The Impact of Mountain Biking on Walking

Walking is an excellent low-impact sport that is suitable for most ages and abilities. It is the most popular sport in Australia with 47% of Australians participating – more than three times its closest rival – swimming. If you add bushwalking/hiking at 11.6%, that means 58.6% of Victorians walk. Less than 10% of Victorians cycle and that includes all forms of cycling (National Sports Participation report from Roy Morgan, May 2018).

And yet walking is not even mentioned in the list of recreational activities in the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination Project: Economic Health & Recreation Assessment Draft Report 2019.

Our Mountains are covered with walking tracks that our walkers use. Unfortunately as they are considered “informal” ie not official tracks they will be disregarded and usurped by mountain bike trails. The Warburton Mountain Bike Destination EES documentation claims that all “official” walking trails will be protected. To the project that is one trail on Mount Little Joe and one of Mount Donna Buang. Not likely to be more than 1% of walking trails. When the mountain bikers build “informal” trails the WMBD Project claims we need to turn them into official trails and then add over a hundred kilometres of trails for mountain bikers. Our trails are older and less destructive of the bush but we will have them taken away from us.

Walkers have probably had the greatest adverse impact on their exercise and the greatest conflict with mountain bikers and cyclists than any other group in our area. The ongoing conflict of all cyclists and walkers is not just a phenomena in the Yarra Ranges but everywhere. The Government’s response to this of ‘cannot be avoided’ is inadequate. Walk Australia is advocating for this to change.

Walking has low impact on joints and a very low injury rate. For people over the age of 75 years walking makes up 77% of their physical activity (Walk Australia).

Rather than increase the participation of our current residents in sport in large numbers saving them from diabetes, heart problems and obesity as claimed in the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination Project Economic Health & Recreation Assessment, mountain biking and other bikes are actually decreasing the amount of exercise many locals are getting because competing with bikes on trails is uncomfortable through to dangerous. This is particularly so for our elderly, the disabled, mothers with young children and dog walkers but affects all walkers negatively either stopping them from walking altogether or limiting the times they are walking. There is much discussion among locals of how this is limiting their exercise.

There is a perception that Mountain Biking is safer because it keeps cyclists off roads. The reality is that the medical research is divided over whether Mountain biking is safer than cycling with mountain biking suffering more injuries and both suffering similar severity of injuries. Mountain bikes have both more injuries per hour of exercise than road cyclists and more spinal injuries.

However, injuries to walkers from bikes is not taken into account and such injuries are happening in Warburton both on bush tracks and on the Rail Trail.

Although the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination Project plans to have mostly separate walking and mountain bike trails, there are still many points where mountain bikes cross walking paths and some sections of shared paths. As the mountain bikes are also being encouraged to ride into town this will give a heavier load of bikes on both our footpaths in Warburton and on the shared paths and trails that connect to Warburton.

In Victoria Walks: Victoria Walks, Senior Victorians and walking: obstacles and opportunities, November 2013, it is written:

“The literature review suggests elements that make an environment more walkable, both for seniors and the general population include:
good pedestrian access to shops, services, and public transport
street connectivity

  • an aesthetically pleasant environment
  • quality walking infrastructure
  • perceptions of safety
  • well-positioned and well-designed road crossings
  • traffic calming and limitations on car parking

Perceptions of safety is precisely what we are losing. We are also losing the aesthetically pleasant environment, while traffic and parking problems are an increasing worry. Walking surrounded by bikes is both nerve-wracking and unpleasant – loss of amenity. The great increases in traffic during holidays and weekends along with the filling of every conceivable space for parking makes many residents stay home.

The top ten complaints by seniors includes bicycle riders on shared paths and roads and their two highest requests for mitigation were over the problems of shared pedestrian/bike paths (Victoria Walks, Senior Victorians and walking: obstacles and opportunities, November 2013).

Physical exercise helps to avoid many health problems, especially for our aged:

The Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing report “Recommendations on physical activity for health for older Australians”, summarises the benefits of regular physical activity for older adults as including:

reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers
building and maintaining healthy bones, muscles and joints, thereby reducing the risk of injuries from falls
maintaining or improving physical function and independent living, improving social interactions, quality of life, and reducing depression

These are exactly the diseases that the WMBD Project says it will cure. But a sensible look at the facts will prove that the people in most need of exercise are exactly the ones that will have their exercise curtailed.

Then there are the injuries that our walkers risk being on shared paths with bikes. The Victoria Walks Survey of 2013 showed that 40% of elderly shunned shared paths. The elderly are far more likely to fall and if they do and break a hip, between 25 per cent and 40 per cent would be dead within 12 months according to the survey. I have elderly friends who will not walk the RailTrail and others who have been knocked down by bikes on it – one twice. I also know mothers, dog walkers and horse-riders who have either stopped using the trails or curtailed how often and when they use the trails.

On our bush trails mountain bikes started invading after the release of the Warburton Mountain Bike Feasibility Study and the early advertising of Warburton as the Mountain Bike Capital of Australia becoming a problem in 2015. These mountain bikers use walking only trails with impunity no matter how dangerous that is to walkers. When approached to inform them that the trail is walkers only we have been sneered at and abused.

The Backstairs Track
The Backstairs track was a favourite fitness track for walkers and was heavily used by them. The trail has many advantages. It is possible to get up and down it in 30 to 45 minutes, is very steep so a good short workout but also very visually appealing. It has a carpark and Dolly Grey Park at its base an ideal spot for a sit down and a picnic. It is also an easy walk to Warburton for anyone who would like to finish their walk with a visit to a local cafe. However, in 2015 it was taken over by mountain bikers. The trail is very steep, very narrow and has many blind corners. In places the track is cut into the side of Mt Little Joe and there is nowhere to step off the track to escape any oncoming mountain bike without falling into a steep gully – and that is if you see the bike in time.

Mountain bikers have destroyed signage put up by DELWP requesting them not to use the trail, have taken a chainsaw to the bush either side of the track to make it easier for them to ride down without being lashed by vegetation and have graffitied the bush with blue spray paint at the same time. Mountain bikers say they do not see walkers on the track, however, many walkers stopped walking the trail when they saw the mountain bike tyre prints on the trail. Others only needed one close call to stop. Entreaties to DELWP has resulted in no working solution and the mountain bikers are still on it today as a recent inspection revealed.

This walk is advertised at the Warburton Information Centre as one of the “Seven Walks of Warburton” enticing tourists to take their life into their hands with no prior warning of the danger posed by mountain bikers.

The Rail Trail
There are others who have stopped using the Rail Trail or avoid weekends and holidays because of the crowds of bikes on it. This may be okay for some, but people who work all week have no other option but to share the trail with bikes.
Even on quiet week days the walk is no longer the peaceful walk it used to be. It is necessary to stay alert, listening for bikes coming from behind and be careful to only walk along the very edge of the track, not making any move away from there without stopping to look behind first. I know people who have stopped walking it and others who have been knocked down on it by bikes. Those with poor hearing and those with dogs or young children who haven’t the experience or sense to listen and keep to the left have extra worry and among those to avoid the trail. I have asked many people and there are very few who haven’t at least altered their routine. The bikes also scare the horses walking on the trail and there are few that will take their horses there now. Why are cyclists being given priority over walkers? There is so much talk about how safe it is for cyclists to be off the roads but nothing about how that then makes walkers less safe.

The River Trail
Although the River Trail is a mixed bike and walking trail, bikes never used it until the last few years. Their presence causes serious compaction, erosion and damage to tree roots where the bikes ride. This erosion causes tree root to emerge more highly out of paths creating tripping hazards. The paths are narrow and meeting bikes on creates anxiety. In certain sections bikes have gone off track to avoid steps, creating ramps where they build up extra speed on these narrow paths.
All of these things reduce the amenity for walkers and reduce their likelihood of walking or of walking as much as they might otherwise.

The New Mountain Bike Destination Trails
The trails that are planned will increase this process of alienating walkers. There are plans for a very large number of trails. I have walked the survey markers and am appalled at the amount of them and at how seriously they will affect the amenity of other users. Although the trails will be separate from pre-existing walking trails, many of them are right beside favourite paths like the Aqueduct Trail and the Mt Little Joe Contour Track. The beauty of walking is the peace and tranquility with the sounds of birds singing. Having mountain bikers tearing around right next to you will ruin this. If the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination Project chooses to put up screens as mentioned in the “Mitigation” section of their documentation, they will screen the walker from viewing the bush and ruin the walk anyway. Also, we have been advised by mountain bikers that they have a tendency to whoop, holler and call to each other when riding – Mountain Bike Destinations are not quiet. Add to that: ecological studies show the speed of mountain bikes scare away wildlife to a degree that walkers don’t.

The trails not only travel along the two above-mentioned tracks, but they also zigzag back and forth over wide areas in a way that makes multiple tracks, side by side with little space between them – layer upon layer of them. With the three metre of bush clearance on cross- country mountain bike trails this is also layer upon layer of bush clearance where in the tightest zigzags there will be little to no bush left. With the looser zigzags it still represents and enormous loss of vegetation.

This is happening above the Aqueduct Trail and both above and below the Mt. Little Joe Contour Track. This Contour Track is only lightly wooded so the zigzagging trails will be visible for over a kilometre below – a sea of them. There are also multiple points where mountain bike trails cross over walking trails, making for points of danger, inconvenience and loss of amenity. The project also chose to put two trails crossing this track at the best position for views. Richard Morrell of Cox Architects who designed the trails, said that he had deliberately chosen the best views for them. Well, he has taken them away from the other users of the trail. This one section is so stunning that walkers often stop to admire it and to take photos. With the two new crossings they will no longer be able to do this safely or with pleasure.

There has been no attempt to reconcile the amenity for other users. Even the removal of the mountain bike trails off the pre-existing tracks in the Warburton Mountain Bike Feasibillity Study 2013, was because of the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) Gold Standard requirements, not for the safety or amenity of other users.

There is also feedback from Derby in Tasmania that walkers have lost trails and amenity because of mountain bikers.