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Getting There: Spokane’s bike scene still has a ways to ride

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the bikeways in Spokane need to level up.

Yes, the city has come a long way in the past decade, adding bike lanes and off-street trails to its inventory of bike paths, codifying the Complete Streets policy into its rulebooks and considering a bike share program.

But there’s a “but” in there.

Like all the dusty gravel in the bike lanes – it doesn’t really help with traction. And the bike lane on Second Avenue looks great and all, but riding with three lanes of 4,000-pound vehicles and their growling motors leaves many cyclists cold.

And sharrows? Really?

It’s Bike to Work Week, so what better time to consider all we could have?

A brief disclaimer: What follows does not suggest that Spokane should be like Portland or Seattle, let alone Copenhagen or Amsterdam. Instead, it simply puts forth the notion that the city could be better for bicycling, which in turn would encourage more people to ride bikes, which in turn would allow people to drive less, which in turn would ease traffic woes, which, in the end, would make us happier.

Cycle tracks

Also called separated bike lanes or protected bike lanes, the cycle track is the gold standard in city bikeways. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, a cycle track “is physically separated from motor traffic and distinct from the sidewalk.”

At a basic level, it’s a bike lane with a curb separating it from traffic, creating both real and perceived safety for cyclists. They can get more complex, with two-way bike traffic and bike-specific traffic signals at intersections.

Cycle tracks are what modern cities want and what modern city planners propose. Despite that modernity, the cycle track has been around a long time.

According to University of Wisconsin-La Crosse historian James Longhurst, cycle paths were first envisioned in 1898, and an American protected bike lane “movement” in 1905 pushed for such bike facilities across the nation.

In a 2014 article in the Journal of Policy History, Longhurst wrote about this “forgotten episode” when an “alternative vision of the future of American transportation flickered to life, and then faded.”

The cycle tracks, then referred to as “sidepaths,” were how they’re built today, “segregated from both the adjoining road and from sidewalks: already-existing pedestrian paths were not to be subsumed or inconvenienced. Later court decisions made it clear that wagons, carts, and horses were excluded from the paths. They were to be a separate network, set apart from foot and vehicle traffic, solely for bicycles,” Longhurst wrote.

Back then, the paths were in Chicago, Minneapolis and Rochester, New York.

The sidepath movement dwindled as public dollars for transportation were funneled toward auto routes. Now, as cities such as Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit experiment with cycle paths, maybe it’s time for Spokane to give them a spin.

Some possible cycle track routes: Spokane Falls Boulevard, High Drive and Broadway Avenue near the Spokane County Courthouse.

Bike boxes

Intersections can be tricky for cyclists and drivers alike. Motorists turning right on a red and cyclists passing on the right in a bike lane can be a dangerous combination.

The bike box helps prevent these “right hook” situations and lessen some of the danger by creating a “designated area at the head of a traffic lane at a signalized intersection that provides bicyclists with a safe and visible way to get ahead of queuing traffic during the red signal phase,” according to NACTO.

It’s pretty simple. A green box between 6 and 10 feet deep is painted on the roadway between the crosswalk and the nose of the first vehicle at a red light. The box gives cyclists a head start, and puts them clearly in view of drivers.

According to a 2010 report by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium, the bike boxes in Portland have been effective and “appear to be affecting behaviors that can improve safety for cyclists, and responses from both motorists and cyclists are far more favorable than negative.”

The report also noted that “pedestrians appear to be benefiting through a reduction in encroachment into crosswalks. Overall, the number of conflicts fell and yielding behavior increased, which should lead to improvements in safety.”

Many cities have implemented bike boxes, including Austin, Texas; Boston; Decatur and Roswell, Georgia; Phoenix; and Minneapolis.

Some possible Spokane-area intersections that could benefit from bike boxes: Main Avenue and Browne Street, Southeast Boulevard and 29th Avenue, and Broadway Avenue and University Road in Spokane Valley.

Greenways

Imagine a road that allows for all users but is designed for the bicycle.

Such a roadway is in the works in Spokane, part of a project led by a Gonzaga University engineering professor named Rhonda Kae Young.

It’s called the Cincinnati Greenway, and when complete next summer the 1.7-mile route will connect to the Centennial and Ben Burr trails and the Addison-Standard bike corridor on Spokane’s North Side.

Many American cities have such greenways – from Manhattan, Kansas, to Wilmington, North Carolina – and they go by different names: bicycle boulevard, neighborway and neighborhood byway to name a few.

As some of the names suggest, greenways serve not just cyclists, but neighborhoods, as well, by slowing down traffic and creating a safer environment for kids, pets and everyone else.

Cars are still allowed on greenways, but as Young said in a recent interview, they’re built to slow traffic like the skinny streets of the South Hill.

“Some people say, ‘I don’t like those streets and I try to avoid them.’ And that’s what we want,” Young said, noting that speed is kept below 20 mph and it’s “not a road that feels comfortable going 35 mph.”

Young’s greenway project, done with engineering students, has been handed over to city engineers, who will review and approve the design work before construction begins summer 2019. About $1 million in funding is available for the project.

Some other possible greenways: Cedar Street on the lower South Hill, Nettleton Street in the West Central neighborhood, Eighth Street in Coeur d’Alene.

More bike parking

This is an easy one. Businesses usually have to provide some measure of motor vehicle parking, both for employees and customers.

Why not extend the requirement to bicycle parking? While creative problem-solving skills are honed by attempting to lock a bike to a light pole or fence, it’s not ideal. Just put some of those U-shaped, “staple” bike racks somewhere that has a roof.

That’s all that’s needed. Seriously. Don’t make the racks so artful that they’re impossible to secure a bike to. Don’t put them out of the way and out of sight – they won’t be used by anyone but bike thieves. Keep it simple.

Some locations that need bike racks: Pretty much everywhere.

Better workplace facilities

Lastly, a lot of people say they can’t ride to work because that sweaty, mussed hair look doesn’t go over so well in professional settings.

At the least, office and retail workplaces can offer a room to change in, and lockers to store clothes and bike bags. A shower would be nice, but obviously isn’t the easiest thing to offer.

Other solutions: Get a membership at a gym near work and shower there before clocking in. Ride slow and don’t work up a sweat. Wear your work clothes while riding – it can be done.

This all sounds good and fine, you say, but why bike to work?

Besides the mental health benefits – goodbye road rage! – a study recently published in the British Medical Journal showed that overall mortality is significantly lower among bike commuters than motorists.

The study, which collected data from more than 260,000 people between the ages of 40 and 69, found that bike commuters were 41 percent less likely to die during the five-year study period than those who drove or took transit.

For cyclists, the likelihood of getting or dying from heart disease was half that of drivers and bus riders. Bicyclists were 45 percent less likely to contract cancer and 40 percent less likely to die from it.

The study’s conclusion: “Initiatives to encourage and support active commuting could reduce risk of death and the burden of important chronic conditions.”

In other words, biking to work could save your life.

Bike to work schedule

If you’re reading this after 9 a.m., you’re out of luck. You missed a free blueberry pancake breakfast at Riverfront Park, with free coffee.

Don’t worry, there’s plenty more to do this week for those participating in the Bike to Work week.

On Tuesday, stations will be placed all around the city with snacks, drinks and other bike-related swag for morning bike commuters. That evening, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., the REI Women’s Ride will take cyclists for a 9-mile trip around the Centennial Trail before heading to the REI store for a class on fixing flat tires. Wear a helmet and meet at the Olmsted Brothers Park in Kendall Yards.

On Wednesday, the Ride of Silence to honor cyclists killed or injured on the road will take place from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. following a short dedication at the Michael Anderson astronaut statue by the INB Performing Arts Center. Spokane police officers on bikes will escort the ride on a loop through the downtown area. Helmets are required.

On Thursday, a lunch-hour ride led by city engineer Brandon Blankenagel will showcase the new trail being constructed through Peaceful Valley, take riders over the Sandifur Bridge and on the Centennial Trail through Kendall Yards. The ride starts at noon, is expected to take an hour and will begin at the Ice Ribbon in Riverfront Park. Helmets are required.

That night, there’s a 9-mile ride that will take cyclists on the Ben Burr Trail and over the Iron Bridge. The ride, which is put on by the Spokane Bicycle Advisory Board and Spokane Bicycle Club, will begin at 6 p.m. at Lincoln Park on its 17th Avenue side. Again, helmets are required. (It is the law.)

Last but not least, River City Brewing will host the Friday evening beer and free pizza party. Door prizes will be part of it, but come for the camaraderie. And beer. All are welcome. It begins at 5 p.m. at 121 S. Cedar. St.

For more information, visit www.spokanebicycleclub.org/SpokaneBikes.

Downtown and U-District parking survey

Parking is the bane of everyone’s existence, and the city of Spokane wants to hear about it.

An online survey will be available through the end of May for residents to weigh in on parking needs, including concerns about the availability and cost of on- and off-street parking, payment methods and time limits at meters. In addition, the city will host an in-person session from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 21 near the Looff Carrousel in Riverfront Park to discuss parking options and allow visitors to take the survey on tablets.

Two surveys, one for the University District and one for downtown, are available at the city’s parking website, spokanecity.org/parking.

In the city

First Avenue from Cedar to Jefferson streets will be closed starting today. A detour for eastbound traffic on Riverside Avenue will be in place.

The project to improve the pavement on Mission Avenue between Division and Hamilton streets is underway. The eastbound lanes have been closed, and traffic is detoured to Indiana Avenue. Eastbound Mission will reopen today.


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