Does Strava Encourage Illegal Trail Riding?

🔖 cycling 

I recently received the following email in my Trail Care inbox (names and locations removed):

Hi, I am a long time mtb rider. I am also on the Board of Directors for the local open space advocacy/trails stewardship group. The actual owner of the surrounding open space is the county. Like other areas, we have a ton illegal trails. Many of the authorities see Strava as a negative in that riders publicly post their illegal trail rides which leads others to follow. There is also the perception that Strava motivates riders to break speed limits to get KOMs. Have you run into this anywhere else and how do you get around this?

This is a controversial subject within the mountain biking community, especially within the advocacy circles. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about Strava. Some people love it, some hate it, any everyone has their theories.

What nobody has is any data to back up their arguments. None.

Nobody can prove that Strava encourages illegal trail riding. You’d have to hang at the bottom of an illegal trail for months and ask every rider where they found out about it, compare it to months of data prior to Strava coming into existence, and even then you’d only (maybe) be able to come to a conclusion for that one trail.

You can’t prove that Strava doesn’t encourage illegal trail riding either - but not being able to prove a negative does not prove a positive.

When people say that Strava encourages illegal riding what they might really be saying is that the narrative makes sense to them. It is also very easy to blame a scapegoat, Especially when it’s a phone app coming out of Silicon Valley. I get it: I have sympathy for people that feel like phone apps have no business out on the trails. But to each their own, right?

Unfortunately telling people that they can’t prove Strava is a problem doesn’t really win any arguments. - people much prefer anecdotal and circumstantial evidence. So I’ll give you some of my personal theories:

I (as I hope I made clear) have no idea if Strava contributes to illegal trail riding. What it surely does is make it more visible to non mountain bikers. Illegal mountain bike trails have existed since people first started riding bikes off road, but maybe not too many people knew that it was happening. Trust me, it has been. You would especially think that land managers/owners might prefer to think that Strava is contributing to more people riding illegal trails when in reality they have been all along, right under their noses!

As for speed, I have to think that’s most likely bullocks. Mountain bikers love to go fast, otherwise they’d be hikers. Mountain bikes have gotten a lot faster in the last decade, at the same time the sport has become much more accessible and popular. This will of course result in occasional conflicts on multi use trails.

So in short: while I have no idea, I highly doubt Strava contributes significantly to increased use of illegal trails. Southern California especially, with it’s very few and overcrowded trails, faces huge challenges in land and recreational management. Blaming a scapegoat doesn’t actually solve any problems. Land managers and other trail users need to work with mountain bikers to come up with real solutions, not blame some silly app.