A national bike advocacy group recently named Washington the most bike-friendly state in the nation.
But not all communities are equal.
It’s no secret that Yakima’s bike lanes are limited and not well-connected. But city officials are seeking suggestions from the community on what a better network of routes would look like and how to be more bicycle-friendly in general.
Remaking city streets to welcome pedestrians and cyclists can actually make conditions better for drivers and downtown businesses as well, according to two Northwest experts on “complete streets” who spoke before an eager audience of about 50 last week at the Yakima Convention Center.
“Complete streets simply means providing for all users,” said Peter Lagerwey, a transportation consultant with the Seattle-based Toole Design Group, which was hired to help develop a new bike master plan for Yakima.
At last week’s meeting, attendees talked over city maps, using markers to highlight their favorite biking routes and the roads that are dangerous or difficult to travel by bike.
“It’d be really great if the Greenway went somewhere useful,” said Yakima resident Amy Stoothoff as she looked over the map.
Others drew big red circles around barriers that limit cyclists, such as where bike-friendly Chestnut Avenue hits 40th Avenue with no light to help with crossing the busy, four-lane street.
It’s these sort of connectivity issues that Yakima hopes to address with its new plan. That way there’s an outline for how, project by project, the city can be easier and safer for walking and biking.
Such projects often make the streets safer for drivers as well, said Marc Schlossberg, a professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Oregon and co-author of the book “Rethinking Streets.”
He shared an example of a project that redesigned a four-lane street in front of a school where a child had recently been killed in a crosswalk when one driver stopped but another did not. It was replaced with one traffic lane and a bike lane in each direction, with a center turn lane and median. The median creates “crosswalk islands” so that people have to cross only one lane of traffic at a time, a huge improvement in safety.
But the turn lanes also mean a smoother flow of traffic, no stopping to wait for drivers turning left, no space for reckless, speeding drivers to weave through other cars. All told, that meant fewer accidents with the same number of cars on the same road, Schlossberg said.
He said he shares examples like this, in talks and in his book, because it can be hard to convince communities to change the streets they are used to, even for the better.
“It’s really hard for most of us to envision how a street could be different,” Schlossberg said. “So, we tend to be really resistant to change. But, the world will not end if we change our streets to let our kids get around without fearing for their safety.”
He shared examples from around the country, big cities and small, to show that better streets aren’t really an issue of politics, just planning.
Most of the street remodel projects that both speakers shared featured bike lanes alongside the traffic. But several community members asked about the potential for protected bike lanes, saying that it’s the only way that many riders, especially those with children, will feel safe biking in busier areas.
“When you are on a bike, you are at the mercy of drivers who might not be paying attention,” said Dale Panattoni. “You want to scare yourself? Just stand at a corner and watch how many people are driving plugged, looking down at their cellphones.”
Schlossberg agreed, citing the success in downtown Missoula, Mont., which put the bike lanes between the sidewalk and the parked cars, so that the cars acted as a buffer for the cyclists.
“It’s true, if you are really serious about getting more of the community on bikes, you need to get the bikes away from the cars,” he said.
But he also defended traditional bike lanes as better than no bicycle facilities at all. Lagerwey said the vision of complete streets doesn’t mean that every street even needs a bike lane or sidewalk, but that communities plan to put those facilities in places where they make sense and get used.
Both speakers stressed that such cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly changes don’t happen overnight. Instead, it should be part of a community’s long-term transportation planning. It already is in parts of many cities in Washington, which is why the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists recently named the state the friendliest for bikers.
Under such planning, every time a street is considered for an update, bike and pedestrian access is part of that process.
That seems to be what the city of Yakima has in mind with its bike master plan in progress.
The city’s final plan is expected to be completed toward the end of the year.
If you missed the meeting, the city is still collecting suggestions through its online survey, which can be found at www.yakimawa.gov/services/planning/comprehensive-plan-update/bicycle-master-plan/. There is also an interactive map for people to use to indicate routes they bike, routes they would like to be able to bike, and biking barriers around town.