Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bike Boulevards

I am a proponent of the concept of Bike Boulevards. I think that this concept works particularly in the older urban neighborhoods of Fort Wayne. It just makes good sense. Fiscal sense as well. Check it out.

Bike Boulevards: Social, Healthy, Economic
By Sam Seskin
For Release Sunday, February 15, 2009 Citiwire.net

How about a stimulus package that comes with two wheels instead of four, a package that delivers a boost to your health and your 401(k)? That wondrous stimulus item is the bicycle. And an ingenious new way to pave the way: bicycle boulevards.

Cycling, of course, isn’t news. Its health benefits are touted weekly by physicians, journalists and cyclists themselves.

My Congressman, Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, founder-leader of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus, notes: “Bicycling has immediate and direct benefits for communities that invest in bicycle paths, bike lanes, trails, and secure bicycle parking[...]. Bicycle and pedestrian paths are precisely the kind of infrastructure projects our country needs. These projects tend to be the most ’shovel-ready’ and are more labor-intensive than other projects– therefore putting more people to work per dollar spent.”

So if cycling facilities are good investments, where and how should we build them? Traditionally, planners and engineers have accommodated cyclists by designating bike lanes, separated from vehicular travel by striping. The lanes have become commonplace, and they are a step forward for bike mobility.

We know one alternative: cycling paths on a separate right of way. Such bike trails and paths are usually quieter, safer and often more scenic than the lanes that we find on our streets and roads. They’re great candidates for stimulus fund outlays. Observers like Anne Lusk of Harvard’s School of Public Health argue that full “cycle tracks” are ultimately the only way to go.
But that alterative will take a long time. So is there a shorter-term alternative to the hazards of cycling between rapidly moving vehicles on one side and a string of parked ones on the other, with the ever-present risk of someone throwing open their door as you approach?

Yes — the bike boulevard. It means a not-too-busy street where cars and bikes share the roadway, moving at safe speeds. No fancy striped lanes. Just a street like the one you may have grown up on as a kid. In Portland, where I live, there are a number of such streets. Cyclists prefer them because the traffic is calmer and slower, and motorists who use them most often are familiar with the street, travel it regularly and expect and respect the cyclists who share the road with them.

Sound myopic or na├»ve? It’s not. It’s happening in a number of cities. Slower auto traffic is welcome everywhere people live. And the cyclists themselves add a dimension to the life of the neighborhood and the street.

What steps make successful bike boulevards? Signage and/or pavement markings help cyclists find their way. Techniques to calm the traffic may vary, in response to local conditions. They may limit the number of points at which cars can enter the street, to reduce traffic volumes. They may slow speeds through the installation of “speed humps” or flower boxes that slow down all comers.

Cyclists and city staff have learned that cycling use depends as much on cyclists’ perceptions of safety as on the facts themselves. Bike boulevards offer cyclists a more comfortable environment, one in which they feel welcome in the travel lanes, rather than rats in a maze of narrow bike alleys. And cyclists are responding enthusiastically. On the street where I live, nearly a thousand bikes pass every day. That’s nearly equal to the number of cars.
This stream of travelers, of course, is greatest in the times of day when people travel to and from work. But the riders are visible, and welcome, throughout the day.

For those who live in communities whose streets are defined as places for cars, (and that includes almost all of us) this seems odd, maybe even threatening. Perhaps the cyclists will stop at random and steal furniture from our front porches? Or shout at our kids? Throw trash?

Congregate in the wrong places?
On my street the facts are quite the opposite. Cyclists are traveling for a purpose, just as auto drivers. When they pause, it’s to talk to a neighbor or a friend. And when they travel, the songs they sing aren’t muffled by steel doors. Their voices are yours to hear. In the morning, many are riding with their kids, sometimes on tandems bikes, sometimes with those bright yellow wagons, like a caboose on a train with zipped-up doors. (Have you ever looked inside? It’s quite a sight.)
In the summer the street is our entertainment, our morning and evening news, as riders of all ages pass our house engaged in conversations that range from trivial to sublime, profane to profound. Breakfasts and dinners on the front porch give us a front row seat at our community’s theater. Together with our neighbors who use the sidewalks, cyclists bring our street to life.
And that’s indisputably good stimulus — economic, convenient, social and practical, all at once.
Sam Seskin’s e-mail is sam.seskin@ch2m.co

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