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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: Winter biking isn’t for the faint of heart, and there’s a lot more the city of Spokane could do to improve it

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 1, 2021

Ralph Johnson and his dog, Gus, take a spin in the snow Thursday on his 3-wheeled-bike/trike around Jefferson Elementary School on Spokane’s South Hill.  (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Ralph Johnson and his dog, Gus, take a spin in the snow Thursday on his 3-wheeled-bike/trike around Jefferson Elementary School on Spokane’s South Hill. (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Nicholas Deshais For The Spokesman-Review

Rhonda Kae Young and Justin Short are very different bike commuters.

Young is an engineering professor at Gonzaga who sticks to riding during daylight saving time – March to November, generally.

“It’s not the weather so much as the darkness,” Young says about her aversion to winter riding.

Short drives a truck for United Natural Foods and is a little more hardcore, to put it mildly. He rides all year and says he looks “forward to the single- digit days. It makes the 20-degree days seem pretty balmy.”

One thing they agree on: Spokane’s cycling infrastructure needs improving, especially in the context of the frigid days of February.

Young is one of the people behind Spokane’s Cincinnati Greenway near Gonzaga’s campus, a type of street with little car traffic that prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists. She also sits on the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board, which advises the City Council on all things bicycling.

In the warmer months, she rides to work and around town on an electric-assist bike, which gives her a little extra oomph when climbing the South Hill or other challenging Spokane topography.

But a few years ago, she spent nine months in Stockholm, a stretch of time that took her through the Scandinavian winter at a latitude more equivalent to Anchorage, Alaska, than Spokane’s relatively equatorial placement.

And, she says, the Swedes rode year-round.

“I thought, ‘If our infrastructure looked like this, I could see how people commute year round.’ Everything is plowed. Every sidewalk, every bike lane,” she says. “In Spokane, our bike lanes become snow storage.”

Short agrees.

He grew up in Pittsburgh and has lived, and ridden, in Colorado, Southern California and Portland. In Spokane, he tries to avoid busy roads, a habit he may have gained from riding the unfriendly rural roads outside the Steel City.

But even on quiet roads, he’s always wary.

“The bike infrastructure here isn’t very encouraging. Depending where you are, you’re probably crossing major choke points, and get stuck riding in the lane” with traffic, he says. “I ride with Third Eye helmet gear so I can see what’s going on behind me. Just in case I need to jump into the ditch.”

Aside from the safety issues, Short agrees with Young that no one plows the region’s many bikeways and paved trails – other than the Centennial Trail in downtown Spokane – making them unrideable.

If anyone knows about unrideable routes, it’s Short. He’s an alum of the Midnight Century, a punishing, 100-mile ride that begins at midnight and takes its victims through Spokane’s gravel backcountry. His regular commute to work is 18 miles round-trip, which he does by bike five days a week.

He recently wrote about his adventures as a winter cyclist in Out There Outdoors magazine, where he thanked his fellow “winter bike commuting goofballs” for keeping things light during the darkest months.

“Icy bike commuting has injected a bit of adventure into my winter,” he wrote. “I get excited when I see single digits in the forecast or sideways slush storms. I explore different route options when there is snow on the ground because the bike lane, where there is one, is where all the snow ends up, and the Centennial Trail doesn’t get plowed at all, except in Kendall Yards.”

You don’t have to be like Short to ride year-round. As Young said, some upgrades to the city’s bikeways would get more people on bikes more often. This could be more and better bike lanes, protected from distracted drivers piloting a 4,000-pound vehicle, or simply plowing the routes, an act done without question or delay for motorists.

Regardless, there are some ways to get riding in the winter, even if the mere thought chills the bones.

First, dress in layers. You’re going to be cold at first and, before you know it, sweating. Prepare for that eventuality with a nice warm base layer, like a sweater, topped with a jacket or two you can strip off and stow in a bag. And cover those ears and get good gloves.

Second, buy some good lights. There are some powerful, rechargeable lights on the market now that can illuminate your way better than any headlight on a car. Seriously, some of these lights are so bright, the minutest dust motes shine in the 1,200-lumen shaft. Bonus: the piercing, blinking brightness lets motorists know you’re there.

Third, write the mayor and city council members and let them know you want more bike infrastructure. That’s the surest way to make your commute safer, by pressuring those in office to better fund a robust and diverse transportation system.

As Young says, there’s really no reason Spokane can’t be a city where people ride bikes year round, like they do all over Europe, and in American cities including Minneapolis.

“A lot of countries have figured this out,” she said. “We can, too.”

For his part, Short has hope, noting that progress has been made on the city’s bike network and the “seeds have been planted,” even if the timeline isn’t ideal.

“If I had children that weren’t dogs, my grandchildren would get to see it,” he says.

Connecting Centennial and Fish Lake trails

Speaking of bikes, the city of Spokane is holding an online public meeting Wednesday to discuss routes that connect the Centennial Trail to the Fish Lake Trail, two of the region’s most popular paved paths.

Though the trails run close to each other, and come within less than a mile from one another, there’s no obvious way to get from one to the other. If and when they connect, however, they will provide safe, largely traffic-free routes from Coeur d’Alene to Cheney.

“Separated, multi-use trails are the backbone of our pedestrian and bicycle transportation networks,” Colin Quinn-Hurst, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, says on the project’s web page. “The goal is to connect two heavily used trails and provide surrounding neighborhoods with a low-stress travel and recreation option.”

For more information, visit my.spokanecity.org/projects/fish-lake-trail-connection-study/

Skywalks are great… aren’t they?

The most recent episode of the radio show and podcast “99% Invisible” focuses on a type of transportation infrastructure that only a few cities have, including Spokane.

Skywalks.

The episode focuses on the “skyways” of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, as they call them there, but its themes apply to any city with those second-story human Habitrails.

“It sounds almost utopian,” Roman Mars, the show’s host, says near the beginning of the episode. “A cozy micro-city within the city, where you and other Twin Citizens can look down at the icy street beneath you, smug in your short sleeves, and collectively laugh in the face of winter.”

Of course, this show is famous for its ability to show the complexity in the seemingly mundane, and this episode is no different. It discusses suburban flight, the deaths of downtowns at the hands of shopping malls and issues of equity.

So next time you’re walking downtown, look up and wonder, “Wasn’t that where Orange Julius was?”

Work to watch for

The northbound curbside lane of Grand Boulevard between 33rd and 30th avenues will be closed through Tuesday for utility work.

The southbound curb lane of Freya Street between Ferry and Main avenues will be closed until the weekend for CenturyLink work.

The south curb lane of Third Avenue between Division and Sherman streets will be closed until Feb. 8 for Quanta work.

The east curbs lane of Stevens Street between Main and Sprague avenues, as well as the north curb lane of Sprague between Washington and Stevens streets, will be closed until Feb. 8 for Quanta work.

The eastbound curb lane of Boone Avenue between Stevens and Atlantic streets will be closed until Feb. 8 for Quanta work.

The west curb lane of Indian Trail Road will be shifted into the median between Comanche Drive and Barnes Road beginning Monday until Feb. 12 for Avista work.

The southbound curb lane of Havana Street between Ferry and Second avenues will be closed beginning Monday through Feb. 12 for utility work.

The northbound curb lane of Cowley Street between Fourth and Seventh avenues will be shifted into the median beginning Monday through Feb. 12 for Avista work.

The southbound curb lane of Indian Trail Road between Strong and Kathleen avenues is closed though Feb. 24 for Quanta work.

The west curbside lane of Division Street between Mansfield and Shannon avenues will be closed through Feb. 25 for Avista work.

The intersection of Holland Avenue and Division Street will be flagged in all directions, as is the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and Division Street, until Feb. 26 for telecommunications work.

The eastbound curb lane of Euclid Avenue between Nelson and Haven streets will be closed until the end of February for Sefnco work.

The intersection of 29th Avenue and Myrtle Street will be flagged in all directions for the entire month of February for Avista work.

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