Sunday, March 21, 2010

Two-wheeled travelers pumped for paths

City bicycle plan would vastly expand network of routes

Dozens of miles of new bike lanes. Marked bike routes. Special spots for bikes at intersections. More paved pathways. Thousands of people riding their bikes to work, school, stores, movies, the doctor's office, wherever they need to go.

Anchorage biking facts
REQUIRED - All bikes must be equipped with a bell or other audible warning device under city law.

DRUNK - When alcohol is a factor in a bike-vehicle crash, 80 percent of the time the cyclist is under the influence.

DANGEROUS - The Lake Otis Parkway sidewalk is considered one of the riskiest places to bike.

That's the vision for cycling in the city laid out in the proposed Anchorage Bicycle Plan. It's ambitious, in some ways surprising, and wildly popular among Anchorage's growing community of cyclists.

It aims to double the number of people who cycle for transportation; cut the number of crashes between vehicles and bikes by one-third; and dramatically expand Anchorage's network of bike lanes, paths and routes.

Anchorage, cycling enthusiasts say, can be just as bike-friendly as other winter cities such as Boulder, Colo., where nearly 10 percent of people commute by bike, and Minneapolis, where the number of bike commuters tops 4 percent, second highest in the nation among large cities and right behind bike-crazy Portland, Ore.

The idea is to make biking more convenient and less dangerous so that more people do it.

"When you address those factors, you see people taking advantage of being on a bike, for a variety of reasons," said Brian Litmans, president of Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage, a two-year-old advocacy group. "Health reasons, environmental reasons, economic reasons."

The Anchorage Assembly is considering the 164-page bike plan that's been in the works since October 2007. The proposal will be up for a second public hearing and possibly a vote on Tuesday evening.


So far, no Assembly member has come out against the plan. Dozens of bike plan supporters came to the March 2 hearing and waited for hours to speak while the Assembly members dealt with other issues. Many pedaled there. All 16 who testified liked at least elements of the plan. Almost all the people who have called the mayor's office about the plan like it, too.

"I think most of the Assembly is pretty supportive of a low-cost way to provide more transportation options for Anchorage residents," said Patrick Flynn, Assembly chairman and a former bike commuter.

Much essential work including striping in bike lanes and identifying safe routes with signs can be done for about $8 million, spread over the next 14 years, according to Lori Schanche, the city's non-motorized transportation coordinator and point person on the plan.

The overall projected cost is much bigger, $118 million over 20 years or longer. That includes big-ticket items like an idea for a pathway through town along the Alaska Railroad right-of-way that may never be built. Other improvements, not tallied in that total, are linked to road projects already in the works, such as pathways along the Seward Highway frontage roads.

Mayor Dan Sullivan, who inherited the project from the Begich administration, said he supports better-connected trails and bike lanes but has concerns about the price tag.

"We're OK with it going forward," Sullivan said. "Will it happen overnight and will we be able to do everything the plan suggests? Probably not."


Anyway, most people just ride in the summer on existing trails, the mayor said.

"How much money do you spend over and above what you might be doing now for a very, very small segment of the population?" asked Sullivan, himself a summertime recreational cyclist who takes to the Coastal Trail.


For a city wrapped in snow, slush and ice much of the year, Anchorage already is big on biking.

A 2008 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 1 percent of Anchorage commuters travel mainly by bike. That works out to roughly 1,500 bike commuters, give or take a few hundred, with more in summer and fewer in winter.

That rate is twice the national average and represents a doubling for Anchorage from 2000, according to an analysis by the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that gives Anchorage good marks for pro-bike efforts so far.

A more detailed Anchorage travel study from 2002, based on diaries kept by a sampling of residents that spring, found about 11,500 trips per weekday by bike in Anchorage, the same as the number of People Mover riders. A third of the bike trips were recreational, but many people were cycling to work or school, and some were shopping. The average trip: five miles each way.

As to the mayor's concerns about spending to benefit a few, bike commuters respond that every time someone bikes instead of drives, that's one fewer car on the road, which benefits everyone.

"That means less traffic congestion. Less pollution. Less parking problems. Less wear and tear on our roads," bike commuter Kristi Wood told the Assembly.

If improving Anchorage's bike network means fewer vehicles on the road, that's definitely a plus, said Aves Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association.


The bike plan, if it gets Assembly approval, would guide city and community leaders for the next 20 years.

It contains broad goals, such as doubling bike ridership for transportation -- what the planners call "utility cycling" as opposed to recreational biking -- along with many specifics.

Anchorage's network of bike lanes, shared roads and pathways for cyclists would grow from 248 miles to 541 miles, counting Eagle River and Chugiak additions proposed by Assembly member Debbie Ossiander.

Many elements came from the public and a core group of a dozen cyclists.

"The biggest surprise was the fact they wanted to be on the roads," Schanche said. "We've got our greenbelt trails. We've got the Campbell trail. We've got the Chester trail. We've got the Coastal trail. But everyone was trying to get to Midtown, to downtown, to U-Med. These trails don't necessarily get you to those locations."

Among the plan highlights:

• Much of the newly designated pavement for bikers would put them on the streets, not on separate paths. Of the nearly 300 additional miles proposed, about 100 miles would be bike lanes on streets, up from the current eight miles. And 54 miles would be paved shoulders. Much of that work can be done by striping off bike lanes on roads already wide enough, and putting up signs to mark paved shoulders as bike routes, Schanche said.

• The highest priorities for improvement are in places with a history of crashes and along core routes, such as the proposed addition of bike lanes along C and A streets.

• Education is a key element. Both drivers and cyclists need to better understand safe practices, expectations and the rules of the road, the plan says.

Bike lanes would address the problem of motorists making turns off or onto busy roads and plowing into cyclists riding along sidewalks or other pathways, cyclists say.

With bike lanes, it's more clear where everyone needs to be, cyclists say.

"It's becoming a lot friendlier than when I came here 20 years ago, but I don't feel safe," said Dawn Groth, a registered nurse who bikes year-round along Tudor Road to her job at Alaska Native Medical Center and to school at Alaska Pacific University. She takes the path when it's clear, but rides on the road when the path is icy or buried under fresh snow.

The health benefits of biking are incredible and she wouldn't give it up, she said. She has commuted by bike since she was a 16-year-old in North Dakota headed to her first job. She's now 43.


As it stands, Anchorage can be a dangerous place for cyclists. Between 1994 and 2008, there were more than 2,000 bike-vehicle crashes including 175 in which riders suffered major injuries, according to the state Department of Transportation. Nine cyclists were killed.

Kristi Wood told the Assembly this month that she supports the plan as a way to make riding safer.

She's a software engineer who commutes 17 miles round-trip along a combination of multi-purpose trails and roadside bike paths.

Wood began commuting by bike one summer five years ago and didn't stop when the weather turned. It's easier than most people think, she said, with a mountain bike, studded or snow tires, and double layers of clothing. She eventually sold her car.

Then she was hit by a utility van.

It was Oct. 16, 2008. She was riding on a pathway on A Street. She had the pedestrian signal at the Benson Boulevard intersection. The driver turned right on red onto Benson, an illegal maneuver at that intersection, and plowed into her, she told the Assembly.

She was banged up. Her bike was totaled. But she never considered giving up cycling.

What happened to her shows why bike lanes are important, Wood told the Assembly. The driver might have noticed her had she been on the road. Markings known as bike boxes that designate a space for bikers at intersections also could make a difference, she said.


But can this bike plan really work in Anchorage, considering the average snowfall of 70 inches?

No doubt, say cyclists.

Over the past couple of winters, bike commuter Litmans said he has seen a dramatic boost in riders on the roads and trails. One factor, cyclists say, is that the city is doing much better plowing pathways.

"Slowly the word is getting out that if you dress properly and have a bike that is safe, you can get around in winter," Litmans said. He rides a mountain bike with studded tires from Airport Heights along the Chester Creek Trail, up E Street and through town to his downtown job as an environmental lawyer.

Anchorage bike shops this winter were selling out of fat bikes, the ones with the big, bouncy tires intended for trail riding in snow. Women in particular were snatching them up for winter commuting, said Jamey Stull, co-owner of Chain Reaction Cycles in South Anchorage.

The better the city maintains the bike network, the more people will ride, cyclists say.

When it snows in Boulder, for instance, the city dispatches a separate crew to plow major bike pathways at the same time roads are cleared, said Marni Ratzel, a bike-pedestrian transportation planner for a city program called Go Boulder.

Minneapolis, with average annual snowfall of about 52 inches, also makes plowing of bike paths a priority, though bike lanes on streets don't get the same attention.

"Curbside bike lanes seem to disappear in the winter, especially if there is a lot of snow. Parked cars also seem to invade the bike lanes as well. Most off-street bike trails, however, are plowed, with some getting faster service than city streets," John Stiles, communications director for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said in an e-mail.

In Anchorage, where roads narrow all winter as snow is mounded along the sides, Litmans said cyclists wouldn't expect every bike lane to be plowed.

"It may mean only clearing the most highly used bike lanes and recognizing that a lot of bicyclists will find another way to get where they are going."

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