."

Benton and Washington counties have 351 miles of trails -- 219 miles of natural-surface trails and 132 miles of paved trails, said Luis Gonzalez, a spokesman for the foundation. Most of the region's trails are shared by cyclists and pedestrians.

"Since the late 1990s, considerable resources have been invested in planning and building a world-class trail system to enhance the economic vitality of Northwest Arkansas," according to the economic- and health-benefit study conducted by BBC Research & Consulting of Denver. "The centerpiece of this trail system is the $38 million Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile shared-use paved trail that links the major cities in the region."

The Razorback Greenway extends from Fayetteville on the south end to the Bella Vista Trail in north Bentonville.

"Bicycling produces an estimated $51 million business benefit to the Northwest Arkansas economy annually: $21 million in household and resident spending on bicycles, bicycle goods, equipment and events; $3 million in bicycle retail sales and retail sales taxes paid by local customers; and approximately $27 million in tourism spending by out-of-state visitors," according to the study.

Between 90,000 and 150,000 bicycle tourists visited the region last year, according to BBC Research & Consulting.

About 55 percent of all mountain bike rides on the region's natural-surface trails were completed by people from outside the region, according to the study. That's comparable to the rates of non-local riders at "some of the most notable mountain biking destinations" such as Bend and Oakridge, Ore., (65 percent), and two spots in British Columbia -- the North Shore near Vancouver (55 percent) and Squamish (49 percent).

"Many residents cite proximity to bicycle infrastructure as a major consideration when deciding where to live, work or locate businesses," according to the news release.

The BBC study found houses near bike trails in Northwest Arkansas sold for more money on average than houses farther away.

Northwest Arkansas residents cycle more than the nation as a whole. According to the study, 27 percent of locals rode bikes six or more days in the past year -- a rate 11 percentage points higher than the national average.

Bicycling keeps people active and decreases the chance of illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions, according to the BBC study.

The second study, done by researchers at the University of San Diego, analyzed trail use across Northwest Arkansas and compared it with other cities.

"The study showed a 24 percent increase in average annual bicycle usage and a 10 percent increase in average annual pedestrian usage over the last two years," according to the release. "Comparing cycling levels per capita, Northwest Arkansas reports higher daily cyclist trail use than bike-friendly areas like San Francisco. Similarly, the region reports more pedestrians per capita using trails than heavily populated areas like San Diego County."

Data from the three busiest count sites on Northwest Arkansas trails was compared with the three busiest sites in other areas, including San Francisco and San Diego County.

"The sum of the top three sites with the highest daily cyclist use in Northwest Arkansas was greater than the top three sites with the highest daily cyclist use in San Francisco," according to a summary of the second study.

The third study, by Alta Planning+Design, compared Northwest Arkansas with eight peer cities and two aspirational ones -- Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis.

Northwest Arkansas ranked in the lower third for its trail costs, according to the news release. While the average cost of trails in peer cities was $313.75 per linear foot, Northwest Arkansas reported an average cost of $217.09 per linear foot.

Outside of Northwest Arkansas, the foundation supports the development of a 30-mile expansion of the Big River Trail in the Arkansas Delta.

Also, Tom Walton and his brother Steuart Walton have provided grant money for trail building initiatives, including a 16-mile natural-surface trail system in Hot Springs, a bike and skate park in Fort Smith, mountain biking and hiking trails in Eureka Springs, and a 12-mile natural-surface trail system at Camp Orr on the Buffalo River.

The Walton Family Foundation works in three areas: improving kindergarten-12th-grade education, protecting rivers and oceans and the communities they support, and investing in their "home region" of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. In 2016, the foundation awarded more than $454 million in grants in support of these initiatives.

NW News on 03/30/2018

Print Headline: Cycling helps Northwest Arkansas $137 million in 2-17

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