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I was recently checking out some US Trail Association sites and was hit by how front and centre you are encouraged to join with a paid membership. I had a quick look at UK trail associations and although some have membership models and all offer some method of open donation it was far more subtle and less the default. 

To me, this poses a question about whether there is value in, and if so what are the blockers to, moving to a stronger contribution for UK riders to pay to ride or more pay to support local trail associations?

In terms of is there value of a more organised and paid membership structure, I think personally there is. Today, accredited UK trail associations rely mainly on donations, fundraising events and volunteer graft to maintain the trails we ride. For unofficial trails of which there has been an explosion in the last 5 years, they only have volunteer graft as the predominant source of value to sustain their networks (and so by default offer no landowner agreement or insurance and are in constant threat and liability exposure). 

The model of mountain bike riders joining and paying for trail associations seems more common in the US, where these associations play a crucial role in maintaining and developing trail networks. The average annual cost to join a trail association is approximately $30 to $50. The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) reports that it has approximately 40,000 (worldwide) supporters and 200+ affiliate groups. While this doesn't necessarily mean all of these are paid members, it gives us an idea of the scale of engagement with a major trail association. In the US there also many independent regional and local associations per state like the North Shore Mountain Bike Association with a similar paid membership structure. 

So why not the UK? and could it happen here more? It is probably fair to say that a larger number of riders enjoy the trails versus those who contribute financially to maintain them and I am no saint in this respect occasionally remembering to put in the effort to donate in the donation box in Surrey Hills and very randomly and as rarely sending a donation to the QECP collective. I think the barriers to a more paid-for model in the UK are not insurmountable and mainly revolve around the education of the UK-riding public to shift cultural norms. Let's look at a few challenges.

  1. Cultural Acceptance:
    • To me, this is the biggie. The UK has a strong tradition of public access to land, which might make pay-to-ride models less acceptable compared to the US. This is especially true of Scotland. Overall though we see land access as being free across the UK (when we do get access that is). Asking folk to pay to ride has an intuitive allergic reaction expecting folk to contribute financially to protect and grow our trail network less so. Language and why is so important here. 
    • I also sense we also expect investment to be government-funded and as a result are massively over-reliant on this.
      • Developing Mountain biking in Scotland (DMBinS) has been successful in advocacy and development with Scotland but mostly driven by Government investment to revitalise local economies, tourism, and drive health metrics.
      • Cognation in Wales similarly had financial support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), Welsh Government, and local authorities and had massive success, especially in South Wales (Afan, CwmCarn, Brechfa etc). It was short(sih) lived though. 
      • So, word of caution, could DMBinS go the same way as Cognation if government funding dries up and the wind changes direction? How will the emerging revitalised MB Wales (DMBinW) look to fund its activities? I'd argue that a mixed model is based but a funding model that includes a big focus on contribution from those who are most vested in the sustainability and growth of our network (i.e. us riders) intuitively has less risk than hard-fought handouts. 
  2. Community Size, and Organisation.
    • The size and organization of the UK mountain biking community in comparison to the US also influences the potential success of a membership-based model. We are much smaller, and not as organised and many trail communities are off the grid developing unofficial networks.
    • Without large community affiliation structures what works well is limited to specific projects /areas e.g. The DMBinS Scottish Trail Fund's approach of encouraging donations for specific projects is more culturally aligned with our UK practices.
    • Also, the UK Trail Alliance has emerged bringing 100's UK trail associations together for our greater good and I'd encourage it to add rider membership and contribution beyond volunteering across trail centres as a backlog initiative to review or better still address the wider question of "the long term economic sustainability for the maintenance and growth of the UK trail network". the latter I'm pretty sure is on the cards.
  3. Economic Factors:
    • The economic landscape, including disposable income and willingness to pay for trail access, plays a significant role in a more paid/ contribution model's success. It can't be one size fits all but I argue there is still more disposable cash available than is being contributed today across the UK MTB riding community to support the sustainability and advocacy of UK trail development and growth.

What do you think? Do you envisage a day where riders contribute more in terms of cash to ride? Could our long-term economic sustainability one day be driven predominately by rider investment? or are the cultural barriers too hard? Is it a mixed model with government funding, donations and events the long-term way forward? 

Published: 22/06//2024

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