Most cyclists don’t need any convincing to want to bike the Natchez Trace. The astounding scenery, the winding road, a relatively low speed limit and few cars all make the Trace prime riding locale. Casual riders and intense trainers alike take to the road when the weather is good and even when it is not.
But for some, the Trace has a darker side. In 2004, Gary and Donna Holdiness of Kosciusko, Mississippi received a call that their son had wrecked his car. He did not survive, and neither did two people who were in the car with him. Then, in 2012, Donna received a call that Gary had been hit and killed by a car while on his bike. Dr. Gary Holdiness was cycling close to home on the Natchez Trace.
Donna Holdiness describes herself as “an advocate for the rights of cyclists and motorists alike.” So when Donna set up the Gary Holdiness Cycling Fund to advocate for safer roads, she took both cyclists and motorists into account. “It’s not ‘them’ and ‘us’,” she says. “It’s all of us.” The program is coordinated by the Natchez Trace Parkway Association (NTPA), Adventure Cycling Association and the Natchez Trace Parkway, headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi.
The Gary Holdiness Cycling Fund seeks to address safety problems along the Trace. “There are cyclists, there are motorcyclists, equestrian riders and hikers,” remarked Donna. “How can we enhance the park to be safe for everyone?”
One of the focuses is to try to regain the understanding that the Natchez Trace Parkway, although it is a roadway, is also a national park. “In Mississippi, we have lost the knowledge that it is a park,” commented Donna. Although perhaps not as famous as places like Yosemite, Redwood or Hot Springs National Parks, the Natchez Trace Parkway is managed by the National Park Service and is available to visitors wanting to enjoy camping, motorcycling, hiking, biking, boating, fishing and horseback riding.
“It is a national park. It’s not the bypass to get around Tupelo to get to work in Jackson. Every time you enter it, it is a national park and you are a visitor.”
“Congress established the Natchez Trace Parkway as a part of the National Park Service system in 1938,” stated Natchez Trace Parkway Superintendent Mary Risser, “The Parkway’s narrow lanes are integral to the designed landscape and a leisurely driving experience for which the Parkway was created.”
But the narrow lanes make it difficult for motorists and cyclists to share the road.
In September 2014, three focus groups were held in Ridgeland, Mississippi, Tupelo, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee as part of a “Share the Parkway” campaign created by the NTPA and Adventure Cycling Association. They identified four areas in which safety on the Trace could be improved. The four areas are safety and visibility with enforcement, data and outreach, education and information, and signage and sharrows.
One problem the Gary Holdiness Cycling Fund wants to address is visibility. The Natchez Trace Parkway now has requirements that when a large group of cyclists gets a permit to cycle the Trace, the permit requires cyclists to wear helmets and high visibility clothing and have lights on their bikes.
“It is a widely known safety fact that lights make a difference,” Donna stated. “Car manufacturers are making all the lights automatic now. Cyclists have to get this in their heads that even on a sunny day, lights matter.”
The cycling fund raised $5000 to buy lights and hi-viz vests to give to cyclists. The lights and vests are given to park rangers, and the rangers give them to cyclists who don’t have lights and bright clothing on as they are riding the Trace. If a park ranger passes a cyclist that has both lights and hi-viz clothing, the ranger will stop and give them a roll of clear tape printed with bicycles on it as a small reward for making themselves visible to drivers.
Another problem being addressed by the group is the narrow lane issue. In Tupelo, Mississippi and Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, sharrows and signs have been placed. A sharrow is a shared lane marking, indicating to drivers that the road should be shared with cyclists. The signs state, “Cyclist uses full lane. Change lanes to pass.”
Donna remarked that when the signs first went up, they received a lot of negative feedback because two miles down the road there were signs that said to give a cyclist three feet when passing. “Our signage is better,” she said. “The three foot law is a great thing. But three feet is not enough to pass a car, and it’s sure not enough to pass a bicycle.”
The real purpose of the sharrows and signs is to collect data. Tupelo and Leiper’s Fork are the testing sites for what the Gary Holdiness Cycling Fund hopes will be the new normal for the Trace. But first they have to prove the sharrows and signs are effective, so electronic counters count the number of cars and bicycles traveling through the areas. “Adventure Cycling is helping us with getting the data and keeping us focused on how to do it properly,” commented Donna.
Adventure Cycling Association is a national nonprofit organization that inspires and empowers people to travel by bicycle. “This cyclist safety campaign is the first of its kind in a national park, and Adventure Cycling plans to use it as a model that other national parks can replicate to solve similar issues and promote bicycle tourism,” stated Saara Snow, Travel Initiatives Coordinator for Adventure Cycling.
The Gary Holdiness Cycling Fund is also working on public service announcements that will be aired from Natchez to Nashville.
“As the National Park Service gets ready to celebrate our Centennial in 2016, we are encouraging everyone to rediscover their National Parks, especially those close to home,” stated Superintendent Risser. “Bicycling is one of the many ways visitors can experience the Parkway.”
“The wheels are turning and things are changing on the Trace and in our parks,” said Donna Holdiness. “I think our park is one of the true American parks and it’s still a little bit of American history.”