Creating and Integrating a Commuter Cycling Infrastructure: A Comparative Exploration of Problems and Solutions in Alternative Transportation

The United States of America is obsessed with cars. We are the number one consumer of oil in the world, with 20.5 million barrels drained daily. To put this in perspective, China, the world’s number two consumer of oil relies on 7.2 million barrels per day (1). Such a striking disparity between levels of consumption in the United States and abroad speaks to our immersion in, and our dependency on, car culture. Many of our cities reflect this in the way that they have been designed and built, though, as our world changes (with peak oil looming, global warming on our minds and congested roadways stressing us out) our cities must change as well. In many cases, the present automobile bias marginalizes the access of commuter cyclists to cities and discourages potential newcomers from considering cycling as a viable commuting option. However, according to Missouri Revised Statutes Section 307.188: “Every person riding a bicycle… upon a street or highway shall be granted all the rights and shall be subject to all the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle” (2). The law clearly promotes equal access and equal responsibility.

Columbia, MO along with three other U.S. cities (Minneapolis, MN, Sheboygan County, WI and Marin County, CA) are developing pedestrian and cycling infrastructures with the help of a $286.5 billion dollar highway bill (3). As part of this pilot program, each city will receive about $5 million dollars a year for five years. With these infrastructures in place, lawmakers (and those involved in making it happen locally) believe commuters will be able to navigate safely throughout their respective cities, to and from schools, businesses, neighborhoods and recreational areas. So everything is peachy keen now, right? Not exactly. While finding funding is a formidable initial hurdle in the development of a commuter cycling infrastructure (with the added obstacle of convincing local taxpayers not to cut existing funding in light of the windfall), the actual creation and integration of such ideas into concrete form in a community is the complicated part (though national oversight should expedite the process). Each of the communities mentioned above has developed a master plan to be implemented with the funds provided by the federal government. This paper will explore problems arising in the implementation of these plans in Columbia, MO by looking closely at problems encountered and solutions generated by other cities (Amsterdam and Copenhagen in Europe, as well as Portland, OR, Boulder, CO and Davis, CA stateside) in the development of such infrastructures. To keep things organized, four key issues will be discussed with regard to Columbia, MO... how to develop effective: 1. green routes (bike only pathways not adjacent to any roadways) 2. cycle tracks (pathways adjacent to roadways that are separated from both auto traffic and pedestrians by curbs on either side) and bike lanes 3. intersections between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians and 4. parking infrastructure. These are fundamental pieces of the infrastructure that will make Columbia a city accessible to cyclists.

If you were to drive west along Nifong Boulevard by the Super Wal-Mart in south Columbia, you may or may not notice the pathetic bike lane wedged between the road and the curb. If you do notice it, you may not even realize it's a bike lane. That's how small it is... Nevertheless, traffic flies by on this stretch at about 55 mph, driving through the bike lane en route to everyday low prices. Often, there is debris scattered along the side of the road here and along other routes, just waiting to give a cyclist a flat tire. This represents the sort of infrastructure that is useless to many in the community. While experienced riders may take this route if they have no other choice, it isn't even an option for schoolchildren or less experienced riders. If the city wants to promote a modal shift in the transportation patterns of the community, they will have to focus on infrastructure that opens routes to experienced and unexperienced riders alike. Green routes on the other hand, do not run adjacent to any roadways, making them safe for riders of all ages and skill levels. These routes must connect the neighborhoods of Columbia with the schools of Columbia, so that parents will feel comfortable letting their children pedal to school actively, as opposed to riding the bus.

Columbia has a great network of existing trails as well as a green belt that will facilitate the development of these safe school routes. However, lots of new trails need to be built and they need to be accessible from as many neighborhoods on the existing school bus routes as possible. While the community on a whole is supportive of this project (4), and I have no doubts that it will reach fruition eventually, I suspect more than a few will be none too pleased to allow the construction of a trail in their backyard. Such concerns are understandable, would you want a bike lane cutting between your house and your next door neighbor's? Land acquisition is perhaps the most difficult obstacle in creating these routes. Aside from NIMBYism, Columbia is a city full of developers and business people with community clout that might seek to develop land and vacant lots that are needed for the construction of trails as stated in the current plans. Working with public-private partnerships to keep them happy will be important.

Beyond the land needed to complete the project, other concerns exist over how to construct these trails. The central issue here is whether to develop concrete/asphalt trails or packed gravel trails (4). Runners prefer packed gravel because it is softer than concrete/asphalt and allows a lower impact workout. However, such trails are not as accessible to those in wheelchairs (an important part of the PedNet Project). Additionally, while cyclists can manage just fine on gravel trails, concrete/asphalt is cleaner, may be cleared and salted in icy conditions, and makes for a faster commute. Concrete/asphalt is also far more expensive in terms of initial investment and in maintenance, though it lasts longer. Additionally, concrete/asphalt can generate runoff and erosion problems in adjacent areas.

I have already addressed some of the problems with existing bike lanes in Columbia and elsewhere. An alternative to bike lanes is the european cycle track, or pedway as Columbia prefers to call them (4). Essentially, a pedway is a road for bicycles, separated from both motorized traffic and pedestrians (see fig. 1 and fig. 2). There are two main issues concerning the development of these pedways; location and construction. These pedways will provide a safe and comfortable commute in areas with heavy traffic and higher speed limits. These are the busy thoroughfares of the commuter cycling infrastructure and thus must be built in areas that have the potential to be heavily used by commuters. So the locations for these pedways must satisfy the first two considerations, while at the same time dealing with NIMBYism on the parts of homeowners and business owners with property adjacent to any proposed routes. It's simple, either the roadway will be made smaller for cars, or made larger to include bikes. Either solution steps on someone's toes. Some business owners in the Columbia have expressed concerns over whether the construction of pedways will necessitate the removal of valuable downtown parking (10). Other difficulties include working around the aboveground placement of certain utilities in the path of re-development.

Easily the most difficult task for planners, is how to construct safe and efficient intersections that work for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike. Resentment of cyclists by motorists stems partly from the casual attitudes of some cyclists towards the rules of the road (rolling through red lights and stop signs...). Intersections need to have structures in place to manage cyclists in the same way that traffic signals and crosswalks manage motorists and pedestrians. The challenge is create a standardized scheme that will work in many different locations throughout the city. Everybody knows what traffic signals mean (green for go, yellow for slow, red for stop). Similarly, easy to understand bike signals need to be developed that cannot be confused with either standard traffic signals or pedestrian crosswalk signals. Other difficulties include when to let cyclists merge with traffic, like in the downtown 'District' neighborhood of Columbia where cyclists can generally keep up with traffic due to low speed limits. When do you use existing traffic signals and when do you rely on the new infrastructure? How do you make the transition between the two smooth and intuitive if both are to be used? How will existing intersections be modified when they incorporate a new pedway versus a painted bike lane? When should an overpass or underpass be considered as an alternative to an intersection? Figure 3 illustrates a difficult intersection in Columbia at Ash and Stadium where the sidewalk ends abruptly before the intersection, blocked by aboveground utilities. Stadium Boulevard is a major arterial with heavy traffic that will challenge planners to create innovative solutions to connect residents and businesses to the west of it with residents and businesses downtown and throughout Columbia (4).

Critical to making commuter cycling convenient is the presence of adequate parking facilities and a supportive infrastructure in place to encourage people to ride their bikes regardless of where they're headed and how long they will be there. Finding solutions that place bikes close to central entrances and foot traffic, as well as pedways and roads, is the first step. Additionally, cyclists want secure parking spaces with "a heavy duty material to lock onto... racks that won't scratch frames... racks that will hold bikes up... racks that may be properly used with a u-lock..." and "shelters for long term parking" and inclement weather (5).

Moving on to a discussion of solutions to these problems, let us start with what Columbia is doing and planning to do with the federal grant money. Listed in the Interim Report on progress as the highest priority projects are the following (6):

  • MKT, Hinkson Creek and Bear Creek trail projects with six neighborhood connections.
  • Acquisition of additional trail ROW for four trails.
  • Downtown and MU hub/spoke bicycle lanes.
  • Demonstration bicycle route project in downtown.
  • Three intersection projects.
  • Five bridge overpass projects.
  • Demonstration grate replacement project.
  • Downtown bicycle racks.
  • University projects (including shelters, racks, striping, and trail extensions).
  • Neighborhood and school-area sidewalks.
  • Three pedestrian walkways.

As a conceptual framework, Columbia has planned its bikeway network as a bicycle wheel with a hub in the middle representing the District and the University of Missouri - Columbia campus with spokes projecting outward along waterways when possible (4). The first project seeks to connect green routes with six different neighborhoods. This will serve as a template for integrating more neighborhoods into the green route network, enabling children to commute to school as well as giving individuals and families greater access to recreation areas. The expansion of neighborhood and school-area sidewalks, mentioned near the end of the list, will work hand in hand with the aims of providing a safe active means of transportation to in from school for children (4). Columbia has an innovative plan to transition non-cyclists to recreational cyclists, and then to use the acquired confidence and skills learned to make these recreational riders become commuters. The second project will build on the first through the acquisition of land to be used for the development of four new green route trails. How this will happen has not been detailed yet, though. Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman stresses that creating interconnectivity in the community is one the central goals of these projects (4). The third project will build up the infrastructure of the central hub and spokes in the District and on the MU campus by marking bike lanes. This project along with the fourth project to develop a demonstration route in downtown Columbia will make the goals of PedNet visible to the community and will act as a stepping stone to continued expansion of the network. Additionally, the seventh, eighth and ninth projects (all involving downtown and the MU Campus) will serve to further increase the visibility and accessibility of commuter cycling in Columbia. The most intensive projects listed are the five overpass bridges, three intersections, and three pedestrian walkways suggested for development. Busy roads can act just like rivers, dividing up groups of people who live only a block or two apart. If people don't feel comfortable crossing on foot or bike, they won't, they'll take a ferry... in this case an automobile. These projects will build the interconnectivity that Mayor Hindman emphasized.

Two overpass projects were detailed in particular, the Clinkscale to Cosmos I-70 Overpass Bridge and the Douglass School - Providence Pedestrian Overpass and Flatbranch Park Pedway connection (6). The first will connect cyclists and pedestrians north of I-70 with downtown Columbia and other areas south of I-70, as well as provide access to the Cosmopolitan Park Recreational Area north of town to cyclists and pedestrians south of I-70. This bridge does not exist in any form yet and will be constructed from scratch. On the other hand, the Providence overpass connecting with the Flatbranch Park Pedway will retrofit an existing and outdated pedestrian bridge that already exists over Providence road just south of Rogers and Worley and north of Ash. Both of these projects are described as "signature" projects in the report, which may be a nice way of saying that they will cost more than everything else.

Now I would like to look to other cities in the U.S. and abroad, relating their alternative transportation solutions to the state of affairs in Columbia, MO. While Amsterdam may be better known for its bikes, Copenhagen, Denmark is one of the most cyclist friendly cities in the world. Two fantastic videos on YouTube.com (see references (7) and (8)) illustrate this point far better than any language could. The first is titled "Cycle Copenhagen" and gives a five minute introduction to cycling in the city. Some interesting facts from the video are the presence of gas tax in Copenhagen that makes it cost roughly $6 a gallon, additionally, there is a 200% tax on the purchase of motor vehicles; it is little surprise that cyclists are given priority in city planning over motor vehicles (7). For instance, when buses stop to let passengers on, the bus blocks automobile traffic, but not bicycle traffic (7). The taxes levied in Copenhagen have the intended purpose of encouraging people to choose alternatives to automobiles, including bicycles and mass transit. However, as one Copenhagener comments in the video, by the time you have the bus routes figured out you could be there on a bike (7). In Columbia much less the U.S. at large, there are presently no plans to tax automobiles more than they already are. Thus, PedNet organizers in Columbia have taken a different strategy to encourage people to bike, involving what they call social marketing, which they define as "mass media marketing (radio spots, possible ads in publications, etc.), such as... (a) radio and poster campaign conducted by the Health Department... targeted at specific audiences to create 'a buzz' and promote and generate interest in the program" (6).

Copenhagen has green routes in addition to cycle tracks (8). There are signals for cyclists at all major intersections (if an intersection is busy enough to have traffic signals for motorists, it's busy enough to have them for cyclists). Figure 2 depicts a cycle track in Copenhagen, showing how cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, as well as parked cars and bicycles, can all fit along one street. Large-scale parking facilities are available in the city, complete with showers and lockers. The city center is closed off to all motorized traffic. Because so many people in Copenhagen commute on bicycle, their cycling infrastructure is developed and rich with taxpayer support. While Columbia differs from Copenhagen in population, density, geography and laundry list of other ways, there is always something to learn from a successful model. Amsterdam is another successful model, sharing all the features of Copenhagen's infrastructure mentioned above. Both Copenhagen and Amsterdam share a common trait that distinguishes them from many U.S. cities, their population density is much higher. Amsterdam wins out with an urbanized area population per square mile of 12,649, whereas Copenhagen registers at 7,413 (9). These numbers are a little dated, but the point stands nonetheless. In dense cities, things are closer together, whether these things are homes, businesses or entertainment. This facilitates alternative forms of transportation such as cycling. Columbia is a unique city which seems to straddle two ends of the spectrum, in some respects, embracing the American custom of taking up as much space as one can afford, while on the other hand, the city center, adjacent neighborhoods and the MU campus are poised to take advantage of a commuter cycling infrastructure and smart growth. By beginning the PedNet project in the most densely populated area of Columbia (6), planners have started off on the right foot (or wheel).

Returning to the four central issues of developing a commuter cycling infrastructure, I would like to elaborate on what Columbia can learn from each of the cities listed in the introduction. The successful development of green routes is crucial to the success of the PedNet Project. These will get people riding. Davis, CA is an example of a city that has an extensive system of green routes that are frequently used by children commuting to school (Davis got rid of school buses in 2005) (12). In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, like many other densely populated areas, green routes, or even parks for that matter, are cherished not only for their beauty, but because they don't have the ability to make them any more. They've run out of space (an inference from my travels abroad). Columbia still has space, and strong community support for a greenbelt. These are valuable resources for the community that must be protected. Additionally, cycle tracks and bike lanes need to be integrated with existing infrastructure. Which is to say, bike lanes need to be created downtown without a net loss in parking spots for motorists (10). Business owners are concerned that losing close proximity parking will result in lost business. However, in my opinion an individual would be more inclined to swing into a shop on a whim on a bicycle than driving a car. With the parking infrastructure in place for bikes, it will be much easier to hop off a bike and lock it up, than to find a parking spot in downtown Columbia and get out of the car to walk two blocks back to whatever it was you wanted to check out. Nevertheless, taking a cue from Portland, Oregon, Ted Curtis (in charge of planning the PedNet Project) has suggested back-in diagonal parking (so drivers can see cyclists before they pull out and roll over one) will allow for the addition of bike lanes without the removal of parking, while looking after the safety of cyclists (10). With increased development of cycling infrastructure, more people will begin to ride because of a positive and significant correlation between such investment and commuting (it's the Field of Dreams effect... "if you build it they will come...") (11).

 

Bibliography: (APA w/ in text reference numbers)

(1) Energy Information Administration (2006) Non-OPEC Fact Sheet. Retrieved November 6, 2007, from http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/topworldtables3_4.html

(2) Missouri Revised Statutes (2007, August 28) Chapter 307 Vehicle Equipment Regulations Section 307.188. Retrieved November 6, 2007, from http://www.moga.mo.gov/statutes/C300-399/3070000188.HTM

(3) Frommer, Frederic J., (2005, July 29) Highway bill includes $100 million for trail pilot programs. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from http://www.marinbike.org/News/Articles/AP25M.shtml

(4) PedNet (2007) Various Pages. Retrieved November 2, 2007, from http://www.pednet.org

(5) City of Columbia (2007) Non-Motorized Bicycle Parking Plan. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from http://www.gocolumbiamo.com/PedNet_Project/documents/BicycleParkingPlan.pdf

(6) City of Columbia (2007) Interim Report on PedNet Project. Retrieved on November 1, 2007, from http://www.gocolumbiamo.comPedNet_Projectdocumentscolumbiainterimreportsection.pdf

(7) Youtube.com (2007) Cycle Copenhagen. Retrieved November 12, 2007, from http://www.youtube.com

(8) Youtube.com (2007) City of Cyclists: Parts 1-5. Retrieved November 12, 2007, from http://www.youtube.com

(9) Public Purpose. (2000) Population Density Ranking and Roadway Speed: International Urban Areas: 1990/1991. Retrieved on November 6, 2007, from http://www.publicpurpose.com/ut-intlsp&dens2.htm

(10) City of Columbia. (2007) Columbia Special Business District Board of Directors Meeting Minutes. Feb. 13, 2007. Retrieved November 12, 2007, from http://www.discoverthedistrict.com/pdf/minutes/minutes_sbd_feb2007.pdf

(11) Dill, Jennifer & Theresa Carr. (2003) Bicycle Commuting and Facilities in Major U.S. Cities: If You Build Them, Commuters Will Use Them. Pedestrians and Bicycles. (Electronic Version, p. 122) Retrieved November 12, 2007 from http://pubsindex.trb.org/document/view/default.asp?lbid=663874

(12) City of Davis. (2007) Bike Information - Bicycles and Davis - City of Davis. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from http://www.city.davis.ca.us/bicycles/info.cfm

 

Appendix (Throughout the text, I reference images at these locations)

fig. 1 from http://www.bikearlington.com/cycletrack.cfm

fig. 2 from http://www.bikearlington.com/cycletrack.cfm

fig. 3 from pednet.org

fig. 4 from http://goamsterdam.about.com

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