Off-Road Mountain Biking: A profile of participants, setting and preferences, by Gordan Cessford, 1995
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1.1 The Department of Conservation and Mountain Biking

The Department of Conservation manages conservation lands which comprise approximately 30% of New Zealand's land area. Included in these areas are over 7500km of walking tracks. Most of these tracks are in remote areas, are managed at a low state of development, and are largely accessible only to fit and experienced back-country walkers. They are generally used for multi-day trips by visitors who are most often male, professional and from younger age-groups.

However, many tracks have been subject to greater levels of development due to their suitability and past popularity for day-use and overnight trips. The day walks in particular tend to be located closer to main roads, tourism attractions and population centres. These tracks have been constructed along well-graded routes, have relatively smooth and un-obstructed track surfaces, and pass through high-quality natural environments. These types of tracks attract a wider variety of walkers than the back-country tracks, including families, older people, children, overseas visitors, and people involved in more pasive types of recreation activity.

Such track characteristics are also attractive to the growing numbers of people riding mountain bikes off-road. Since the arrival of mountain-biking in New Zealand during the late 1980s, numbers participating in this activity have grown rapidly. According to cycle retail and enthusiast sources, up to 80% of all bicycle sales in New Zealand are now mountain bikes. The advent of such developments provides managers with an added challenge in their decision-making processes. The main questions they face relate to how any new activity interacts with existing use types and patterns, and how the new activity can be accommodated.

In general, the initial management response to recognition of mountain biking as a potential use of conservation lands has been based upon an interpretation of bicycles as `vehicles' under the legislation governing the management of these lands. This approach has been used both in New Zealand and overseas, and has generally resulted in limiting mountain bikes to legal roads only. The guidelines for mountain biking management developed by the Department of Conservation do allow some flexibility to provide access to some tracks (Department of Conservation 1994). This is possible where the activity could occur without compromising the conservation of natural and historic resources, and the experiences of other recreation visitors.

1.2 Management issues and information needs

Managers are faced with three main issues in identifying `suitable' tracks:

- what are the physical impacts of mountain-biking upon tracks, facilities and the environment?

- what are the social impacts of mountain-biking upon other users of tracks and facilities? and

- what recreation settings and experiences do mountain bikers want?

Compared to other outdoor activities, there is little research available on mountain biking. Even in America, where the issues have been prominent since the early 1980s, the limited research which has been undertaken has not usually been published. In association with this study, a review of the available research has been undertaken. This is published separately to this study (Cessford 1995), and includes some of its findings. The following three sections briefly summarise the main points identified in this review.

1.2.1 Physical Impacts of Mountain Biking

Like the physical impacts of foot traffic, those of mountain biking are concentrated on tracks. The four main impact damage problems arising from recreation use of tracks are:

- excessive erosion from enhanced water flows and disturbed soil surfaces on sloping sections of track, and at natural or managed drainage points across them.

- muddy stretches in water-saturated sections of tracks, often including major disruption of soil structure, and lateral spread of tracks.

- development of lateral spread and multiple parallel tracks, where the track surface is harder to travel on than the adjacent surfaces (e.g., too rocky, muddy, deeply incised, slippery).

- development of informal tracks, including shortcuts on corners and switchbacks, and around focal points such as huts, campsites, attractions, and viewpoints.

Although comparative research is not extensive, it appears that the `foot-action' effects of walkers may in some cases more disruptive to track surfaces (particularly on downhill sections), than are the `wheel-action' effects of mountain bikes. The distinctly unique impact effect of mountain bikes is the linear tyre-track produced, particularly in soft or wet surfaces. When this effect is accompanied by downhill skidding through over-braking, it can contribute to development of `ruts', which over time may form erosive channels for water on sloping sections of track.

However, despite the different types of effects from mountain bikes and walkers, research provides no conclusive evidence that one is any `worse' than the other in the overall degree of impact created. General impact research indicates that the location and condition of the track (particularly with regard to drainage); the number of users overall; and the individual behaviour of these users, are more important for the development of track impacts than are differences in the type of recreation activity (e.g., walking and mountain biking).

1.2.2 Social Impacts of Mountain Biking

The social impacts of mountain biking on the recreation experiences of other users, are interpreted best through the recreation conflict concept. This occurs when the presence and/or behaviour of some users interferes with the achievement of the desired recreation experience `goals' of other users. Extensive research exists on this topic, although virtually none deals specifically with mountain bikes. The general research concludes that conflict is more complex than simply `one activity versus another'. In general however, the clearest examples of conflict are demonstrated in the inter-activity conflicts of `motorised' and `non-motorised' groups. From the limited research, article and commentary sources available, three main types of impact perceptions are clearly associated with mountain biking by other users (e.g., walkers):

- perceptions that mountain biking has too much environmental impact;

- perceptions that mountain biking represents a safety hazard to others; and

- perceptions that mountain biking is an `inappropriate' activity in settings where walking takes place.

The perceptions of environmental impact appear exaggerated on the basis of the research undertaken on such impacts (both for mountain bikes and for recreation use in general). Perceptions of safety hazard from mountain biking appear to reflect concern about the presence of mountain bikes and the possible hazards. In areas of high interaction between walkers and mountain bikes, actual accidents appeared very rare. However, the potential for hazard from the irresponsible behaviour of some riders was widely acknowledged. Generally, both these types of perceptions appeared to be associated with general feelings of disapproval toward mountain biking by walkers, and that it is an `inappropriate' activity on tracks used for walking.

The situations where walkers perceived that mountain biking was `inappropriate' appear to represent a tendency to perceptually associate mountain biking with `motorised' activity groups. In the extensive research documenting perceived conflict between `motorised' and `non-motorised' groups, the differences in activity type represented fundamental differences in user characteristics, behaviour, motivations, preferences, and environmental attitudes. However, despite strong walker perceptions to the contrary, the differences arising between walkers and mountain bike riders were much more subtle. Associating mountain bike riders with the types of characteristics commonly associated with `motorised' users was misleading.

Another finding from this conflict research was that the recreation experiences of `non-motorised' types of users were more susceptible to disturbance than were those of `motorised' types of users. This reflected their different activity motivations and expectations. It appears that this situation exists for walkers, when considering how they feel about real or potential encounters with mountain bikes. There is also some suggestion that over time, as more actual experience of mountain bikes is achieved, some decrease of conflict perceptions does occur. However, research to date is insufficient to draw conclusions.

1.2.3 Demand for Recreation Settings and Experiences

Different activity motivations, and perceptions of the different motivations of other users, were considered to be very important in the development of recreation conflicts. However, almost no research on the characteristics, motivations and preferences of mountain bike riders has been done. When considering how to deal with mountain bike issues, and possible provision of opportunities for mountain biking, managers have had only anecdotal comments and observations to guide their judgements.

From the limited material available, it was apparent that mountain bike riders desired a variety of riding conditions. Important components often included riding in natural forested settings, experiencing scenery, and being challenged. There also appeared to be some variation in these preferences between riders with different levels of off-road riding experience.

Given the importance attributed to the role of activity preferences in the development of recreation conflict, and the need for managers to have information on mountain biking demand, this study was directed at providing a comprehensive view of rider preferences for recreation settings and experiences. Assessment of social impacts was not the focus of this study as other work is currently underway for the Department (Horn, 1994), and this type of information is more readily available from other sources. Assessment of physical impacts was not addressed as it represents a different research field, and is likely to be included in general impact assessment work being considered by the Department.

1.3 Objectives of this study

The objectives of this study were to:

- provide a profile of mountain bike rider characteristics;

- describe their preferences for recreation settings and experiences;

- determine their attitudes toward key management issues; and

- make recommendations for management options and future research needs.

The results from addressing these questions are presented in Sections 3-5, with subsequent discussion and recommendations in Sections 6 and 7. Additional analyses are presented in the Appendices. It is anticipated that those with greater interest in any of these more detailed areas will refer to the appropriate appendix.

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