Monday, January 27, 2014

St. Louis & Complete Streets

From the "Better Late Than Never" Posting Dept... *
*a reference to the fact I usually post on Fridays...

Approximately two months ago, a "Complete Streets" bill was proposed in St. Louis County. It was met with a lot of questions and push-back, was tabled and revised, and resubmitted last week... and it passed!

Complete Streets means designing new and redesigning existing streets to be more usable by everyone - cars, bicycles, the disabled/wheelchair-bound, pedestrians, young, and elderly. 

I am thrilled with this development, though I know it will be slow-going due to the cost and the state of current infrastructure. Many roads have been expanded at the expense of wide-enough lanes, adequate sidewalks, or adequate frontage (just yeesh, Manchester Road in Rock Hill/Warson Woods and points West).

Here's a recent article with more info from the local paper (the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

The measure was contentious, to say the least. There is a strong contingency of riders who believe that riding in traffic ("taking the lane") is safer and makes riders more visible. There are other riders who just feel more comfortable in a designated bike lane (I'm in this camp, rightly or wrongly), and who often argue that dedicated bike lanes will encourage more women and other riders unwilling to take the lane to begin commuting. 

I believe both are correct - I do agree that bike lanes present issues with visibility, with distracted drivers, and with maintenance (Chicago tweeters have often complained this winter that the main lanes are plowed, while bike lanes remain icy, slushy, or otherwise obstructed), but others don't trust the drivers to be less distracted just because you're right in front of them, or simply aren't comfortable sharing a lane when the 30-pound steel contraption is traveling at about 20% of the speed of the multi-ton, steel contraption. I do think that both camps generally can agree that more riders makes bicycling safer, because the more cars see bicycles on the road (whether in bike lanes or regular lanes), the more they look out for them and learn to share the road. 

Of course, there are the folks who are totally against bicycle infrastructure because they do not want to share the road with either a cyclist or a dedicate lane. A major argument comes from the belief that bicyclists are gaining a major benefit (at the high cost of revamped infrastructure) without contributing (generally, because the bicycles, unlike the cars, do not have to be registered, the riders don't have to be licensed, and bike-ownership taxes aren't paid on an annual basis). Many people also feel that roads were built for the exclusive benefit of cars. I think these arguments fail, for the following reasons:

One of the things that most strikes me, however, regarding the objection to bike lanes by cars...
So many of the objections have to do with not wanting cyclists (slow) in the way of cars (fast). Cars have to pass them, or get stuck behind them, and the resulting frustration lends itself to a lot of animosity toward cyclists. A bicycle lane, however, gives the bike a clear place to be so that the car lane is more often open for cars (for a bike lane does not preclude a rider from using the car lane*, though it does preclude a car from using the bike lane). Isn't that a nice solution for cars? If drivers could safely drive by instead of behind a transportation cyclist moseying along at 7-10 mph, wouldn't that make the drivers happier? All I ask in return is that drivers quit texting and drinking and driving and keep an eye out for me and other riders, and not try to turn right across our path... Isn't that a suitable compromise? This doesn't fix the "take the lane" arguments or preclude the need for a bike rider to sometimes ride in the flow of traffic rather than in a dedicated (or absent) bike lane, but if you're in the "roads for cars" camp, doesn't a designated corridor make you happier? More bike-friendly?

*Missouri cyclists are not required to ride in a shoulder or bike lane that is unsafe due to parked cars, debris, or other obstructions. In fact, cyclists are granted all the road rights of cars pursuant to Missouri state law, subject to a few special rules about lighting/reflectors, default lane position, and signaling

If you even think about suggesting the proper place for bicycles are sidewalks, please note that in Missouri and many other states, there are entire swaths of sidewalks (usually the same places where sidewalks are most prevalent) where bike riding on sidewalks is often illegal.

All in all, I'm pretty excited about the passing of Complete Streets. I see it as a fabulous opportunity to continue to increase discussions and awareness about cycling as a safe and meaningful alternative to driving, to help both cyclists and drivers better understand their rights and responsibilities when sharing the road, and hopefully to create a better sense of camaraderie between the two camps that are so often pitted against one another. Really, most cyclists are also drivers. They are all someone's spouse, child, parent, sibling, friend, or and/or lover, as are all drivers. We're all in this together, and I see Complete Streets as a fantastic opportunity to try to find the things we have in common, rather than focusing on the things that divide us. Hopefully, this starts by encouraging more people to use our roads in new and different ways, by realizing we all want the option to get to work safely and conveniently (however we're traveling), and that we're all pitching in to fund these roads, sidewalks, and bike lanes, however we are choosing to get around any given day. 

Cheers, and happy (and safe) riding...and driving!

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