Off-Road Impacts of Mountain Bikes


The social impacts of mountain biking on other users can be best understood through the concept of recreation conflict. The principal conceptual foundation of recreation conflict research has been the theory of "goal interference" (Manning 1986). This proposes that perceptions of conflict arise when the presence and/or behaviour of one group of users is incompatible with the social, psychological, or physical goals of another group (Jacob and Schreyer, 1980; Gramman and Burdge, 1981). As stated more descriptively by Watson et al. (1991):

"Conflict amongst outdoor recreationists is partly a result of behaviour evaluated as unacceptable by one party (such as making too much noise, taking good campsites or getting in the way at portages) and partly as a result of perceived inter-group differences (such as different lifestyles, differences in attitude about the environment, and basic differences in reasons for coming to the site)." (Watson et al. 1991: 61)

The large amount of research which has been done on conflict and the associated concept of perceived crowding, has identified a number of factors which can influence how encounters with other users, both within activity groups and between them, are perceived. These factors generally relate to the personal characteristics of the individual perceiving some conflict, the physical and behavioural characteristics of those causing the conflict perceptions, and the setting where the encounters take place.

Based upon the review by Manning (1985), the types of factors which determined the recreation experience "goals" of individuals who perceived conflict, included:

· The personal motivations, preferences and expectations association with an activity.

· The personal experience levels in outdoor recreation activities.

· The personal attitudes toward wilderness, environment, nature, and the settings where encounters occur.

The features of other users which contributed to the "goal interference" outcomes for those perceiving a conflict:

· The type and group size of the other users encountered.

· The behaviour of the other users encountered.

· The perceptions of alikeness with the other users encountered

· The type or designation of areas where encounters occur.

The factors described are inter-related, and clearly indicate that recreation conflict is a more complex phenomena than simply a case of "one activity versus another". This complexity is reflected in the variety of subjective reasons usually given for disapproving of mountain bikes in off-road settings (e.g., tracks). From consideration of all the studies and references available, these subjective reasons can be summarised as:

· Perceptions of greater environmental impacts and damage from mountain biking,

· Perceived safety hazards from fast and silent mountain bikes.

· Attitudes that mountain biking is an inappropriate activity in most natural settings.

· Perceptions that mountain bikes encroach upon walking opportunities.

· Perceptions that mountain bike riders are less interested in the setting and environment.

· A general dislike of mountain bikes and what they are perceived to represent.

In summary, these reasons can be categorised more simply as perceptions of environmental impacts, perceptions of safety hazards , and perceptions that mountain biking is "inappropriate ". Each of these is discussed in turn, although it should be recognised that they are all interrelated.

3.1 Perceptions of Environmental Impact

A perception that mountain bikes cause more impacts on the environment (e.g., tracks) than do other uses (e.g., walking), is common to most statements about conflicts. This was demonstrated clearly in the examples presented in Keller (1990), and by the research findings of Coughlan (1994) and Horn (1994). Using an open-ended question, Coughlan (1994) found that some walkers (20%) and trampers (22%) stated "possible track damage" as a reason for disliking meeting mountain bikes. Using a listed option question, Horn (1994) found that over 75% of walkers sampled included "track damage" as one of their two main reasons for considering mountain biking a problem on tracks (the other was safety hazard). In addition, from a sample of land managers, Chavez et al. (1993) found that 35% reported some resource degradation from mountain biking in areas that they managed, although the extent of such impacts was usually limited to one or two tracks or susceptible track locations. The main reason managers attributed such importance to this concern was emphasised by Chavez et al. (1994):

"A second reason for concern is trail maintenance, the need for which has increased while budgets have continued to be limited. If resource degradation results from mountain biking directly, or indirectly from increased trail use, maintenance will become a larger problem for the future. The extent of resource degradation attributable to mountain bikes is a matter of debate." (Chavez et al. 1993: 30)

Clearly, the potential for physical impacts from mountain bikes is a predominant concern for managers and other users, and it appears that they generally attribute a disproportionately greater level of environmental impact to mountain bikes. But, as has been established, the research evidence to date has been inconclusive in establishing that mountain bike impacts are any "worse" than impacts from any other users. One question that should be addressed, is that if an increased number of users to a site come on mountain bikes instead of as walkers, would the environmental impacts of the increased use be any greater? Chavez et al. 1993) re-iterated the difficulty in objectively attributing resource damage to any one user group:

"Respondents also cited examples of resource degradation believed to be caused by mountain bike use. And some respondents expressed concern that trails newly opened to mountain bike use might incur significant resource damage. It is difficult to tell how much trail degradation is due to mountain bike use, as it is difficult to identify damage caused by any one group when multiple groups use a trail." (Chavez et al. 1993: 35)

Despite the general perception to the contrary, it would appear from the limited research available, that mountain bikes may not necessarily cause a greater degree of impact to tracks than do walkers. However, the impacts that mountain bikes do have are distinctive (e.g., tyre tracks), and this obvious difference may play a significant role in how the overall effects of mountain bikes are perceived. When discussing the indirect perception of impacts, Jacob and Schreyer (1980) proposed a process they termed as "scapegoating", where perceived conflicts were disproportionately attributed to particular groups. In this context, observation of tyre marks on a track surface may lead to a conclusion that any general damage to the track is caused by mountain bikes, without acknowledgement of the other impact processes taking place. Here it seems that the problem relates more to how mountain bikes are generally perceived rather than the actual effects that they have.

3.2 Perceptions of Safety Hazard

A perception that mountain bikes present a safety hazard to other users is as common as perceptions that they cause greater environmental impacts. This is apparent from numerous examples in Keller (1990), Coughlan (1994) and Horn (1994). Keller (1990) summarised the types of hazards posed:

"Other public safety matters are frequently intertwined with perceived or actual physical conflict with other trail users. Hikers and equestrians have voiced legitimate safety concerns about mountain bicycle use on unpaved trails, including:

· cyclists may ride too fast for conditions (e.g., on crowded, multiple-use trails),

· cyclists may not slow down and/or may not be prepared to stop when approaching blind corners,

· cyclists may surprise hikers and equestrians on trails because they are quiet and move rapidly." (Keller 1990: 11).

These concerns are valid, and it is apparent that the behaviour of some riders has posed a hazard. Keller (1990) noted a number of accounts of problems from the reactions of horses to mountain bikes in particular. And in discussing the results from the widely cited project known as the "Los Padres Study" or "Kepner-Trego Analysis", Grost (1989) stated:

"Safety was the primary concern in the Los Padres Study, particularly because of a few rogue bikers with the habit of starting at the top of the trail and coasting down at kamikaze speeds. The obvious safety hazard was dealt with via a combination of education (a biking brochure) and trail design (rocks and other natural objects used as speed barriers in the trail). Yet of the 1400 trail users surveyed, most had encountered mountain bikes on the trail and found bikers to be polite and not a safety hazard." (Grost 1989: 76)

Jacoby (1990) provided more detail from the same study, noting that 67 percent of non-riders did not feel mountain bikes were a safety hazard, 89 percent characterised riders as being "polite", and only 11 percent cited "meeting mountain bikes" as being a source of dissatisfaction when hiking. From this study, Jacoby (1990) also noted that only 15 bike-related incidents were perceived by walkers as being hazardous, and the only accident actually reported involved bikes hitting each other while making way for a walker.

These types of findings suggest that while potential hazards do exist from irresponsible riding, cases of actual accidents or injuries are not common. From a sample of 40 resource managers, Chavez et al. (1993) noted that only one case was known which had resulted in injury. And Coughlan (1994) found that although 38 percent of walkers considered mountain bikes "compromise safety", only 10 percent reported safety concerns as a negative outcome from actual encounters with mountain bikes. Most mountain bike riders in Cessford (1995) considered the safety hazard to others from bikes was over-estimated, and that the actions of a few irresponsible riders caused most problems. It appears that in most cases, the "safety" concerns relate more to an anticipation of potential threat than any actual experiences of hazardous riding. As noted by Horn (1994):

"Trampers' experiences can be diminished by the mere threat of a sudden meeting. For older trampers who may have slower reaction times and be less able to hear a bike approaching, it can be difficult to relax if they fear meeting a bike. For younger walkers with good hearing and quick reactions, this may not be such an issue. People who are familiar with the braking systems on the bikes may find meeting bikes less threatening..." (Horn 1994: 139)

Clearly, perceptual differences in assessing the hazard potential of mountain bike and walker encounters is important. Keller (1990) noted that a hiker might think "Boy that was close", while the cyclist felt in control of both the bike and the situation. Familiarity with mountain bike riding and accumulated experience of previous off-road encounters with bikes may result in changes in the perception of the non-riders. Such as process was suggested by some results in Chavez et al. (1993) and Banister et al. (1992), where negative attitudes by walkers toward mountain bikes appeared to remain constant despite an increase in riding use-levels. When referring to the Los Padres Study, Chavez et al. (1993) noted that:

"... although mountain biking had risen from 7% to 24.4% of all trail use in the area, users [in 1989] did not perceive cyclists to be any more of a problem than in 1987, and the levels of safety problems remained minimal." (Chavez et al. 1993: 30).

And Banister et al. (1992), while not referring specifically to safety concerns, noted:

"A tentative conclusion from the analysis is that, in the abstract, cyclists are going to be seen as much more of a problem than when users of shared facilities have some experience of coping with them." (Banister et al. 1992: 157)

As with environmental impacts, there is an insufficient body of research to draw solid conclusions about the real and perceived hazards posed by mountain bikes, and the effects of these on the experiences of other users. What does seem clear is that some walkers will feel uncomfortable knowing that mountain bikes may be present, whether a real hazard exists or not. There is some suggestion that as walkers become more familiar with mountain bike encounters, their hazard concerns may diminish. However, again the research is not conclusive to date. Also, as with environmental impacts, the degree to which perceptions of safety hazard may relate more to a general disapproval of mountain bikes is unclear. This third type of conflict perception with mountain biking relates to such feelings of disapproval. These represent a perception that mountain biking is not an "appropriate" activity in off-road track situations.

3.3 Perceptions that Mountain Biking is Inappropriate

Environmental and safety impact perceptions are the two most common specific reasons given for recreation conflict perceptions. However, it is apparent that these can not be simply distinguished from more complex perceptions that mountain biking is "wrong". Indeed, these first two concerns may be in part reflections of an underlying feeling mountain biking "should not be permitted in this area".

This third main type of conflict perception is based upon assumptions by walkers (and also often managers), that the personal characteristics, motivations, behaviour types, environmental attitudes, and activity-styles of mountain bikers are fundamentally different from their own. In this respect, conflict between walkers and mountain bikes represents the types of inter-activity conflicts already widely documented in crowding and conflict research.

From these and other studies, the main general finding was that these types of conflicts arose when the presence and behaviour of other users was perceived to alter the physical or social components of recreation experiences (Jacob and Schreyer 1980). How any particular conflicts arise will depend upon how each individual (and group), involved in different recreation settings and anticipating different recreation experiences, interprets the appearance, activity style, perceived motivations and preferences, and actual behaviour of others. More simply, perceived conflict in this context depends upon how "different" others are perceived to be. The two most common conflict patterns found, which summarise the factors leading to most inter-activity conflict perceptions, have been conflict between "motorised " and "non-motorised" activities, and the occurrence of asymmetric "one-way" conflict perceptions. Each is discussed in turn, although both are interdependent.

3.3.1 Motorised versus Non-motorised Activities

The types of comments made about mountain bikes, particularly as summarised in Keller (1990) and Horn (1994), indicates that for many walkers (and managers), mountain bikes conceptually fall into the category of motorised off-road vehicles. As has been apparent for mountain bikes, the perceived impacts of motorised use have similarly emphasised environmental impact and safety; the appearance, noise, behaviour, presence of mechanisation; and the inappropriateness of such in natural settings. Implicit in this has been the assumption that the recreation objectives, environmental attitudes, and values of these other recreationists are also different.

In general, research has found clear differences between motorised and non-motorised users in the recreation experiences they are seeking. Studies of conflict between snowmobilers and cross-country skiers have found differences in the fundamental orientation of preferences and motivations between the two groups (Knopp and Tyger 1973; Butler 1974; Jackson and Wong 1983). Skiers indicated an aversion to mechanisation in recreation and tended to be motivated by needs for solitude, tranquillity and physical exercise. Snowmobilers were machine-oriented and tended to be motivated by needs for socialisation, adventure and escapism. Clearly when both are trying to use the same settings, perceptions of conflict are almost inevitable.

Research has also shown that similar patterns of experience preferences are generally carried by these groups into the other activities they participate in (Knopp and Tyger 1973; Bryan 1979; Devall and Harry 1981; Jackson and Wong 1983). For example, Jackson and Wong (1983) found that the alternative activities undertaken by cross-country skiers tended to be passive, self-propelled, low impact, and requiring perception of a high quality natural setting (e.g., hiking, cycling, tent-camping, jogging, canoeing, nature study). Jackson (1987) termed these types of activities as "appreciative", and noted they had a stronger "preservationist" orientation than other users. By contrast, Jackson and Wong (1983) found the alternative activities of snowmobilers tended to be active, mechanised, high impact, and have a more "consumptive" orientation (e.g., trailer-camping, motorboating, trail biking, dune buggying, hunting, fishing). Jackson (1987) termed these types of activities as "mechanised", and noted they had stronger "pro-development" orientation than other users. Given these differences, it was concluded that these types of groups would always tend to be in conflict, even when engaged in different activities and in different settings.

Cycling was included as an "appreciative" activity along with hiking by Jackson and Wong (1983), although it is unlikely that they were aware of the impending variation posed by the development of mountain biking. An interesting question is how researchers such as Jackson and Wong (1983) and Jackson (1987) would have classified mountain bikes. It is clear that walkers and managers have a tendency to associate mountain bikes with "motorised" use. Given the findings discussed here which emphasise perceptions of "difference" as being the key to conflict perceptions, and the relative consistency of fundamental differences between motorised and non-motorised activities, the question remaining is how different is mountain biking from walking?

3.3.2 Mountain Bike Rider Characteristics

Visually, mountain biking appears to be very different. The obvious difference is in the use of bicycles and associated equipment (e.g., helmets, clothing, bags). Having different equipment has been the basis for perceptions of difference between people in different activities, or perceptions of different experience levels and commitment within the same activity (Bryan 1979). Comments made in Keller (1990), Horn (1994), and from general discussions of mountain biking (e.g., Ruff and Mellors 1993) indicate that the use of bright cycling clothing and the mechanised appearance of cycle and rider can create conflict perceptions in walkers.

In addition, although very generalised, it can be stated from the few studies that describe mountain bike riders (Cessford 1995; Coughlan 1994; Horn 1994; Ruff and Mellors 1993; Keller 1990; Gobster 1988), that mountain bikers will over-represent males and younger age-groups more often than all but the most extreme "wilderness" walkers. It was apparent that this effect becomes less pronounced as the riding setting used became more "developed" and "urban" (Cessford 1995; Ruff and Mellors 1993; Gobster 1988). Although stereotypical, this descriptive difference has often been associated with a "wild teenage" type of image for mountain biking in many comments and commentaries.

It is clear that these obvious visible differences have had an effect on the general perceptions of the activity. However, it is not clear whether these differences are also reflected in the actual motivations, preferences and environmental attitudes of mountain bike riders.

In the main studies that have compared the attitudes and preferences of walkers and mountain bike riders to date, the two groups seem generally more similar than was generally perceived (Coughlan 1994; Horn 1994; Watson et al. 1991). When Watson et al. (1991) asked different users their perceptions of similarity with users in other activity groups, and then compared the groups on their real features, they found that for hikers in particular, the perceptions were different from the reality (Watson et al. 1991):

"Specific factors in which wilderness bicyclists exhibited significantly stronger similarity [with hikers] belief scores include the types of place they live, lifestyle, occupation, levels of education and income, attitudes about the environment, and values of the area. On most of these items the perceptions [of similarity with hikers] held by the wilderness bicyclist are very accurate. The mountain bike riders and hikers are hardly distinguishable on these factors.

Real differences between the groups, however, were few and did not follow the patterns of perceived dissimilarity [indicated mostly by hikers]. Mountain bike riders and hikers who entered the wilderness were similar in environmental attitude and activity focus." (Watson et al. 1991: 69)

In addition, Horn (1994) undertook an extensive series of in-depth interviews of both walkers and mountain bike riders, and from these concluded:

"Trampers often feel that mountain-bikers have different attitudes towards the environment. While this is a reality in other recreational conflict situations, it is not so in the case of mountain-bikers and trampers. What differences there are may reflect the different ages or experience, of the two groups. Differences in focus, attitude, knowledge and in available free time could all be explained by the different preferences of older and younger participants, in the same activity." (Horn 1994: 55)

While the research comparing mountain bike riders and walkers has not been extensive, the findings to date suggest that the two groups are more similar than is generally perceived, particularly by the walkers. In this context, it would appear that continued association of mountain biking with the "motorised" types of activity groups and associated attitudes and behaviours would be misleading. As stated in summary by Watson et al. 1991):

"Managers might also correct some of the misperceptions regarding how groups differ. The mountain bike riders and hikers, particularly those who go into the Rattlesnake to visit the wilderness, have more in common than the hikers realize. The bicyclists seem to be more aware of the similarities, probably because they are basically hikers who are using mountain bikes to gain quicker access to the wilderness boundary. But their interest in the setting and attachment to the wilderness resource are similar to those wilderness users who do not use a bicycle to gain quick access. Mountain bikers are also more likely to be hikers at other times than hikers are to be bicyclists." (Watson et al. 1991: 70)

At this point, to demonstrate further the complexities of conflict perceptions, it is useful to note that other inter-activity conflicts occur in association with mountain bikes and walkers. Both Horn (1994) and Coughlan (1994) noted that walkers also perceived inter-activity conflicts with runners, despite both being foot traffic. This reinforces the notion that the "style " of different uses and the perceptions associated with them are the fundamental basis of conflicts. Similarity between walkers and mountain bike riders was further indicated in Coughlan (1994), where they both perceived the same degree of inter-activity conflicts with motorised vehicles.

3.3.3 Asymmetric Conflict Perceptions

The occurrence of "asymmetric" conflict perceptions has been a common finding from inter-activity conflict research. This occurs when those whose activities, appearance and behaviour are causing others to perceive a conflict, are themselves unaware that they are doing so and are unaware of any conflict. In general, those types of activities more susceptible to disturbance of this kind have been those of the non-motorised " appreciative" type. In general, the motorised users, who generally seemed to be involved in most of the recreation conflict perceptions of other users, have little perception of their own impacts on others. As noted by Jackson and Wong (1983):

"Cross-country skiers choose their activity for precisely the reasons which make it susceptible to impact; whereas snowmobilers choose theirs precisely for the reasons which may generate those impacts." (Jackson and Wong 1982: 59)

There is some indication of such asymmetric perceptions between walking and mountain biking in the limited research available (Watson et al. 1991; Banister et al. 1992; Coughlan 1994; Horn 1994). These all suggested that walkers perceived mountain biking as a source of conflict much more than mountain bike riders perceived walkers as such. As stated in summary by Watson et al. (1991):

"When asked to identify specific types of groups that interfere with enjoyment of trips to the Rattlesnake, only 9 percent of non wilderness and 4 percent of wilderness bicyclists cited day hikers or backpackers. Just over 23 percent of hikers attributed interference to bicyclists." (Watson et al. 1991: 64)

However, the conflict perceptions between mountain bike riders and walkers was not exclusively one-way. Adelman et al. (1982) considered such asymmetric conflicts ran counter to what could be expected according to socio-psychological attraction theory, which suggests that should one group perceive negative attitudes held towards them by others, such negative attitudes would be reciprocated. Jackson and Wong (1982) provided an example where the main conflicts perceived by snowmobilers were due to their awareness of the negative attitudes held toward them by cross-country skiers. In particular, this was related to the political implications for continued access to settings. Knopp and Tyger (1973) considered that this type of indirect impact arose particularly in situations of perceived competition for resources in setting allocation politics.

When Horn (1994) explored the reasons for conflict perceptions, walkers largely felt that their experiences were being compromised by mountain bike presence, while mountain bike riders perceived conflict arising from potential threats to access from walker attitudes and associated anti-riding advocacy. As has been noted widely in mountain biking magazines and articles (Keller 1990), the main management response to the advent of mountain bikes has been track closures. This appears to be considered by riders to represent the attitudes of managers when faced with a new demand, and the greater political lobbying power of walker and other non-rider groups. Horn (1994) considered that the responses of mountain bike riders indicated that such access-related political activity had made many riders feel more negative toward walkers. This usually also resulted in mountain bike riders themselves becoming organised to exercise their political voice in response to the actvity threats.

However, not all conflict perception by mountain bike riders toward walkers resulted in negative outcomes. As was evident in articles and reviews such as Baker (1990) and Keller (1990), and research such as Horn (1994), many riders were adopting encounter strategies which aimed to reduce the negative perception walkers held of mountain biking. Apart from responsible riding, these strategies included stopping to let walkers pass, offering friendly greetings, and becoming involved in volunteer track and resource protection work. As indicated in Cessford (1995), riders generally considered the best way to reduce conflict potential was through voluntary self-regulation of riding sites and behaviours.