By Elise Kaplan
—Linda Thorne and Lanny Tonning have a proposal for Albuquerque: Create a new kind of zoning to encourage business development aimed at bicyclists.
But what began as an effort to boost an already thriving recreational scene has raised questions about the unintended consequences of bike-centric commerce.
The vision the couple paints in an active change.org petition is idyllic. “You’re riding down the bike path away from the frenzied traffic and enjoying the great outdoors. … You’re conducting everyday business, crossing errands off your list, doing many of the things you’ve traditionally done in your car—on your bike.”
The idea grew in their back yard. Tonning and Thorne, who own Old Town Farm, decided in the fall to take advantage of their quiet, shaded property’s placement along the city bike path. They created Bike-In Coffee, offering fresh-brewed coffee and food made from homegrown produce. They marketed it as a pit stop for cyclists.
“We realized there’s a cycling community here, and we can grow stuff from our garden and promote the produce,” says Thorne. “It was purely accidental, but it just worked great.”
As their venture grew, Thorne and Tonning say they began to wonder if other businesses along the bike path could also profit from pedal traffic by offering spaces to rest, meet friends and shop. The couple reached out to local bike stores, city planners, open space officials and City Councilor Isaac Benton to float the idea of creating what they’ve come to call bike-in zoning.
This special designation is intended to create low-impact, small-scale, commercial activity, says Thorne—much like Bike-In Coffee, which sees about 150 customers each weekend. “If you’re riding along the bike path, and you don’t know it’s there, you’re not going to know. We’ve really been designing this to make it as obscure and unobtrusive as it could possibly be.”
With the help of attorney Bill Kraemer, Thorne and Tonning began drumming up interest for bike-in zoning through the farm’s website and encouraging customers to express their support for the idea.
Wrenches in the Works
The low-key nature of Old Town Farm’s coffee-and-snacks venture was not quiet enough to escape notice of the New Mexico Department of Transportation. On June 14, the state determined that the businesses’ direct access from the bike path was illegal. Officials locked the gate between the path and the farm property, restricting customers to an entrance off Montoya Road.
The state owns the right-of-way along highways to prevent businesses from building their own access, says Timothy Parker, an engineer with the department. Allowing one business access to a highway right-of-way would open the floodgates for others, making it difficult to control incoming and outgoing traffic, he says.
Although the bike path is separated from I-40 by a sound wall barrier, he adds, the trail still has to be regulated as though cars are involved. “The same rules apply legally.”
Isaac Eastvold, a cyclist and activist, says he grew concerned about future implications of bike-in zoning after he visited Old Town Farm in March.
“Old Town Farm is a very unusual circumstance,” he says. “It’s great if you want to go in there, cool your heels, enjoy the shade, talk to nice people and have a friendly gathering. But come in off Montoya. Don’t bring traffic in off the I-40 right-of-way and set precedent for the entire bike trail and maybe for the state.”
Michael Jensen of the Amigos Bravos river conservation organization attended a May 20 bike-in zoning steering committee meeting as a private citizen. Also present were Tonning, Thorne, Kraemer and representatives from Albuquerque’s city planning office and Open Space bike trails program.
Jensen says he fears if the city allows A-1 or agriculturally zoned properties to sell products along the bike path, any number of businesses could crop up, resulting in a commercial district along the Bosque. Most properties lining the river are zoned A-1, a designation that does not allow for routine retail or service activity.
“This is no longer about Old Town Farm or the warm and fuzzy bike-in zoning where people are riding their bicycles with a couple of baskets to go get some flowers,” says Jensen. “This is about biking trails as a Trojan horse to redefine what A-1 zoning is and allow commercial activity, which is presently not allowed. That to me is really, really disturbing.”
Thorne and Tonning say they’re optimistic policymakers can find a way to create bike-friendly regulations so cyclists and runners can make stops along the bike trails without compromising the character of the surrounding area.
“We’ve had very positive reactions from every elected official we’ve talked to because they see it as putting Albuquerque on the map as very bicycle friendly,” says Tonning. She acknowledges that no other city she knows of has bike-in zoning. “All we know is the city built bicycle paths everywhere, and if people have a residence along the bike path and want to do a limited commercial thing, we don’t see any problem with that.”