Bicycles as Both Form and Function
Crested Butte, CO is cited by many as a location where the sport of mountain biking began. It is also known as “the last great Colorado ski town.” True – but that only part of the story of this unique community nestled nearly 30 miles north of US50 deep in the Colorado Rockies.
With a year round population of just under 1,500 persons and an estimated seasonal population of more than double that number, it would be tempting to think of Crested Butte as “just another Colorado ski town.” That would be a very mistaken impression since many, if not most, Colorado ski towns are auto-focused, but that is clearly not the case in Crested Butte.
The Town of Crested Butte is actually a model for how residents, planners and town officials can create and retain a human scaled community where walking and bicycling are the main transportation choices for residents and visitors alike. This did not happen by accident. Town elected officials and planners worked diligently for several decades to preserve the best of Crested Butte’s architectural heritage-and sense of history, community and hospitality. They have also placed a high value on bicycling as a primary means of travel in their community. In doing so, Crested Butte has created a viable template for how streets can be structured around functionality – not for cars but for people.
Most mornings and afternoons in the non-winter months one sees dozens of children riding their bicycles up and down the streets to and from schools or other community activities. One can also see parents on bicycles pulling smaller children in attached bicycle trailers to destinations all around the town. Similarly, the many visitors to Crested Butte are encouraged to ride since nearly all inns and bed & breakfast establishments have bicycles for visitor use.
Another interesting observation about Crested Butte is that most bicycle traffic does not occur on trails or even on sidewalks in the town. Adults and children alike ride their bicycles down the middle of streets in Crested Butte. Yes, that is correct, although some trails exist in and around the town, bicyclists of all ages in Crested Butte ride primarily on town streets. This public acceptance of bicycle travel is a continuation of a town tradition where bicycles are considered functional transportation. This was not entirely by happenstance. This was the result of policy decisions made by town elected leaders, planners and park and recreation staff. Enhanced bicycle activity in the town supports Crested Butte’s reputation as one of the original locations in the development of the mountain bike. It says to visitors: “If you come to Crested Butte, bring your bike.”
Therein lays a story unique to this Colorado community – Town officials in Crested Butte value human travel higher than they do motor vehicular travel. This is evident at first glance by the large number of bicycles and bicycle racks found in front of nearly every residence and business within the town. Three decades ago the Town designated a 15 mph traffic speed limit within the town limits. The Town currently uses several mobile radar traffic speed display devices to inform motorists when they exceed the posted speed limit. This is in addition to local police enforcement of posted speed limits by motor vehicles goes a long way toward slowing vehicular speeds so that town streets are safe for bicycling and walking. It goes without saying that to some local cyclists the large visual radar displays offer an opportunity to “beat the speed limit,” but this bravado merely adds to the charm of this Colorado town where bicycles and bicyclists outnumber cars, trucks and motorists.
Another interesting feature are the large numbers of antique and older cruiser bicycles that can be found nearly everywhere in Crested Butte. Old bicycles and uniquely crafted bicycle frames are ubiquitous around the town. These heavy steel frame bikes, many with baskets, cannot be mistaken for sleek carbon fiber racing bicycles and these bikes beg to be ridden, if only for a few blocks to a store, restaurant or library. These iconic cruiser bikes look very much like the bicycles that Wally and Beaver Cleaver used to deliver newspapers in the “Leave It to Beaver” television series from the late 1950’s. These bikes represent an earlier America where bicycling around town was an accepted norm across the U.S. These antique “beater bikes” can be seen all around town, adding to the charm of this community. It seems that 1950’s era cruiser bicycles along with mountain bikes serve as iconic images for the Town of Crested Butte.
It should be noted that, except for Elk Avenue, which is a business-oriented street in the center of Crested Butte, the town lacks sidewalks throughout most of its historic street grid. If you are going to ride your bicycle, then you have little choice but to ride your bike on the street in Crested Butte. John F. Hess, the Director of Planning and Community Development for Crested Butte says that at certain times of the day, a motorist or bicyclist must be vigilant to avoid hitting a dog sleeping in the street. It appears that in Crested Butte sleeping dogs sometimes serve as traffic calming devices.
Bicycles serve both form and function in Crested Butte. Numerous sculptures of bicycles can be found at locations around the town. Some represent the local mountain bike culture and heritage while other sculptures commemorate professional road bike race events that have occurred at Crested Butte. In some cases, amazingly crafted bicycle frames that are seen around town serve both as functional art, in that they usually get second and third glances from passersby, and they also serve in a functional manner as actual bicycles that are used by residents to ride to work or home.
Crested Butte has rural bus transit service that serves nearby Mt. Crested Butte, and Gunnison. This serves residents and visitors alike who prefer not to use bicycles to travel longer distance throughout the Gunnison Valley. The Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) operates bus transit to these areas. As expected, RTA buses are equipped with front mounted bicycle racks for those not inclined to make the nearly 30 mile journey to Gunnison by bicycle. Also, RTA bus service between Crested Butte and the nearby Mt. Crested Butte ski community is free of charge year round.
So, what is unique about Crested Butte that elevated the lowly bicycle to the forefront of local transportation choices? At its core, the town’s decision to lower speed limits to 15 mph within the town boundaries appears to have been the catalyst that resulted in this change. Slower traffic speeds makes both walking and bicycling safer throughout the community. With a 15 mph speed limit there is much less chance of major injuries in the event of a pedestrian/bicyclist and motor vehicle collision. It is clear that slower motor vehicle speeds and less amounts of motor vehicle traffic have lead to more bicycle and pedestrian use of town streets in Crested Butte. This is not a template that can work everywhere, but these concepts are worthy of a good look by local public officials as a possible transportation demand management tool.
This begs a question: Can similar speed management policies be enacted and enforced in smaller communities or in older downtowns in Maryland? In actuality, many Maryland communities could benefit by a functional rethinking of their local road networks with perhaps less emphasis on cars & trucks as the principal users of their roads. The Crested Butte experience shows that some communities can reap local benefits if they work to slow down auto and truck speeds and enforce the lower speed limits. It is important to make drivers aware of their travel speeds where speed reduction efforts are applied along with increase speed enforcement. These inexpensive treatments have the potential to transform local streets into more acceptable places for residents and visitors to walk and ride bicycles. These efforts will lead to increased mobility for young and old alike and ultimately to more community cohesion as neighbors actually meet and talk to each other, rather than wave through a car window.
It is evident that a town does not need a nearby ski lift to embrace the health and physical activity benefits associated with increased bicycle use by residents. Keep in mind that not all bicycle trips must begin and end with an automobile trip. It can be possible to bicycle “off the porch” provided the local street network is supportive of bicycling as a travel or recreation option. If not for health reasons, then many Maryland communities can learn from Crested Butte and prioritize bicycle use for its pure enjoyment value. After all, as President John F. Kennedy said: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”