NIMBYs Derailing Bike Trails

  • A bike trail might one day take cyclists riding between Traverse City and Elk Rapids along Petobago Creek. (Photo by Peter Payette)

Why plans for rails to trails bike paths sometimes go off the tracks…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Michigan has more than 1,500 miles of bike paths.
Most were put in place through rails to trails programs. Those are trails that are created from former railroad corridors.
Now many communities are trying to connect the existing trails, so cyclists can ride cross-country over large regions of the state.
But as Peter Payette reports, the work is getting harder and bike trails are not always welcome.

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In the foreseeable future you might be able to get from Harbor Springs to Traverse City on a paved bike path.
That’s about eighty miles.
There are few paved bike paths that long in the United States.

The question is how to route it.
One easy way would be to build a path alongside US-31. But the federal highway is not the most exciting route through the region.

You’d miss hidden gems like Petobago Creek.

“I don’t want to call it the best kept secret, but it’s far enough off it’s not where people normally come. If you know, you’ll come back multiple times. It’s very attractive here.”

That’s Dean Branson standing near the remains of an old bridge over Petobago.
Across the creek are a couple hundred acres of marshland that are designated a state game area.

A thick patch of woods separates us from the highway so the car noise is dampened.

Branson says this would be a perfect place for a bike trail.

“Family bikers really like to be further away, where they don’t hear the roads or the safety problems associated with fast cars. And this presents an opportunity for us to be quiet, out in nature.”

Branson has been working for years to connect Elk Rapids to Traverse City’s bike trail system.
It’s a project led by Rotary Club of Elk Rapids.
The hope is to eventually build north all the way to Charlevoix.

That would connect with the Little Traverse Wheelway, an existing bike trail that wraps around Little Traverse Bay to Harbor Springs.

The problem is there’s not a single railroad line that would make the connection.
And the railroad grades that do exist were abandoned years ago and now belong to adjacent property owners.

Eric Oberg, with Rails to Trails Conservancy says that is the situation for many trail groups these days.
Rather than deal with one railroad company, they have to deal with as many as 30 property owners in one mile.

“It only takes one person to say no I’m not interested in this at all and if they’re strategically located where you can’t get around them, your whole project gets derailed and you’re kind of back at square one, how do we get from A to B if we can’t go that way because one out of thirty said no?”

And sometimes property owners are not interested.

While some see a bike trail as a nice amenity even worth mentioning in a real estate listing, others see a trail as a path for endless strangers to invade their solitude.

Fifteen years ago in Leelanau County, opposition to a new trail was almost militant.
At one point someone stretched barbed wire across the pathway.
Someone else dug a ditch in the trail and a cyclist crashed and broke his shoulder.

Tim Brick owns Brick Wheels, a bike shop in Traverse City.
He says there’s more appreciation for bike paths today but he’s not sure everyone clearly sees the economic value of trails.

“If you look at a car going through Traverse City in the summer I would bet you seven out of ten of them got a bike rack on it. They come here to ride, because we have great trails, because we have nice places to ride. But, if you read Chamber of Commerce brochures you’d think all we do here is do wine tours and golf. And I’m telling you, a lot of people come here to cycle.”

And if trails are long enough they can attract national attention and become a destination where visitors can ride for days.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.