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Thoughts on Sunriver, Oregon (home of the best bikeway network in North America)

Posted by on July 31st, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Kids can pedal without a care in Sunriver.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

I just returned from a week in Sunriver, Oregon; a place unknown to many that just so happens to have, hands down, the best bikeway network in North America. Granted, it’s just a small vacation community (nestled in a valley adjacent to the Deschutes River about 15 miles south of Bend); but it boasts a 33 mile bicycle pathway system that connects every part of its 3,300 acres.

Developed as a master-planned community in 1968, Sunriver consists of a resort lodge, golf courses, a “Village Mall” with shops and restaurants, and over 4,000 private homes. But to me, the most impressive attribute of this popular vacation spot is its bike paths. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where the entire network is separated from automobiles. The paths are fully signed and maps are available everywhere (including on kiosks on the paths themselves).

A two-way bike tunnel under a road in Sunriver.

Many more bikes than cars at the Village Mall.

Separation equals safety.

The crossings are tamed.

Teens without helmets, sipping a drink (and yes, the truck stopped).

While Sunriver is obviously much different in character and land use than an urban area, it’s still interesting to see how this pathway network has impacted how people get around. As I rode the paths with my kids, my mom, aunt, cousins, nieces, and nephews, I made a list of things that stood out.

Everyone — from kids to grandparents — rides. This is probably the most special thing I see. Grandparents with their grandkids out for a bike ride; family units pulling trailers with toddlers and bikes with baby seats; and packs of smiling teenagers racing off to their next activity. Sunriver has the heralded “8-80” goal — a term planners and activists use as a rallying cry for safe bikeways — nailed down.

The vast majority of people do not wear helmets. Most kids under 16 had them on (it is Oregon law after all), but the majority of adults don’t wear them. To me, this is due to more than simply a care-free, ‘I’m on vacation!’ mentality. People feel there’s no need for helmets. And why would they? Cars are not in the picture at all while riding in Sunriver. Which brings me to my next point…

Auto traffic is tame and courteous. There’s a 25 mph blanket speed limit for all the roads in Sunriver; but that’s just the start. The roads are defined by large traffic circles with severe angles so that people are forced to slow down. The roads are relatively narrow and there’s never more than one lane in each direction. The larger takeaway though, is how courteous people are of bike traffic. While most of Sunriver’s path network is completely separated and some crossings are made via tunnels, there are some places where the paths cross the road. Where this happens, I observed without failure that the people in cars stopped to let people on bikes cross.

Bike parking is abundant. With so much demand, the businesses and attractions at Sunriver do not skimp on bike parking. A new aquatic and recreation facility urges people to bike and boasts over 400 bike parking spaces. The Village Mall has bike parking everywhere you look.

People respect the rules. I saw very little meanness or rude riding on the Sunriver paths. People pass courteously and I never saw someone blow right through a road crossing. People are required to walk bikes through the tunnels. It’s annoying; but I’d say about 98% of riders followed the rule. To me this validates one of my main principles about bicycling behavior — that respect for the law and for others goes up in direct proportion with the quality of the bikeway.

The paths have widespread support from homeowners. Getting around by bike is so woven into the fabric of the place that not only are the bike paths non-controversial, homeowners themselves elect to pay annual fees to help maintain them. In fact, the Sunriver Owners Association is in the process of rebuilding and repaving the entire bike path network. I also noticed a letter to the editor in this month’s issue of the Sunriver Scene newspaper from a homeowner who was concerned about the quality of bike paths near his home.

“I am increasingly concerned about the cracks running across miles and miles of bike paths,” the concerned homeowner wrote, “These cracks make riding unsafe as well as causing potential damage to our bikes. It would be detrimental to the reputation of Sunriver to have bike accidents caused by the cracks.”

That letter says a lot: Make bikeways that are as safe and efficient as driving and suddenly everyone becomes a bike advocate.

While thinking about this story, I came across a research paper on Sunriver that focused on how it was planned with strict environmental codes and ethics (PDF here). The researcher noted another way the path network has impacted Sunriver:

“The Sunriver bike paths act as another important thread that stitches the community together. Their accessibility and ability to take you anywhere in Sunriver means they are extensively used by the locals. By going out and traveling by bike, all participants are experiencing the local environment first hand, and probably running into neighbors along the way. This constant use of the bike paths means residents see on a regular basis whether the surrounding environment is faring well. Are the banks eroding? Are there suddenly no longer waterfowl? Is there trash or dead trees? People will notice because they are outside and feel responsible for where they live.”

Even with its limitations in terms of comparisons to an urban area, the Sunriver case proves several points about the importance — and the impact of — connected, separated, and efficient bikeways. Now, if we could just get everyone who visits Sunriver to demand the same riding experience in their own neighborhood we might get somewhere.

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52 thoughts on “Thoughts on Sunriver, Oregon (home of the best bikeway network in North America)”

  1. Of course, US97 itself is now a freeway between Sunriver and Bend, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

    1. Avatar Tigue says:

      Their is talk of the USFS paving FS road # 41 (for bikes only) that would get you 2/3 the way to Bend by bike unless of course you wanted to take
      the awesome Deschutes River Mtn. Bike Trail.

  2. Experienced this joy for the first time myself this last spring. It’s oddly utopian.

  3. Avatar Dillon says:

    The paths are very nice. But they kind of have to be. From what I remember it’s illegal to ride on the roads and no rollerblading, or skateboarding is allowing anywhere in Sunriver.

    1. Avatar Glen says:

      That’s my biggest gripe about Sunriver. If you want to ride fast, for fun or training, you’re in trouble; you can’t exactly hold a 21mph pace on the path.

    2. Avatar davemess says:

      But if you’re going to Bend you should be going there to Mountain Bike!

  4. Avatar Patrick H. Croasdaile says:

    Mixed thoughts. On the one hand, Kudos to the resort community that made this happen. Families cannot talk about visiting Sunriver without mentioning how fun it was to ride bikes there. That’s a win for everyone.

    On the other hand, I’ve noticed some auto-hostility towards bicyclists in the vicinity of Sunriver NOT using the bikeways. I usually ride near Sunriver when I’m staying at Elk Lake. Sunriver provides a nice place to fill up on water and get a snack. I’ve noticed that when I’m riding on Century Drive in the mountains, auto-traffic is super-respectful. Lots of berth when they pass, waves, smiles, etc. Each time I approach Sunriver, however, auto-traffic becomes more aggressive and well, suburban. One time, my riding partner and I made the mistake of riding the inner roads of Sunriver while we were looking for a place to eat. This was done out of ignorance, not purpose as it was our first time there. While the bikeways at Sunriver are expansive, they are not the most direct way to get from point a to b. I was shocked by the dirty looks and negative comments I received from people in cars. My favorite was an old lady in a big sedan who said from behind blue-blockers “get on the BIKE path”. (I overheard later on that it was ‘illegal’ to ride the roads around Sunriver. Is this true?)

    Granted this is my own personal experience, and others’ experiences may be different, but it has certainly shaped my own perception of the Sunriver community. I can’t help but think that the Sunriver bike paths have the effect of furthering the overwhelming suburban belief that bicycles and cars should always be separated. (And please don’t take that statement as my endorsing purely vehicular-bicycle-infrastructure).


  5. Avatar gl. says:

    I would love to visit Sun River — if the Bend Breeze offered bike transport without a boxing requirement. I look forward to the day the Breeze adds a bike rack like the Tillamook bus, the Salem bus, the Canby bus, and all the other intercity buses in the Bend area.

    1. Avatar Art Fuldodger says:

      yeah, what’s with the Breeze? I’ve enquired about this, and was told that they couldn’t possibly carry bikes on the outside of the bus (like 99% of other transit agencies do) because there’s a lot of gravel on Hwy 26 over Mt. Hood in the winter and the paint on someone’s frame might conceivably be damaged… This is really a shame, because there’s such great riding opportunities around Bend.

      1. Avatar A.K. says:

        Couldn’t they secure some sort of cover over the bikes?

        I’ve seen people with car roof racks that have “bike thongs” (my made up name) over them – they look like stretchy fabric that secures over the handlebars and under the front wheel, to keep stuff from bouncing up off the road and damaging the bikes.

  6. Avatar JM says:

    Though the paths are lovely, if you want to ride faster than 10mph, you are hosed in Sunriver. it is certainly no place to ride for a work out. The police will not allow any cyclists on the roads. Thus, I have not opted to ride in Sunriver for over a decade.

  7. Avatar Zimmerman says:

    Another important part of what’s going on in Sunriver is single track trail access for bicycles. You can ride out your front door and use the bike paths to access the Deschutes River Trail which takes you to Bend via single-track. From there you have literally hundreds of miles of trail access. It’s incredible. I stayed in Sunriver with a group that had an event at Mt. Bachelor and each day when they headed home I rode my bike back instead. It was outstanding.

    1. I can vouch for this too! I did a lot of singletrack riding on this trip right from my front door. It sure was nice to warm up and cool down after a good ride on these paths.

  8. Avatar JAT in Seattle says:

    I wish you hadn’t relied on the simple shortcut in the photo caption above “separation equals safety” – it may contribute significantly to safety (or it might not) but to say separation equals safety is to imply there can be no safety without separation, and we aren’t ever going to have separation everywhere.

    Sunriver was plopped down planned and wholesale on otherwise completely undeveloped land (my PDX-based uncle was one of the initial architects on the project), and it’s a private development; they could impose whatever speed limit and build whatever infrastructure they wanted. Is it utopian? Sure, but it’s not a realistic model for retrofitting into existing communities, no matter their size, and it’s not the only way to engender safety.

    I get your point about how widespread use throughout the (admittedly self-selected) diverse constituency leads to buy-in on the value of maintaining quality cycling infrastructure – that’s totally great.

    1. thanks JAT,

      I hear you about that caption; but in that specific context it’s absolutely accurate. Having these paths fully separated from auto traffic makes them vastly safer than an on-road facility like a standard bike lane. And, it’s a caption, nothing more.

  9. Avatar PeterH says:

    Do they plow the snow off the bike paths in the winter?

    1. yes. I’ve been there in full snow and we still got around on the bike paths.

    2. Avatar Tigue says:

      Yes they do- It actually surprises me how much effort they go to keeping the paths clear.

  10. Avatar dan says:

    There are lots of good reasons to wear helmets even when you don’t think you’re going to get hit by a car. I’ve had a couple of close calls and wrecks with no autos involved at all, and I would much rather have one on than not. Besides, they keep the sun off your head (in the summer), and block the rain (in the winter).

    1. Avatar RonC says:

      I’ve ridden down a steep MUP and had a stick flip up into the spokes of my front wheel, freezing it against the fork while my bike and body rotated over the top of the axle. Very glad for a helmet that day.

    2. Avatar Ron G. says:

      I don’t know about that sun protection. I discovered that my head’s natural sun protection was growing thin when I started coming back from bike rides with an itchy head. That’s when I realized I was getting a sunburn through the vents.

  11. Avatar Bikesalot says:

    I found Sunriver very frustrating by bike. Being forced onto the paths exclusively meant it took forever to get anywhere – they are NOT designed for speed. The crossings are frequently ungainly for oversized bikes, and I had a very distinct feeling of being watched by Big Brother. At least they are fixing the cracks, which had become significant. Otherwise a nice place, but pretty much out of my normal price range.

  12. Ha! We were at Sunriver the same week. We probably passed on the trails and never knew it. Too bad…

    My family loves Sunriver because they feel safe cycling there. They are separated from the cars, and even at the crossings where there are not bike tunnels, the cars yield the right of way to bicycles (which they do not have to do unless the bikes are being walked).

    Those riding bikes are also respectful of the many people walking on the paths. Lots of “on your left” and “you’re okay” makes things move smoothly.

    The Village is free of people riding bikes. On the weekends, there will be some, but they are the people who haven’t yet learned that “thank you for walking your bike” means exactly that.

    There are some paths with the transverse cracks on them, but there are many miles of brand new pavement and workers were squirting tar in cracks in the northern section.

    I wonder whether Sunriver could work elsewhere. I know my family would love it!

  13. Avatar Brian says:

    And did you notice that nobody locks their bikes?

  14. Avatar Jeff says:

    those paths have been there for the better part of 30 years. what took so long? I remember riding on them as a kid. I never found those paths all that inviting to be honest – typically riddled with walkers and runners and somewhat pointless if you wanted to get anywhere outside of Sunriver.

  15. Avatar RonC says:

    I think what Sunriver is trying to do is a nice idea, and works reasonably well for timid recreational riders. But I found it annoying when I was there earlier this summer for the Pacific Crest Sports Festival. The tunnels had signs posted instructing you to walk rather than ride through them, and there are areas around the lodge with signs posted “no bikes beyond this point”. What’s that about? And if you don’t have a map, the layout of the roads and paths is not intuitive. (It took me a while to realize there were map dispensers sprinkled about.) I’d rather ride on the roads than trust cars to stop when a path crosses the road. Riding at any speed, trying to get from point A to point B efficiently, is difficult when the paths are filled with walkers or slower erratic riders. Oh, and don’t forget the cattle guards you have to ride over to got to and from Hwy. 97 on Cottonwood. Maybe if I became more familiar with the paths I’d feel differently, but I wasn’t all that taken with the experience.

  16. Avatar Bike Bend says:

    As a resident of Central Oregon I’m glad that Sunriver has its amazing bike path network and that Black Butte Ranch (just west of Sisters) has a similar network of bike paths but Bend itself has a very long way to go to get to anything close to Portland where one can use a bicycle to commute or run errands. We need more bicycle-savvy Portlanders to bring their bikes to Bend when they visit and use them not to just rock the nearby single track or tour the roads but to also use them to get around Bend and, even more importantly, to tell the local politicians to make Bend a more bicycle friendly community.

    1. Avatar gl. says:

      If you can convince the Breeze to instal bike racks, I will take the first equipped bus to Bend! 🙂

      1. Avatar gl. says:

        ack. “install.” what i wouldn’t give for an “edit” button.

    2. Avatar Paul says:

      When I lived in Bend in the early and mid 90’s all my friends rode bikes. We all lived right around downtown and on the westside so it was easy to get around on our single speed cruiser bikes, and the bar would have 20 bikes right outside hanging on the fence. No locks and of course no lights 🙂

  17. Avatar Bill says:

    Townsend, TN (just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park) has a similar network, and it’s also a neat little resort town like Sunriver. Instead of sidewalks, this is all you need there.

  18. Avatar Jim Lee says:

    Where paths cross roads in SR there are SHARK’S TEETH pointing down the paths, meaning that cyclists must give way to motorists, thus teaching some manners to PORTLAND SCHUSSBOOMERS, one might hope.

    Best bike for SR paths is a fixie geared about 60 inches, which is plenty for climbing the short steep grades and controlling speed on descents as well. There is one place on the south path with a downgrade over 10 percent and a sharp blind right hander at the bottom. One must ride there, and everywhere in SR, expecting to encounter dogs, kids, strollers, walkers at every moment, and be prepared to give them right-of-way.

    Cycling in SR is about transport and community. It is not designed for ego trips.

    1. Avatar Brad says:

      Thank you for sharing your ego trip with us.

  19. Avatar grumpcyclist says:

    Best bikeway network in the US? Maybe. Best in North America? No way. The Route Verte in Quebec is HUGE and has thousands of miles of trails. Not all of them are offroad, but many of them are, and they’re fantastic.

  20. Avatar Matthew says:

    Boulder is better.

  21. Avatar jason says:

    I found Sunriver very frustrating by bike. Being forced onto the paths exclusively meant it took forever to get anywhere – they are NOT designed for speed.
    Recommended 1

    Nor should they be in a residential development. The majority of old ladies on their way to the market or little kids headed for the waterpark have no interest in racing you.

    1. Avatar GlowBoy says:

      It’s not about racing. It’s about getting where you’re going in a reasonable time. To get somewhere on a Bike in Sunriver, you have to take an invariably longer route, at reduced speed, and dodging tons of slow recreational users. It would be MUCH quicker to get where you’re going if you were allowed to ride on the roads, but that’s illegal.

      I used to visit Sunriver often when my friends had a 2nd home there. I’m sure the bike paths are nice, but it always cheesed me off knowing that bikes are illegal on the roads, and that you are FORCED to take the paths. And BTW the paths don’t parallel the roads, so you if you want to get around by bike you have to learn a completely different grid.

      What really amazes me is that Sunriver gets away with this. I know it’s a private development, but it’s also an incorporated city. I thought that state traffic laws applied everywhere. How has Sunriver managed to get exempted from the universal traffic laws that (with the exception of some limited access freeways) grant bikes the right to use the same roads as cars?

      1. Avatar JAT in Seattle says:

        Well put! It’s not about racing, but the flip side of the pro-infrastructure (and dare I say Cycle Chic) school of thought sometimes seems to be that if you’re trying to get where you’re going at a moderately fast clip, you’re being anti-social, potentially a danger to others (and definitely not looking as pretty as you ought to…).

        1. Avatar jason says:

          What constitutes a “decent speed” is completely subjective. It takes a long time to drive around Sunriver, as well, what with all those traffic circles and meandering roads. The paths (and the streets) are designed as neighborhood circulators, not Euclidean straightaways.

          And furthermore, it’s a vacation resort community. Relax. You’re not running late for a meeting.

  22. Avatar pixie says:

    Like many things regarding law, private land, and homeowner’s associations, Sunriver’s relation to the Oregon Vehicle Code is complex. Sunriver is a private development with a homeowner’s association. It is not an incorporated city in Oregon, nor is it part of another incorporated city.

    Under ORS 801.305, subsection 2: “For the purpose of enforcing traffic offenses contained in the Oregon Vehicle Code, except for ORS 810.230, “highway” includes premises open to the public that are owned by a homeowners association and whose boundaries are contained within a service district established on or before July 1, 2002, under ORS 451.410 to 451.610.”

    The Sunriver Service District was established on July 1, 2002.

  23. Avatar CaptainKarma says:

    Sounds like a trailer park with all the rules. Columbia, MD is a planned community with trails all over interconnecting it’s little villages. A “real” community as in not a resort. No restrictions on biking, roller-blading, boarding, whatever.

  24. Avatar davemess says:

    I have been to sunriver a few times, and while kind of nice, the trails are kind of confusing, and I really worry that they perpetuate this stereo type of “bikes don’t belong on the roads” and “bikes are only for vacations and recreation”.

    FYI, best time of year to go to Sunriver is the fall, when it is VERY empty, with no skiers yet, and all the summer folks gone. We were there for the Cross Crusade weekend over Halloween last year and we were the only occupied house on our street.

  25. Avatar A.K. says:

    I have been to sunriver a few times, and while kind of nice, the trails are kind of confusing, and I really worry that they perpetuate this stereo type of “bikes don’t belong on the roads” and “bikes are only for vacations and recreation”.

    I was going to make that exact point. Hopefully people remember how fun it is to bike around when they return to Portland (or wherever they’re from).

    As for myself, even though the paths are slow and don’t offer quick access, they are fun for an easy cruise around. Last time I was in Sun River I rode up to Mt. Bachelor, so of course I had to start/end my ride on the Sunriver paths. I found the crowds weren’t too bad once you got away from the pools/shopping center.

  26. Avatar Jim Lee says:

    Yes, it really is a blast to cycle on the roads at SR, which are smooth, fast, direct.

    And not always illegal!

    Last year they deconstructed the east side (Beaver Drive) path with a right-sized asphalt-eater, so I HAD TO RIDE THE ROAD from 8 Timber Lane to the Village.

    Maybe we should put cars on the paths and bikes on the road!

  27. Considering I was there the same weekend you were Jonathan I would like to chip in my 2 cents worth.

    I agree with the statement about the bumpiness of the bike paths it seemed that about every 100 feet I was having to slow down to not rattle my body to pieces but overall I was extremely impressed with how much fun it was to ride around Sunriver on those bike paths.

    If they corrected the bumpiness problem it would be a fantastic place to ride a bike.

  28. Avatar Ron G. says:

    I took off from the Village at Sunriver to ride to Bend along the Deschutes River Trail. I just wanted to get to the trailhead, and the roads would have provided a simple, fast, direct route. I was shocked to find that I wasn’t allowed to do that. Instead, I had to follow a complicated route with about five times as many intersections. Sure, there were kiosks to help me along–and I had to use every damn one of them. It was frustratingly slow.

    These paths aren’t there because the developers like bicycles. Rather, they suggest that Sunriver sees bicycles as a problem in search of a solution. If you need evidence that it’s a passive-aggressive approach, try riding on the roads–you’ll experience the aggression quickly.

    1. Hi Ron,

      I disagree with your premise here. I think Sunriver owners/planners love bicycles. The path network and other bike-centric elements of the development make that case pretty solidly. I think they’ve simply come to the conclusion that overall, to encourage efficient and safe travels for everyone, there should be full separation of modes. I find that in the context of Sunriver, it works just fine. I did a lot of mountain biking, fully suited up in spandex, while I was there too and enjoyed the nice roll-out and cool-down the paths provided me. It was much more pleasant than being on the other roads. Ideally, yes, I would like to be welcomed on my bike on those roads; but I find the situation in Sunriver to work well.

      1. Jonathan, I agree with you. Sunriver is designed to appeal to the “interested but concerned”[1] cyclists, not the “strong and fearless.” I think they’ve succeeded marvelously.


  29. Lenny Anderson Lenny Anderson says:

    Check out the bike path network in the town of N. Bonneville in the Gorge. Built in the late 70’s when the 2nd powerhouse was built at the dam and the town was moved. Its got underpasses, fully separated paths, and easy access to open space and wildlife areas. But its also a totally suburban layout.

  30. Avatar J.M. Thomson says:

    I have ridden numerous types of bikes through the years at Sunriver – Mtn Bikes, a recumbent bike, a stand up Trikke 12 and back to Mtn. Bikes. The only complaint I have is the not being able to ride through the trails under the roadways because you have to walkd down steep inclines to enter them. If you have slick cycling shoes on, watch out. Also, FYI, a 4-5-6 year old on a small bike with training wheels is not ready to ride all of Sunrive with Mom/Dad who have a 26 or 29 inch wheeled Mtn. Bike. Your a real mother/father of the year when your at the very back and farthest away from the lodge when you son/daugher has bonked and now your upset at them and yelling. Plus, pedestrian’s have the right of way but is it really necessary they walk 3-4 abrest. No. Visited Sunriver for the first time in May this year. It was cold but hardly no one was there on the bike paths. Witnessed Eagles along the river for the first time.

  31. Avatar Cory P says:

    Please delete.

    1. to be clear Cory P, this project is not on Sunriver property. Most of the land is USFS.

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