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Making Cities Bike Friendly

From Nation of Change and Yes! Magazine
28 July 2012
by Jay Walljasper

How Cities Can Get Drivers Biking

You can glimpse the future right now in forward-looking American cities—a few blocks here, a mile there, where people riding bicycles are protected from rushing cars and trucks.

Chicago’s Kinzie Street, just north of downtown, offers a good picture of this transportation transformation. New bike lanes are marked with bright green paint and separated from motor traffic by a series of plastic posts. This means bicyclists glide through the busy area in the safety of their own space on the road. Pedestrians are thankful that bikes no longer seek refuge on the sidewalks, and many drivers appreciate the clear, orderly delineation about where bikes and cars belong.

“Most of all this is a safety project,” notes Chicago’s Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. “We saw bikes go up from a 22 percent share of traffic to 52 percent of traffic on the street with only a negligible change in motorists’ time, but a drop in their speeds. That makes everyone safer.”

Klein heralds this new style of bike lane as one way to improve urban mobility in an era of budget shortfalls. “They’re dirt cheap to build compared to road projects.”

“The Kinzie project was discombobulating to the public when it first went in,” notes Alderman Margaret Laurino, chair of the city council’s Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Committee. “Business owners had questions. But now people understand it and we’re ready to do more.”

“Protected bike lanes are not just for diehard bicyclists—they offer a level of safety and confidence for less experienced riders,” adds Rey Colón, a Chicago alderman who first saw how well these innovations work on a trip to Seville, Spain.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel campaigned on the promise of building 100 miles of these “green lanes” over the next four years to heighten the city’s appeal to new businesses. After the protected bike lane opened on Kinzie Street last year, more were installed on Jackson Boulevard and 18th Street on the city’s Near West Side. Thirteen more miles are planned this summer throughout the city. (The Chicago suburb of Evanston just announced plans to install protected bike lanes on one of its busy streets.)

Green Lanes Mean Go

People on bikes everywhere feel more safe and comfortable on busy streets with a physical barrier between them and motor vehicles. In some places it’s a plastic post or line of parked cars. In others it’s a curb, planter or slightly elevated bike lanes. But no matter what separates people on bikes from people in cars, the results are hefty increases in the number and variety of people bicycling.

“We’ve seen biking almost triple on parts of 15th Street NW since installing a protected bike lane last year,” reports Jim Sebastian, Active Transportation Project Manager for the District of Columbia. “And we’re seeing different kinds of cyclists beyond the Lycra crowd. People in business suits, high heels, families out for a ride, more younger and older people.”

This particular bike lane—one of more than 50 protected bikeways built recently in at least 20 cities from New York to Minneapolis to Long Beach, Calif.—is richly symbolic for Americans. It follows 15th Sreet NW to the White House.

“This is what cities of the future are doing to attract businesses and young people,” notes Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “People don’t want to drive all the time; they want a choice.”

The Greening of America’s Streets

The Green Lane Project, an initiative to showcase these next-generation transportation improvements, was launched on May 31 in six U.S. cities: Chicago, Washington, D.C., Memphis, Austin, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. The effort is coordinated by the Bikes Belong Foundation. Advisors to the project include New York City Department of Transportation (which has already pioneered 5 miles of protected lanes on six streets), the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the League of American Bicyclists. Major funders include Volkswagen of America, SRAM, Interbike, the Taiwan Bicycle Exporters Association and the Bikes Belong Coalition.

The name “green lane” was chosen not only to draw attention to the typical color of protected bike lanes but also to highlight their potential in improving the urban environment and saving on transportation costs. “Green lanes are not just a color on the street. They are paths to better cities,” the project’s website explains, adding that more people on bikes eases congestion and boosts residents’ health, sense of community, and economic opportunities.

The project will connect elected officials, city planners, traffic engineers, bike advocates and citizens in these six cities to share experiences, trade data, and swap ideas, says Project Director Martha Roskowski. Until this year she ran GO Boulder, the alternative transportation effort at the city of Boulder, Colorado, which built its first protected bike lane in the early 1990s.

“For cities, green lanes are like finding a whole new drawer of tools in your toolbox,” Roskowski notes. “Our mission is to expand the knowledge on how to use these tools. How to get them on the ground. How to fine tune them. How to make them work best.”

Five years ago, these designs were barely on the horizon in the U.S. although they’ve been standard in Europe for decades. “Today, cities across the country are looking to green lanes to tame busy streets and connect missing links in the bicycling network,” she says. She points to the 2011 publication of a design guide by the National Association of City Transportation Officials as a key factor creating momentum for green lanes. “The guide shows cities how to combine existing, approved design elements in new ways to create these spaces,” says Roskowski

“The idea is to create the kind of bike networks that will attract the 60 percent of all Americans who say they would bike more if they felt safer,” says Randy Neufeld, a longtime bike advocate in Chicago who as Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund helped start the Green Lane Project. “It’s about helping people from 8 to 80 to feel safe biking on city streets.”

The six Green Lane Project cities will receive technical assistance and support, backed by targeted grants to help carry out their plans. Other cities around the country will soon be able to tap into a comprehensive resource center of data, documentation and best practices compiled by the project.

Protected bike lanes are often accompanied by other safety improvements—paint that marks bicyclists’ path through intersections; designated spaces at stoplights that give two-wheel traffic a slight head start; and traffic signals dedicated to people on bikes. All these measures reduce car/bike collisions by making people on bikes more visible and clearly assigning priority at intersections. In addition, many cities around the country are also building buffered bike lanes, where wide patches of paint rather than physical barriers separate bicyclists from cars and trucks.

The proliferation of new bike sharing systems—where people can conveniently rent bikes at on-street stations with a credit card and return them to another station near their destination—creates new demand for green lanes by getting more riders on the streets. Bike share is now running full board in Washington, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, Chattanooga, and Miami Beach—and coming soon to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities. Roskowski notes that the recent rise of bike sharing and protected bike lanes are linked. “Bike share puts new people on bikes who want safer, more comfortable place to ride.”

Bikes—Not Just for Ultra Fit Athletes

The United States has witnessed a boom in bicycling over the past 15 years, proving that bikes aren’t just for kids and recreational riders anymore. They are an essential component of 21st-century transportation systems that can cut congestion on crowded streets, save money in transportation budgets, improve traffic safety, and reduce pollution.

The number of Americans commuting to work by bike has climbed 43 percent since 2000, according to census figures. And numbers are even higher in places making their streets more accommodating for bicyclists. New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have all doubled the number of people on bikes over the past five years. In Portland, Oregon, 6 percent of all commuters travel to work by bike—an achievement matched by smaller cities such as Gainesville, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin; and Cambridge, Massachusetts—and surpassed in Boulder, Colorado (10 percent) and Davis, California (22 percent).

Yet overall, America still lags behind many Western nations in embracing bikes as a form of transportation. Only one percent of all trips nationally are made by people on bicycles today (up from 0.43 percent a few years ago). There are many explanations—some practical, some philosophical—for why most Americans bike infrequently.

The sprawling layout of many cities and suburbs is one obvious cause. The decline of physical activity among many Americans, even kids, is a likely contributing factor. Some observers point to automobiles’ long reign as a status symbol. Others suggest that many Americans view bicycling as a white, upper-middle class hobby, not as a form of transportation for average families. However, a recent study found that 21 percent of all bike trips in the U.S. are made by people of color.

Many cities are paying particular attention to make sure that low-income and minority communities—where many families don’t own cars and others are financially strapped by the rising costs of operating one—have access to state-of-the-art biking facilities. With a 63 percent African-American population, Memphis was selected as one of the six Green Lane cities in part because of Mayor AC Wharton Jr.’s strong support for biking as essential—not a frill—for a city with one of the highest diabetes rates in the country and where 15 percent of households have no access to a car.

Danny Solis—a Latino alderman representing a district on Chicago’s West Side with a high percentage of Mexican Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans—says good bike lanes are important to improving public safety and economic vitality in lower-income communities: “It increases interaction between neighbors, which is a boost for businesses and keeps the gang bangers away.”

Encouraging more people to ride bikes offers substantial rewards for all Americans, whether they ride a bike or not, by using streets more efficiently to move people and offering an economical choices in transportation as well as addressing looming problems such as the obesity epidemic and volatile fuel prices. And it gets even better from there—the more people ride, the more benefits we’ll all see.

Read entire article at Nation of Change or Yes! Magazine.

Moving Up – Part 1

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt)

Moving Up – Part 1

If you enjoy stench, spilled guts and sights too horrible to imagine, it was a dream job. Not a cash cow or silk tie kind of thing, but it kept me out of trouble, paid the bills and satisfied my sliver of sanity.

I had the honor, no the privilege, of driving the county roads to pick up dead animals that had been dismembered, disemboweled or squashed like aluminum cans after they had followed an arousing scent or been running from a perceived or real danger.

The blue and white van I had been provided was a mockery to survival itself, but came with the territory. With brakes that required savage pumping to avert running into a brooding oak guarding a curve and lights that flickered on and off like a firefly, it was a matter of faith and fatalism that kept me roaming the roads like a vulture.

“Sure John, we fixed the van,” the mechanics at the city yard would reply with a smirk. “A little gum and masking tape did the job.”

They enjoyed their friendly razing, not realizing their haphazard maintenance was abetting my undercover mission to obliterate my self and obtain absolution for having the gall to keep living.

The early morning ritual of driving the two-lane roads in a death trap was actually quite therapeutic and made me acutely aware of the precariousness of my existence. The sad eyes of a dead raccoon, the resigned look of a possum or the dilated pupils of a terrorized deer strengthened my daily revelations.

I began to see their deaths as sacrifices for their species; not unlike the human sacrifices made in ancient cultures in which it was believed that offering up someone’s soul every now and then would somehow please the gods and protect the rest of the clan.

Staring into the trees, driving along the blacktop at a crawl, my lights returning just in time to see the center line, I would glance out my bug-splattered side window and imagine the beasts of the forest at their nightly gathering.
“It’s your turn,” the eldest skunk would tell his brother, the one he’d always hated. “It’s your turn and everyone knows it.” The young sibling would stare in disbelief and frantically argue.

“What?! My turn? There have been more of us stinking up the road since last winter then there have been rabbits in a blue moon.” Turning towards the rabbits, his nose in the air, he snarls, “Why don’t they put up for a change?”
I’m not sure how they make their selections. Most of the animals that sacrifice themselves aren’t virgins, though I doubt that matters as much to them as it has with humans. I had a strong feeling their decisions weren’t reached by consensus.

My mind tended to play tricks while I was shrouded in morning’s dark shawl. Just before sunrise I would lose track of where I was and became blissfully disoriented. The thrill of being lost and abandoned, with a load of dead carcasses, made me feel like a kid who has just been terrorized from seeing a monster in the closet. Chills of helpless agony caressed my spine, leaving a pungent residue of powerlessness that lasted until I returned to the county yard and dumped my scavenged cargo.

To my surprise and disappointment, the excitement and unique perspective the job provided began to fade. Instead of adrenaline or anticipation numbing my senses, I became jaded and morose. It became commonplace. My lovely nightmares had ceased and I began to look forward to my days off.

After weeks of concentrated contemplation I applied for an opening in waste management. They must have been desperate. Within days of turning in my application I was offered a job at the landfill three miles from town.

It seemed that good fortune had struck twice and unlike lightening this was something I looked forward too. A feast of garbage awaited my attention and it was being served on a government platter with higher pay and benefits; though the health coverage and retirement fund amounted to a big fat zero since I didn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy such entitlements.

They started me out at the sorting machines for recyclables, but that was too clean and tidy for my tastes. Luckily I got in good with Gary, the boss and it wasn’t long until he granted my request and demoted me to a better position.

“You sure you want this?” Gary grumbled, as he took the five bucks from a city resident entering the yard with a truckload of junk. He didn’t like sitting at the gate all day, but Leslie was out taking care of her sick husband and I was a flunky when it came to handling money.

“You bet,” I said, staring at the ground to make sure he didn’t see me grinning.

“OK.” He handed the driver their two-bit change and receipt then looked my way. “It’s your life.”

“Thanks Gary.”

As I put on my gloves and headed towards the screeching seagulls that made the landfill their home, he hollered, “If you change your mind let me know and I’ll put the next new guy on it.” I waved.

I quickly wadded into the middle of the filth to search for valuables that had been dumped along with the refuse. Whatever we found that was of any value we set aside for the city to resale or recycle, but everyone knew we could take the occasional prize home for our own enjoyment or consumption.

***
One wet drizzly fall day, after slogging through a pile of decomposing lettuce and coffee grounds, I came upon a large black and white stuffed dog as big as a small horse. I brushed off the fur, removed my gloves and felt it from head to tail. It only had one small tear, the stuffing seemed intact and it didn’t smell too rancid. I turned it around to look at the front and felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. The eyes were dark shiny half-shelled marbles that looked exactly like my mothers.

I was a child when she left her limp body on the bed, but the vacant expression in her eyes had been scorched into my little mind forever. Now, in the city dump, up to my knees in trash, I held my find above the waste and saw my mother staring back from her glassy-eyed, opium-filled refuge.

I whistled and waved at my sorting colleague Sammy, to indicate I was taking my break. He waved back and nodded. Sammy was the only guy I knew who liked garbage as much as I. He always offered to cover shifts for the rest of us. He was afraid he would miss the find of the century the one day he was off work.

I walked to my oil-stained motorbike parked in the corner of the yard and tied the dog on the back of the ripped leather seat with a tattered budgie cord. It looked like a carpetbag slung over a pony’s saddle and left little room for my sorry ass on the ride home.

That night I washed, combed and brushed the fur, stitched the tear and polished the eyes. I was lost in those eyes when the phone rang. I didn’t answer. It was probably Annie. She’d been hounding me for years. “You’ve got to move out of the city. Come live with me.” She called once a week from her parent’s home telling me how much she loved and adored me.

Annie and I had met in high school. Her best friend Sylvia had been killed in a freak auto accident the day before graduation. She came to me for comfort. I listened. She interpreted my silence as love and tethered herself to me like a goat to a stake. I have no idea what love is. When her friend had died I just didn’t know what to say and figured saying nothing was better than mouthing off a bunch of cliches or condolences. If I’d known she would become so possessed I would have told her, “Everything will be OK.” Or, “I understand. Don’t worry.”

Now there was nothing I could do but wait. I don’t know how to say good bye; other people do that.

PART 2 TOMORROW

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