Spokane and Copenhagen might as well be the same city.
Both were established as Viking fishing villages, and both vie to be the world’s bicycling capital.
Joking aside, Copenhagen has come to Spokane for this year’s Bike to Work week, and at least one City Council member hopes it stays.
Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs thinks it’s possible for Spokane to be Copenhagen-ized. During a visit to Denmark last September as part of a city delegation, he said he was struck by the variety of choices people have, especially in Copenhagen, to get around. Unlike in the U.S., where it’s a chore to do anything but drive in most cities and towns, the Danish transportation system put its many modes on an even playing field. To Beggs’ surprise, many people choose not to drive.
“What I took away from Copenhagen was, once you give people choices about how they want to move about, more people bike and walk more, and there’s more room on the road for cars, and there’s more room for parking,” he said. “With some minor changes, you can make cycling safer, more reliable and reduce conflicts with cars.”
That’s why he’s chosen this week to launch Spokane in Motion, an effort to show “what might be possible for bicycling in Spokane.” Beggs has brought Troels Andersen, a Danish cycling planner, to Spokane to help lead discussions about making Spokane a bicycling city. Two events are open to the public, and a third is a daylong brainstorming session with a number of cycling advocates, city planners and city engineers to make bike commuting as easy, enjoyable and commonplace as it is in Denmark.
Easier said than done: Spokane is no Copenhagen.
Copenhagen is considered one of the best examples of what a city can do to encourage bicycling. According to the city’s Annual Bicycle Report, more than 40 percent of all trips in the city are done by bike. More than 60 percent of Copenhagen residents bike to work or school. Half of all children in Denmark ride a bike to school. Four out of 10 Danes own a car; nine out of 10 own a bike. Three-quarters of bike travel continues through the winter.
In Spokane, those same measures are lucky to reach the 1 percent mark, according to census data. Visit any elementary school during the morning drop-off rush and count the little cyclists compared to the legions of driving parents. Just look at any bike rack downtown.
It hasn’t always been this way. The two cities, so different in so many ways, were once on track to a similar future.
The first bicycle path in Copenhagen was built in 1892 on a street called Esplanaden. Spokane’s first bike path – and the city’s first pavement, for that matter – was built in 1893, next to Broadway Avenue on the city’s north side.
Following bicycle crazes in both cities before the advent of the automobile, the number of cyclists plummeted through the 20th century until the 1970s, when the decade’s energy crises hit.
That’s when the two cities diverged.
Spokane, like many other American cities but unlike Copenhagen, remained devoted to the automobile. The finishing touches on I-90 were underway, the streets of downtown had recently been remade into wide one-ways and the city’s developers were deep into their destructive practice of demolishing buildings for parking lots.
Copenhagen, however, built its way out of such automobile dependence, and continues to do so. In the 1960s, the city had largely dismantled whatever cycling infrastructure it had as Europe “modernized” along American standards and redesigned cities for automobiles. At the time, less than 10 percent of Copenhagen residents used bicycles.
Then the energy crisis hit, transforming how Danes viewed their transportation system, Mikael Colville-Andersen, founder of the popular website Copenhagenize, told the urbanist website CityLab in 2012.
“The energy crisis in 1973 hit Denmark hard. Very hard,” Colville-Andersen said. “Car-free Sundays were introduced in order to save fuel. Every second streetlight was turned off in order to save energy. A groundswell of public discontent started to form. People wanted to be able to ride their bicycles again – safely. Protests took place. … The energy crisis faded, but then returned in 1979. More protests. One form of protest-awareness was painting white crosses on the asphalt where cyclists had been killed. This time, things happened. We started to rebuild our cycle track network in the early 1980s. Fatalities and injuries started falling. The network was expanded.”
Colville-Andersen said the oil crisis had the unintended effect that “urban planners started thinking bicycles first and cars second. Building infrastructure to keep cyclists safe and save lives. We haven’t looked back since.”
In the U.S., motorists waited in long lines for gas and President Jimmy Carter suggested we wear sweaters indoors. The car remained supreme.
Beggs, however, doesn’t think another energy crisis is needed to change people’s minds. For him, at this point, it’s about showing people that cycling is a viable option.
“That’s really the idea. To show people, really, what’s possible,” he said.
In his conception, one part of town will exhibit what Spokane can do with bikeways. It will have trails and bike lanes separated from traffic, either by a curb or wall of some sort. The bikeways will be connected and go in every direction, allowing cyclists from any neighborhood to get around safely and conveniently.
Beggs already has a suggestion where the city should aim its bikeway fever.
“We’re focused on the University District, and the new bridge and where the access points are to that, what trails would work best to go there and get around there,” he said.
From there, the bikeways of the U-District will emanate out to the city. Riverside Avenue, which turns into the district’s main road, Martin Luther King Jr. Way, is slated for major renovation in coming years. Plans include protected bikeways. The Ben Burr Trail, swooping into the U-District, is an old rail line that dives into the heart of the East Central neighborhood. The new bicycle and pedestrian bridge already connects to the major South Hill bike route of Sherman Street and Southeast Boulevard, and a proposal to build an east-west trail at the bridge’s south landing was jump-started recently by city and state leaders. The Centennial Trail has long skirted the edge of the U-District. The Cincinnati Greenway will be built this year, from Gonzaga University to the Division Street “Y.”
Which sounds great. But as Beggs knows, Copenhagen didn’t become the premier bike commuting city by just showing what was possible. At some point, money has to be invested in such infrastructure.
From 2009 to 2014, the equivalent of more than $300 million was spent on bicycling infrastructure in Denmark. By comparison, the city of Spokane will spend $350 million on the largest infrastructure project in its history, its decadeslong work to stop sewage from entering the Spokane River. Also by comparison, the north-south freeway is being built to the tune of $1.5 billion – about five times what Danes spent on cycling during those five years.
“At some point you have to make a leap. To change it up. It costs money in that transition. That’s the hardest and most expensive part, because you’re trying to maintain both,” Beggs said.
He pointed to the issue of snow plowing. In Copenhagen, they plow the bike lanes first, because people are using them. In Spokane, they don’t, not just because the city doesn’t have a snow plow the right size for a separated bike lane, but because very few people ride in the winter.
Then it’s a chicken-and-the-egg scenario: Would more people ride in the winter if bikeways were plowed? Beggs thinks yes.
“Once people can learn to live bicycling if they want, and it’s a choice and it’s an option and it saves them money and keeps them healthier, they will,” he said, adding that he knows he’ll confront naysayers with the “misguided idea that somehow there’s going to be a forced re-education. That’s just not it at all. It’s just choices.”
Still, Beggs looks to the Danes as inspiration on this issue.
“It’s a process, and they didn’t do it overnight. They had a religious epiphany when oil was cut off in Europe,” he said. “They had to figure out how to be independent, and they’ve been on a steady arc since then. It’s not political. The conservatives and the liberals all agree. You’ve got to be independent and have choices.”
The conversation begins this week, coinciding with Bike to Work week.
The public events will feature presentations by Andersen, who trained as a civil engineer, has worked for the Danish city of Odense for 24 years, was chairman of Cycling Embassy of Denmark and has worked as a cycling consultant in Mexico, China and South Africa.
Spokane-based Spencer Gardner, a transportation planner with Toole Design, will also speak at the events.
The first will be aimed at high school and college students. It will take place on May 16 from 3 to 4 p.m. at Eastern Washington University’s downtown campus, 668 N. Riverpoint Blvd.
The second is for the general public. It also happens on May 16, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Gonzaga’s Hemmingson Auditorium, 702 E. Desmet Ave.
Bike to Work week events
The No. 1 rule of Bike to Work week is to bike to work. Here are some events to help you not break that rule.
Today, from 7 to 9 a.m., the annual Kick-Off Pancake Breakfast happens near the ice ribbon in Riverfront Park. Free blueberry pancakes thanks to Mountain Gear, and free Roast House coffee. Get it.
On Tuesday, “energizer stations” will be placed around town, with snacks, coffee and other goodies for cyclists.
On Wednesday, the Ride of Silence will begin at 6 p.m. near the opera house in Riverfront Park. This silent procession will loop around downtown with a police escort, honoring the cyclists killed or injured on the road.
On Thursday, Danish cycling expert Troels Andersen and local bike planner Spencer Gardner will hold two cycling infrastructure presentations in the afternoon and evening.
Finally, on Friday, the wrap-up pizza party at David’s Pizza, 803 W. Mallon Ave., will begin at 5:30 p.m. There will be beer.
Active transportation survey
About 38% of Washington residents have walked or biked to get themselves around at some point, according to a recent presentation by Barb Chamberlain, a former Spokane resident and current director of Active Transportation at the Washington State Department of Transportation. That amounted to about 1.16 billion miles in 2017.
What exactly this means is unclear. Did these people ride their bike just once? Do they want to ride or bike more, but the roads are too heavily trafficked and sidewalks are in disrepair? Is the percentage even a realistic representation of Washingtonians’ transportation behavior?
To get a better idea, Chamberlain’s office has put out an Active Transportation Plan survey. The 10-minute questionnaire is about how you get around on a regular basis, and seeks input on what would encourage you to walk or bike more.
Part of the reason for the survey is to help divvy up the limited funding that goes toward related infrastructure. In 2018, 255 applications for pedestrian and bicycle program grants were received by WSDOT, totaling $187.4 million. But the state has only about $41 million available for such programs.
To take the survey, visit surveymonkey.com/r/WSDOT-ATP-2019-Engl.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.