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Shawn Vestal: Completing streets might prevent more ghosts

They call them Ghost Bikes.

You’ve likely seen them around town over the past year or so: bikes painted all white, chained to a post or fence. They memorialize, in a simple, powerful way, cyclists who died on Spokane’s streets: Matthew Hardie, David Squires, Frank Red Thunder, David Widener …

The Ghost Bikes began showing up around Spokane last year during a spate of deaths in car-bike crashes. City Councilman Jon Snyder put up the first one at Sprague and Division, in memory of Squires, who was hit and killed by a driver in March 2010. Snyder left it up for a year. Others have come and gone – different individuals put up the bikes as somber reminders of what can happen when people don’t watch out for each other on the road.

Most of the Ghost Bikes are gone, for now. But there are two good reasons to bring them back to mind: A new batch of statistics that reinforces the fact that Spokane’s rate of injuries for walkers and bikers is higher than average, and an upcoming City Council vote on a proposal to take a big step forward in committing to safety for walkers and bikers on Spokane’s streets.

“I think we have some unfinished business in providing safety and facilities for bike and pedestrian transportation users,” said Snyder, who has been a leading proponent of improving city streets for nonmotorized users.Last week, the Spokane Regional Health Department issued a new report compiling a broad range of health statistics for the county, titled Spokane Counts. The report showed that Spokane County’s rate of bicycle/pedestrian collisions with autos is higher than the state average, at about 54 wrecks per 100,000 people each year between 2006 and 2009.

Between 2003 and 2009, more than 2,000 people in the county wound up in the emergency room for injuries suffered while walking or biking.

Every one of those cases involves different circumstances, of course, and no road work project will eliminate all risk. But a lot of Spokane streets are notably unfriendly to anything but cars, and the council is set to vote on a program, Complete Streets, that would require the city to make sure that bicyclists, pedestrians and bus riders are considered in road projects. A significant portion of residents here either don’t or can’t drive, and our streets need to be open to them, too. That means sidewalks, wheelchair ramps, bike lanes and other considerations that tend to make it into our lofty plans more often than they show up on our actual streets.

The City Council already adopted a resolution supporting the idea back in April 2010. The city’s comprehensive plan includes a variety of policies encouraging alternative modes of transportation. All that remains is for the Plan Commission to consider the ordinance, which it is set to do Wednesday, and for a City Council vote on Dec. 19.

There are, of course, objections to the proposal, ranging from questions about costs to general surliness about bicyclists. And there’s a legislative beef that some people have – feeling that Snyder and others are rushing Complete Streets to a vote before a less bicycle-friendly majority and new mayor come sliding into office in the not-too-distant future.

Nancy McLaughlin fears that, in a time of tight budgets and street-repair backlogs, now is not the time for expensive “amenities.” She also says the ordinance is rife with inflexible mandates that will force costly changes onto simple projects.

“It’s ‘shall,’ ‘shall,’ ‘shall,’ ‘shall,’ ‘shall,’ ” she said.

Snyder says the ordinance is less drastic than that, with exceptions for cases where the addition of bike lanes, pedestrian improvements or other changes would be too costly or impractical. The ordinance would require the inclusion of Complete Streets provisions in any major city road project but not minor, routine maintenance, he said.

I’m not much of a biker or a walker, truth be told, but it has seemed to me that Spokane is a little extra hostile, in general, toward people who don’t constantly want to mount the SUV. A friend and colleague tells a hilarious story about biking to work one day when he was flipped off – not once, but twice – by the same nice-looking octogenarian lady in the passenger seat of a car.

In between the two flights of that bird, the biker and the driver passed a Ghost Bike.

In addition to questions of attitude, there’s the on-the-ground reality. Take a walk somewhere in Spokane. You’re lucky if you don’t find yourself strolling on a street. Pull a kid in a wagon to the park – you’ll find yourself wondering whether you ought to be using hand signals at the corners. The Ghost Bikes remind us about the biking deaths, but it’s worth remembering that the fatality rate of walkers in Spokane is disturbingly high, as well.

Complete Streets is heading for a vote Dec. 19. McLaughlin said Snyder and the council majority are rushing this thing through before a new mayor and majority take over, and between now and next year there is sure to be plenty of political wrangling over this ordinance. I like the goals of Complete Streets, and this ordinance seems less draconian than opponents fear.

And if it does indeed turn out to be the killer of all pothole fillers, then I suspect the good people at the city will find ways to deal with that.

For any number of good reasons, it’s in the city’s best interest to make it safer and easier to get around without car. Then maybe, someday, the number of Ghost Bikes will diminish.

“I’d like the number to be zero,” Snyder said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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