Last Wednesday, I attended Moving to the Next Level: Lessons from Three Model Bicycle Friendly Communities, a workshop designed for regional planners and engineers and co-hosted by Great Rivers Greenway and Trailnet with speakers from Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Memphis (Trailnet’s recap of the event here).
To be clear, I am neither a planner nor an engineer, and thus was not a member of their target audience. Regardless, I decided it would be worth rearranging my schedule to hear about what was in the works and to know what messages those who control the destiny of our streets are getting.
The result? I spent nearly five frustrating hours feeling like my brain might explode — not due to a headache (physically, I just felt exhausted), but rather due to the presentation of information in a format/venue in which alternate voices could not be heard.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to share the text of an email I sent as a follow-up to summarize my concerns about the event.
I did my best to approach the event with an open mind,but as I sat there, I was truly bewildered and horrified by much of what I heard, and what our region’s planners and engineers were hearing.
The event was clearly not designed to allow discussion about the pros and cons of the various bike facilities that were highlighted, and I do not think commenting in that venue would have been welcome or productive. However, I am concerned that the attendees departed with a rather one-sided view of what bicyclists want, not to mention having some dangerous myths reinforced.
- The presentation of statistics on the “types” of cyclists was biased. Are the 1% “strong and fearless” or are they educated and confident? Instead of pandering to the myth of bicycling being dangerous and always requiring separate facilities, why don’t we work to make the, “interested but concerned,” educated and confident?
- I’m guessing the majority of the attendees were not transportational cyclists, and no one mentioned processes for getting feedback and input from the people that are currently using our roads for cycling. It’s easy to focus on what the “interested but concerned” believe would help them cycle more, but it might be more effective to focus on what the “educated and confident” feel is helpful. The first is a theoretical proposition, while the second approach is informed by experience. Most of the “educated and confident” were once “interested but concerned” — what helped them make the transition?
- One recurring theme was “No matter what you do, you’re going to make somebody mad,” or “You can’t have happy cyclists AND happy motorists.” Why not? Education, along with facility enhancement such as sharrows and BMUFL signage, allows us to keep the road space we have accessible for everyone.
- Andy Lutz (Deputy Directory/Chief Engineer for the City of Indianapolis) and David Peterson (Bicycle and Pedestrian Planner with the City of Minneapolis) both seemed very opposed to sharrows. This was particularly disturbing, as the growing number of properly-placed shared lane markings in St. Louis are something that I appreciate as a cyclist. Reducing or eliminating their use would be a step backwards, yet that’s certainly the message that was delivered to workshop participants.
- Todd Waeltermann (Director of Streets, City of St. Louis) mentioned early in his report that when he started with the Street Department in the 90s, they “didn’t know what they were doing” when it came to bicycle accommodations. That comment, combined with David’s photos and comments about old [dangerous] left-side and center bike lanes in Minneapolis made me wonder, do most planners and engineers really know what they’re doing now? Right-side bike lanes (buffered or not) carry many of the same dangers as the left-side bike lanes, yet they are heralded as a step forward, as a way to make bicyclists “safer.”
- While both Andy and David gave lip service to the importance of predictability, they both advocated practices, such as having [straight] sharrows for cyclists in the right-turn only lane, that are anything but predictable.
- Both Andy and David talked about the cost of keeping bike lanes clear of debris and snow. Integrating bicycle traffic onto existing roadways eliminates this challenge/cost.
- Andy made multiple comments indicating his mindset was “if it’s up to [NACTO] standards, it’s safe.” The fact that planners and engineers are not bothering to question these standards is disturbing.
- When talking about “advisory” bike lanes (which I’d never heard of before the workshop, and which seem like a particularly poor idea), David said they, “help bicyclists stay where they’re supposed to be” (emphasis mine). This statement, which undermines cyclists’ full rights to the road, also, at its core, supports the dangerous myth that our roads are first and foremost for motor vehicles.
- Re. “advisory” bike lanes: The lack of center lines on the “advisory” bike lane streets is problematic. Center lines facilitate lane control, which increases visibility and decreases conflict on the road.
While education was not the focus of the meeting, I was disappointed that none of the guest speakers mentioned his/her city’s efforts in this regard beyond an offhanded, “oh, and bicycle education,” type comment. It seems that cities and communities want to replicate the infrastructure component of Denmark’s cycling scene while ignoring the fact that cyclist and motorist education is of huge import in that country.
As a cyclist and an active-living advocate I have a vested interest in how things play out in the region. I am not sure where to go with these concerns, but I would be remiss if I didn’t try to find a way to connect with the other workshop attendees and offer an alternate perspective.