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Getting There: Spokane moves up national bike rankings as city preps amendments to plan

A cyclist rides the Centennial Trail in this March 2019 photo. The city’s Bicycle Master Plan is being amended to include new accessibility options.  (DAN PELLE)
A cyclist rides the Centennial Trail in this March 2019 photo. The city’s Bicycle Master Plan is being amended to include new accessibility options. (DAN PELLE)
By Ted McDermott The Spokesman-Review

Take that, Seattle.

And Bellevue and San Francisco and, yes, Rutland, Vermont.

Spokane outranks all of these cities and many others, large and small, in recently released rankings of the country’s best places for riding a bike.

The list comes from PeopleForBikes, the self-proclaimed “largest bike advocacy organization” in the U.S., and the Lilac City came in a crowded tie for 37th place, with Eugene, Baltimore, Colorado Springs and four others.

Spokane’s score of 2.8 out of 5 may not sound that high, but the first place city, San Luis Obispo, California, only had a 3.5. And Spokane’s scores the last two years were 1.6 and 1.7, respectively.

While the internet is awash with questionable rankings of cities based on all kinds of criteria, PeopleForBikes has a solid reputation, and its annual PlacesForBikes list is widely considered a credible resource for sizing up where cities stand in their relative friendliness to bicyclists.

Colin Quinn-Hurst, for one, says the list – and Spokane’s place near the top of it – “seems pretty accurate.”

Quinn-Hurst, an assistant planner for the city of Spokane whose focus is on improving walking and biking amenities, is in a good position to know. And while he said the city’s ranking reflects on-the-ground improvements in the local bike system, he also said Spokane is far from being where it wants to be.

“We’re roughly halfway there to being a bike friendly city that accommodates people of all ages and abilities,” Quinn-Hurst said.

Over about the past 10 years, he said, the city’s bicycle network “has grown quite a bit.” And he says new trail connections and shared-use paths, like the South Gorge Trail that weaves through Peaceful Valley, have helped boost opportunities for cyclists.

But Quinn-Hurst and his colleagues at the city are also looking for ways to boost biking by not only expanding the network of shared-use paths but also by increasing on-street amenities designed to encourage people to ride on the approximately 1,000 miles of paved streets that already exist within the city’s limits.

Those objectives are included in a batch of proposed amendments to the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, which was put into place in 2017 and made no bones about what it called the “disconnected” state of Spokane’s bike network.

Some of the amendments being floated for this year’s round of bike plan revision have to do with specific projects, such as extending a popular shared use path on West Strong Road from Five Mile Road to North Austin Road, creating a greenway along the Altamont circle in Lincoln Heights and adding a greenway on Cook Street, near Shaw Middle School in Northeast Spokane.

Quinn Hurst said those projects emerged from the neighborhoods where they would be installed, including from traffic-calming grant applications that neighborhood councils can pursue.

This year’s proposed bike plan amendments also include a broader provision that would push for the addition of protected bike lanes on city streets.

Specifically, the amendment, if enacted by City Council, would provide that routes classified as future bike lanes in the Bike Plan “may be considered for protected bike lane designs following additional assessment and review.” The amendment notes, too, that “further network-level planning will be required to identify a system of routes best suited to these designs.”

In other words, Quinn-Hurst said, the city would consider adding protected bike lanes every time there’s a road project in the works. That “opportunistic” approach, he said, would allow the city to bolster the safety of, and thus the use of, the city’s bicycling network.

“For now, there’s a lot of interest in protective bike lanes related to individual streets,” Quinn-Hurst said. “And we would like to address that on a more comprehensive level. What’s the protected bike lane network going to look like?”

The answer to that question will come, he said, through a public process. But answering it is key to boosting bicycle ridership in Spokane, he said.

A 2014 study Quinn-Hurst cited suggests ridership increases 75% in the first year after the installation of a protected bike lane. He also noted a 2018 participation survey that found 40% of American adults who would be willing to ride a bicycle if there were physical separation from traffic.

Spokane’s worst score in the PlacesForBikes rankings came in the Ridership category, which was especially hampered by a lower score for the number of commuter bicyclists in the city.

Quinn-Hurst acknowledged “our ridership really is low as a portion of people riding to bike by work.” But he also said Spokane has a “really high latent ridership,” with bikes parked in garages, yearning for more use.

“There’s a high portion of Spokanites who would get out there and ride if they had good places to ride, where they felt comfortable,” he said.

Another factor hampering Spokane’s ranking was the Reach category, which aims to measure “how well the bike network serves everyone equally.”

Quinn-Hurst said that metric “is really valuable, as it kind of tells us how we’re serving the community as a whole.” And what it’s telling Spokane planners is that they could be doing better boosting biking in underserved parts of the city.

“I think it’s accurate,” Quinn-Hurst said of the low score. “It’s reflective of the profession as a whole, how we respond to different neighborhoods.”

The city is accepting public comments on the proposed Bicycle Master Plan amendments through August, before they make their way through various city committees and ultimately go up for a vote from City Council.

“Right now is the time to comment on these changes,” Quinn-Hurst said. “It’s also an open door for people to submit proposals.”

Riverside Avenue closed downtown for two months

Riverside Avenue will be closed to all traffic except public transit between Howard and Post streets from today until early September to clear the way for Spokane Transit Authority and Avista work in front of the STA Plaza.

The eight-week disruption for downtown drivers will allow the transit agency and utility to make a number improvements for STA’s growing network of high-performance transit lines, including Route 25 (Division Street), Route 4 (Monroe-Regal) and Route 90 (Sprague Avenue) as well as its express routes to Cheney and Spokane Valley.

When the $265,000 project is complete, the infrastructure on the north side of the Plaza will be substantially remade, with new reinforced footings, sidewalks, curbs, wiring and poles for signage. What won’t be added over the next two months, though, are new shelters, benches, lighting and markers. Those installations will have to wait until next year, according to an STA spokesperson.

During construction, east- and westbound traffic on Riverside will be detoured north and south on Howard and Post streets to alternative east and west streets. Riverside’s westbound travel lanes along the block will become eastbound transit-only lanes.

STA passengers will also be redirected during construction, with boarding zones 1 and 2 moved into the street just south of the transit travel lane, and zones 3 and 4 temporarily relocated to the sidewalk in front of the Bank of America building.

The work is not related to STA’s other in-progress high-performance line, the bus rapid transit City Line. Construction of that project is underway near Gonzaga University and is expected to move downtown soon, when crews will begin installing the first downtown station at North Pine Street and East Main Avenue.

Work to watch (and listen) for

As work on the Spokane Falls Boulevard Combined Sewer Overflow Tank continues, crews will work 24 hours a day today, Tuesday and Thursday to demo the existing sewer pipe. “This operation will be very loud,” according to a city news release.

Work will begin today on a grind and overlay project on Longfellow Avenue, from Division to Post Street. Only local traffic will allowed.

The intersection of Rowan Avenue and Market Street will be closed today through July 17 for work to move utilities to make way for the North Spokane Corridor. Northbound Market Street traffic will be detoured to Haven Street via Diamond Avenue. During this work, Haven Street will serve both southbound and northbound traffic.