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Bicyclists ride on Missoula’s Riverfront Trail in March 2013.

HANNAH PERKINS/Missoulian

Michael Kreisberg lives near the trail on the south side of the Clark Fork River in Missoula, and he likes to walk his dog, Misha, along the path.

On his way, he sees blue heron and beavers, and sometimes, he stops to talk with friends. Quiet strolls are just one way people use that path.

“One of my concerns has always been the way people use the riverfront trail,” Kreisberg said. “It’s a marvelous way to get through town and avoid the road. I drive as little as possible. At the same time, it’s a shared walkway.”

Runners take the trail to train for track. Bicycle commuters zip to the University of Montana. Pet owners walk dogs. Parents push baby strollers. And data from annual counts done by the city show the number of bikers and walkers hitting the path is growing at a clip, in one case, as much as 200 percent in one year.

As the numbers and types of trail users grow, the inevitable clashes between quick commuters and meditative wanderers will increase, too. So looking ahead, city officials are searching for the best ways to manage the popularity of one of Missoula’s backbones for transportation and recreation.

“Really, what Michael is talking about is, we’re having a lot of success. Now what?” said Donna Gaukler, director of the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department.

At Parks and Rec, Gaukler is investigating “best practices” for high-traffic trails. In the upcoming city budget, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir has asked for five new community service officers whose jobs would include patrolling the trails. And Mayor John Engen said the mix of users means everyday courtesies remain a good notion.

“If people would be just a little more courteous to one another, it’d be a good thing,” Engen said.

***

The city of Missoula has surveyed the number of bicyclists, pedestrians and others who use “active transportation” across town for the past three years. And counts at three different points on the south side of the river mostly show more and more traffic on the trail. (See related box, and see this story online for more data.)

“The trend is definitely upward each year, with some counts even more than doubling,” said Lewis Kelley, a transportation planner for the city of Missoula.

From 2010 to 2011, bicycle use went up 85 percent at the Madison Street crossing, and it jumped another 39 percent last year, according to data from the city. Pedestrian counts at that point skyrocketed, going up 196.6 percent in 2011 compared to the year before; last year, the number of walkers increased another 72.3 percent.

“There’s a lot of people that have been working on getting extra infrastructure and programs in place to encourage people to get out and walk and be healthy in those kind of manners,” Kelley said. “So I think they’re really being effective, and we’re getting a big bang for our investment.”

***

The city has slowly been linking Missoula’s trails together, and the Madison Street Bridge and trail crossing on the south side is regularly the busiest area for active transportation users, second only to the campus entrance at Arthur Avenue, Gaukler said.

“The more we’re able to make connections and extend the trail, the busier it gets,” Gaukler said. “Also, the more successful we are at encouraging people to live active lifestyles and use active transportation, the busier it gets.”

Now, her focus is on researching “best practices” for trails that see high traffic, and Gaukler is looking at the way other bike-friendly communities such as Madison, Wis., Portland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo., manage their paths.

Should the city paint a stripe down the middle of the riverfront trail, for instance? Gaukler said there are different schools of thought: Some people believe the line helps delineate traffic, but others believe the stripe makes the trail look more like a road – and encourages cyclists to speed.

Parks and Rec is still working on the direction that seems right for Missoula, for the stripe and other matters, she said. The best surface? Signs? A bicycle speed limit? Rule enforcement? Education?

Gaukler said she is confident that at some point, the trail will need to be widened or a second trail will need to be added that parallels the first. Where the money will come from is another question, but in the meantime, she’s happy to see more people hit the trails.

“We’re thrilled in one way, and we know we have issues to resolve because we’ve been successful in getting people outdoors and active,” Gaukler said.

***

One request Kreisberg has is that cyclists who want to go fast move to the road instead of zooming past pedestrians on the trail, sometimes with cellphones in hand. Often, he said, bikers ride with no hands on the handlebars at all.

“And they’re going fast, and it’s crazy,” Kreisberg said. “I wish the cops would give them tickets, not because I want to see people punished, but because I want to see people behave better (and be) educated.”

The ban on driving with a cellphone applies to cyclists, but Chief Muir said he does not believe the ordinance applies to trails. However, in this year’s budget requests, Muir included five more officers whose jobs – in part – will be to patrol parks, trails and open spaces.

The officers are part of the city and University of Montana’s quality of life commitment, Mayor Engen said. (See related story). He said he believes these officers are “a little bit overdue,” and he anticipates the cost will be in the $250,000 to $300,000 range depending on other budget requests.

“If your choice is to send an officer on a burglary call or a couch on a boulevard, we make that choice, and it’s the burglary,” Engen said. “But folks still have an expectation that we enforce that rule. And I think that’s fair.”

He plans to present his budget on April 10 to the Missoula City Council.

The enforcement officers will issue citations, but they won’t carry firearms or have the power of arrest, Chief Muir said. Rather, he said, they will be comparable to civilian crash investigators or downtown quality of life officers.

“I felt it was time for us to quit putting guns and badges on every single person who was out there in the field when a lot of things that we’re being asked to do don’t require guns and badges,” Muir said.

He said a wide variety of people use the parks and trails in Missoula, and it’s possible for people to share those spaces. The officers will help with a variety of issues, including animal control matters in the city, abandoned vehicles, traffic at crash sites in the winter, and myriad problems on the trails, Muir said.

***

While trail use is growing, the system isn’t finished just yet. City Councilman Alex Taft sees future pieces the city could build, and he’s particularly interested in trails used for transportation, such as the one on the south side of the river.

“It needs to be paved for that reason, that it’s transportation,” Taft said. “Therefore, Parks can clear it of snow in the winter, which they did a nice job of.”

Some bikers don’t feel comfortable riding in the street, even in a bike lane, he said. So it’s important to have trails to encourage those people to keep traveling on their bicycles.

Taft, a former transportation planner himself, already sees ways Missoula can keep adding to its trail connections, and he has his eye on a portion of the north side of the Clark Fork River. He would like to see a link from the Madison Street bicycle-pedestrian bridge to the Van Buren Street bridge.

Private land sits between the bridges, but Taft said an idea from his tenure as transportation director in Wilmington, Del., might work here. In Wilmington, he helped install a boardwalk of sorts with proper supports around a piece of private property. A similar project between those two pedestrian bridges in Missoula could create the connection.

“It’s just like highways. You make it more convenient, and more people use it, which is a good thing, I think,” Taft said.

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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Reporter for the Missoulian