Supporting Custer County’s Bike-Friendly Vision
In mid-April, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Custer County Trails Coalition in Westcliffe to discuss a few of my favorite topics: bikes, safety, strategic planning and (wonk alert) the Colorado Department of Transportation. This work is a big part of what Bicycle Colorado can do — provide high-level expertise and advice to guide communities through their plans, goals, hopes and dreams when it comes to on- and off-road bicycling facilities.
Located southwest of Colorado Springs, Westcliffe is the Custer County seat and a classic, historic mountain town: utterly charming and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. At 7,867 feet above sea level, clean and crisp air compliments the stunning view of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
Improving state highways for bicyclists
Danielle Lendriet from Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) had recently connected me with Charles Bogle, Custer County Economic Development Corporation’s director. Charles is administering an OEDIT Colorado Blueprint 2.0 grant on behalf of the county to make bicycling better for everyone and needed the kind of expert advice Bicycle Colorado can provide on these kinds of efforts.
Blueprint 2.0 grants “leverage state partnerships and specialized resources in service of the unique economic development goals of rural Colorado.” (For anyone interested, 2017 Blueprint 2.0 grant applications are accepted through June 2.)
Through my work fulfilling Governor Hickenlooper’s Colorado Pedals Project initiative to become the #1 bike state, I have a unique insight to working with CDOT on bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Danielle contacted me because Custer County was in need of such skills.
The county’s Blueprint 2.0 grant is a trails initiative which includes improving safety for bicyclists traveling state highways. Two state highways, SH 69 and SH 96, intersect in the heart of Westcliffe. Two American Cycling Routes (Western Express and the TransAmerica Trail) pass through Custer County on state highways. Without a focused CDOT strategy, highway improvements for bicyclists seem unattainable.
Rolling up our sleeves
When I agree to present at a community meeting, it’s with the understanding that the audience may just be just a few people. When the room filled with 20 folks, I knew Custer County was serious about its trails.
Over the course of two hours, we waded through the nitty gritty of bicycle advocacy work, including complex transportation planning strategies and how to partner with CDOT for walking and biking. We reviewed the 2016 Colorado Downtown Streets Guide. We cleared up some misunderstandings about widening shoulders. We discussed how to plan and prioritize on-street and off-street trails. We identified how investing in community active transportation needs can contribute to economic development and attract visitors. And we discussed how to leverage the area’s natural and community assets, which Custer County has plenty of.
By the time the meeting wrapped up, the coalition agreed that a trails master plan is needed to support advocacy, strategy and funding priorities. A working group was formed and there was a general shift from perceiving CDOT as a challenge to CDOT as a partner–a big part of what Bicycle Colorado is able to do for communities.
“None of us wants [Westcliffe] to grow out of the gem we have, but we also recognize that we need to make some sustainable progress and trails are key.” — Greg Smith, local bicyclist and photographer.
I left absolutely smitten with the town and even more so with the dedication of its residents. Their love for where they live is tied to active living. The ability to ride and walk through town, through the Wet Mountains and along the Western Express Route is part of their local identity. And, they are generously welcoming others to enjoy everything Custer County has to offer by prioritizing trails.
Bicycling routes will complement Custer County
Westcliffe is home to one of six Amish communities in Colorado. Because Amish don’t drive cars, the need for wide shoulders and traffic calming is even more important to create safe travel for people on bikes as well as horse and buggies.
The Cliffs (aka Westcliffe plus Silver Cliff), is the 9th darkest certified International Dark Skies Association Community in the world. The Cliffs have been featured on the Today Show and CNN and in the New York Times. To achieve that certification, community leaders have pushed for things like LED down-lighting to reduce light pollution and environmental impacts.
Westcliffe is incredibly proud to have hosted the finish line for Ride the Rockies in 2015 with more than 2,000 riders. Race Director Chanlder Smith perfectly captured the spirit of Custer County when he said,
“Absolutely no corners were cut here … From the hay bale bicycle on the outskirts of town to the decorated bicycles that lined the course as we came in, to the horse-drawn buggies delivering cowbells, to the chalk art greeting cyclists as they approached the finish line, to all the cheering fans, to all the incredible offerings of entertainment and food. Westcliffe and Custer County promised one of the greatest finishes and delivered … You have most definitely set the bar a lot higher.”
Westcliffe locals are generously welcoming others to enjoy everything Custer County has to offer by prioritizing trails. I suggest you take them up on the offer. It’s an amazing part of our state and I can’t wait to return, hopefully with more riding bicycles and fewer meetings!