Category Archives: Transportation

Bikes: A Proxy For Change

Appearing on Eye On Annapolis, September 13, 2018

All the brouhaha around the Main Street bike lane has a very strong cultural component that is bubbling just below the surface of the discussion about the project. Sure there are issues of cost and process which are certainly understandable, but most of the visceral dislike revolves around the cultural perceptions of people riding bikes. These same reactions are occurring with bike infrastructure in Washington DC and Baltimore and around the country, so are not limited to our corner of the world. Cultural change is hard and when it happens, there is always a sense of loss.

The cultural change that I see people reacting to is two-fold: first, the perception of a “DC-ification” of Annapolis and second, that bikes are a recreational toy. The more the bike lane is discussed, the less it is about the lane itself, but the change it represents.

The popular local view that “Yuppies” have invaded and taken over the city since 1980 is very prevalent. People have called me a “carpetbagger” even though I have been here 20+ years, raised two kids here through public schools and been actively involved in the community in a variety of ways. People, especially of my generation and older – I am at the end of the boomer years – resent popular hipster culture and those they perceive as part of it, as it waters down the “Annapolitan” identity. Biking by young people for transportation and by “MAMILs” (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) on expensive bikes is viewed as the canary in the coal mine for a litany of undesirable changes from urbanization and traffic to increased costs of living and the death of traditional mom/pop retail, typically expressed in the coded phrase “destroying our quality of life”.

In the 1970s biking was marketed as a recreational activity and not for transportation. Cars are for doing serious work and we have all graduated to “big boy underpants” by driving cars to get around. There are many reasons for this, but suburbanization and its reliance on the automobile is seen as progress in the post-war era and is a predominant attitude of baby boomers. This along with the mom and pop retail stores, muscle cars, a working waterfront and the old Market House is emblematic of the pining for the “real” Annapolis of the 1970s before the “Yuppies” came.

The cover of the 1971 Schwinn Catalog showing the kids riding bikes on vacation strongly markets cycling as a recreational activity, not as a means of transportation.

Deep down, people know change is coming. We see it everywhere. The retail industry has been turned on its head. People are moving into the area. New things are being built. The city is urbanizing. Values for public space and transportation differ for younger people. These are all regional and national trends not specific to Annapolis. When these changes happen, especially disruptive economic ones, the fear is more change can only be bad so we need to keep the status quo to prevent losing more. There is very little credence given to the possibility that change can be economically positive. So much of this was expressed in public testimony at the City Council meeting on September 10, 2018 where there was an ad hoc hearing on the temporary bike lane experiment. It was always about losing something, parking, customers, historic value and the underlying “our way of life”. The resulting reaction is all what’s called Loss Aversion (from Wikipedia):

In cognitive psychology and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5. The principle is very prominent in the domain of economics. What distinguishes loss aversion from risk aversion is that the utility of a monetary payoff depends on what was previously experienced or was expected to happen. Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

The ban on smoking in restaurants mentioned at the hearing is a great example of this. Restaurants claimed loudly that their business would be dead in a week if the ban was passed. The reality ended up being that it greatly improved restaurant business because it brought out all the people who refused to go because of smoking. Ultimately, there is pent up demand the status quo suppresses. This is also true for local recreational trails such as the B&A, Poplar and the trail around the Navy Stadium. These were all opposed because of the perceived negative consequences, but are now seen and sold as “amenities”. With respect to protected bike lanes, NYC has shown virtually no negative consequences of reducing vehicle lanes in lieu of protected bike lanes. At the time the conventional wisdom was this would result in gridlock and be an economic catastrophe.

There are changes happening in Annapolis that people do not like, I certainly get that; even some I may personally not like. But change is inevitable. Are these changes good or bad? That’s obviously a matter of opinion, but think of it this way: would you rather have an Annapolis that is experiencing severe economic distress like many of the small towns throughout the country that have been depopulated over the last 30 years, or a town that is experiencing distress at the opposite end of the spectrum where population is increasing and there is economic vibrancy? I certainly would like more of the later than the former. I don’t want Annapolis to be known as the place that always says “no” when it requires us to change our habits.

Everyone wants change until it requires us to change. From ifunny.com

And finally, some parting words on the changing attitudes towards cycling in the United States. Eben Weiss, known as “Bike Snob NYC” an acerbic commentator on cycling culture hopes we can just make cycling seem normal in this country as is common place in other parts of the world.

We’re able to comprehend riding bikes only as a means of recreation; confounded by the practical; aghast at the notion that women and children should be exposed to this high-risk action sport. Hey, I’ll take being told I’m doing the coolest thing somebody’s ever seen, and it sure beats having things thrown at me from car windows (this has happened to every cyclist), but what I’d like even more would be if what I was doing was so commonplace as to be utterly not worth mentioning.

For Annapolis, I too share this hope.

Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study

The City of Annapolis Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study, one of the “neighborhood” plans that rolls up in the city comprehensive plan is in full swing. There were a number of public meetings which I attended and a variety of presentations and work sessions with the Planning Commission, some of which I have also attended.

My main comments on the plan over time – the area is in general the newest part of the city and the most auto oriented as outlined in a prior piece on street grids – revolve around a bifurcated view of the goal of the plan. People who just pass through the area (both city and county residents) do not want any changes that affect auto mobility. They focus almost exclusively on the traffic engineering portion of the plan and only comment on the land use and other parts in so far as they don’t want changes that bring people and in their opinion, more cars. There is the other side of the street that would like to see the area more urban in nature with less emphasis on auto mobility and more on traditional urban development with a more human scaled setting for buildings, economic and residential activity, and mobility. It is this dichotomy that causes some cognitive dissonance in the plan. Strong Towns points out as a core principal that these two are fundamentally incompatible and result in a STROAD which we currently have. The worst of both worlds, people, auto oriented commerce and fast moving cars.

I have expressed this philosophically in public meetings and to staff, but I’m not sure there is really anything fundamental that will come out of that. Because of this dichotomy, I assume the plan will pretty split the difference (status quo) or attempt to do both which will read with the same cognitive dissonance I see now.

Be that as it may, I did want to comment on one very specific aspect of the study area – the need for bicycle mobility along Forest Drive. This has been a long standing goal, perhaps best documented in the 2011 Bicycle Master Plan being the only online “active” plan that contains explicit reference to this.  The May 31 draft of the report is much more explicit about this, and I am encouraged by the additional focus, but want to supplement the options presented with practical implementation suggestions that will result in the highest return on investment. This is the summary I sent to the Planning Commission and Planning and Zoning Staff to be entered into the June 20 public meeting record:

Leaving or entering the City of Annapolis by bicycle requires crossing the ring of automobile-oriented arterial roadways that surround the historic core of Annapolis, including: Roscoe Rowe Boulevard (MD Highway 70), US Highway 50/301, Solomons Island Road (MD Highway 2), and Aris T Allen Boulevard/ Forest Drive (MD Highway 665). Bicyclists of necessity can be seen in all parts of Annapolis, weaving routes through neighborhoods and often on sidewalks to access commercial and employment destinations. The existing network of off-street bicycle facilities is similarly discontinuous, but provides the initial links in what will be an exemplary regional trail network, connecting neighborhoods and forming the core of Annapolis’s future Bicycle Network.

Desired and Existing Bicycle Network

I appreciate the updates in the May 31 draft of the sector study that brings bicycle mobility to the forefront. Both the short term and long term issues are addressed in section 2.7.2.2, Bike and Pedestrian Networks, as well as the potential solutions in section 3.4 Mobility: Pedestrian and Bikes.

Building on the discussion of the issues and potential solutions, it is important to go into additional detail because the efficacy of bicycle infrastructure for both transportation and recreation is very dependent on the implementation. I refer to an article published on strongtowns.org (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/5/19/follow-the-rules-bikers.html) which discusses the auto-centric cultural bias of planners and engineers and how it affects bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure implementation. Perhaps equally important is how this bias affects public perception of this infrastructure. I encourage you to read the entire article.

“…the concept of a “complete street” as “separate but equal”, not to diminish the despotism of racial segregation but to show the parallel of mindsets with how most of the country treats bikers and walkers. When we build a trail – or a separate drinking fountain – we’re (engineers, planners, drivers, society) doing something within our comfort zone. It allows us to feel like we’ve fairly accommodated others while not really having to change our approach to be accommodating. We can continue to act in a despotic way only now with a tinge of self-righteousness. We paid for them to have theirs, after all.”

“We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people. It is people that create value. It is people that build wealth. It is in prioritizing their needs – whether on foot, on a bike or in a wheelchair – that we will begin to change the financial health of our cities and truly make them strong towns.”

With this in mind, when the city begins to implement infrastructure outlined in the sector study, we have to make sure it is done in a way that does not just accommodate bikes in an auto-centric environment, but results in a network that is not only safe, but also contiguous, fast and comfortable. If we expect to shift mode share based on this infrastructure – that is to fully realize the return on investment – there must be a definite “value add” for bike riders. For example, faster transit time, bike parking at the front door of the destination, and/or a more pleasant trip. If we always give priority to the auto mode, why would someone chose to ride a bike? This is the most common criticism. Or worse, it incentivizes breaking the law which is always most unsafe for the bike rider because this infrastructure prioritizes the mistakes of drivers over the mistakes of bike riders. The following examples illustrate this bias towards the auto mode and implementation suggestions that attempt to remove this bias.

An Unrealistic Expectation For Path Users

This bike path requires cyclists to stop at every curb cut. Anyone trying to get down this bike path bike will likely never fully stop, resulting in a very unsafe situation.

Shared Use Path Along Forest Drive

In the study area, the existing path near the Safeway grocery store is typical of US-based infrastructure along arterial roads where it is clear the path users are secondary because the turn radii are large and the auto lanes uninterrupted which promotes fast vehicle movements in an area designed to (minimally) accommodate pedestrians and bike riders.

In a similar vein to the visual examples of community character in the draft document, examples of well-designed bicycle infrastructure – we can look to the Dutch for inspiration – will help guide future implementation. The Dutch are not only leaders in urban bicycle infrastructure, but also suburban bicycle infrastructure. The You Tube Channel “Bicycle Dutch” (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC67YlPrRvsO117gFDM7UePg) is an excellent resource for examples of both.

Contrast the above images with this Dutch junction design where the bicycles are given priority and this priority is supported by the visual treatments on the pavement.

Typical Dutch Junction Design

Additionally, an east/west separated path along the corridor should be as isolated from the major arterial as far as possible. Not only will this make the user experience more pleasant, but will move conflict points away from arterials and allow for vehicle speeds to decrease before a conflict point. This is consistent with the complete streets philosophy and many of these ideas are also discussed in the National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide (https://nacto.org/publication/urban-street-design-guide/).

There are a number of areas that are slated for development along the corridor that the city should require this type of design as a condition for the development such as The Village at Providence Point and Rocky Gorge (at least garnering an easement for when a path can practically be extended along Aris T Allen). Furthermore, around Annapolis Middle School, there is copious right of way owned by Anne Arundel County that could easily be used for this path and would significantly benefit the children who attend the school. This would also mitigate the current safety concerns resulting from the recent crashes involving school children. Funding for this area of the trail could be sought through the federal Safe Routes to Schools part of the Transportation Alternatives Program.

Given the corridor is a priority residential development area, the large number of existing commercial services and the lack of non-auto infrastructure, construction of this path along the entire corridor should be the highest priority in the capital improvement project recommendations.

Alex Pline Talks Parking, Transportation and Biking in Annapolis

Sitting around the 'Dirty Kitchen Table' with John Frenaye and Tim Hamilton

Sitting around the ‘Dirty Kitchen Table’ with John Frenaye and Tim Hamilton

I recently appeared on The Maryland Crabs Podcast, a podcast that covers the waterfront of local topics, to discuss parking, transportation and biking in Annapolis. In my role as Chair of the Annapolis Transportation Board, the subject of parking comes up at almost every monthly meeting. Since I’ve been in Annapolis, parking has always been handled in a fractious and ad hoc manner by the city. There have been many studies and virtually every transition team for an incoming mayor has recommended reforming the parking policy to be “holistic” so that all of the parking facilities (metered spots, residential parking permits and parking garages) all work together as a “system”. Despite these recommendations, the city has never been able to accomplish this goal on its own.

The Pantelides Administration made it a goal to implement this idea and actually did through a contract with SP+ Municipal Services, a national player in parking management. Of course people in Annapolis hate change – any change of any sort – so the implementation of the contract has not been without its detractors. One of the goals of hiring a “playa” in the parking management business is that they, as subject matter experts, can bring state of the art ideas in parking management to the table and in fact one of their contract deliverables is a Parking Utilization Analysis (full report, large PDF)  in Annapolis that would contain recommendations for parking policy changes in the city (summary in The Capital).

As these recommendations filtered out to the public opinions on social media were abound. I got into it with John Frenaye and Tim Hamilton over their assertion that this contract was a “money grab” by SP+ and the city and other misunderstandings about the effort. So they invited me on the podcast to talk about this and my other passion, transportation cycling.  It was a fun experience and a great conversation to bring some perspective to this activity for people who have not been intimately involved.

Unfortunately, we did not have as much time to talk about biking, which could fill an entire podcast itself, but I did make a few key points about transportation cycling in Annapolis (we need more connectivity!).

It was a lot of fun and we had a great conversation. According to Tim, there has been very positive feedback and a higher than usual download rate. I hope to be back on in the future to discuss the nexus of transportation, land use and municipal finances, because these are typically viewed as separate, siloed issues, when in reality they are different facets of the same issue that interplay in ways that most people don’t really understand.

Give it a listen!

Or subscribe via iTunes or Google Play

Anne Arundel can escape its growth Ponzi scheme

Appearing in The Capital, September 18, 2016

Anne Arundel County has been fortunate over the years to have steady economic opportunities, due in part to our location near large metropolitan areas as well as a strong federal and state job base. These economic opportunities, along with a rich history, quaint historic areas and miles of coastline on the Chesapeake Bay make Anne Arundel an attractive place to live.

County residents want significant limits on growth to maintain their quality of life. They also insist on high-quality services like roads, public safety and education — along with low taxes. In the short term, the county can attempt to solicit more money from the state and federal governments, borrow more and promote land development to increase the tax base. But the federal and state governments have their own fiscal problems, and so are contributing less. Borrowing, such as with the recent lengthening of bond terms, has a limited effect. This leaves growth as the primary tool for raising the needed revenue.

Growth in and of itself is not bad. When done in a long-term, fiscally sustainable manner, growth builds wealth for residents, business and the county. The 2009 General Development Plan discusses balancing land use, growth and fiscal policies, but much of the development in the county continues to be auto-centric, even in the targeted growth areas like Parole and Odenton.

We often forget that auto-centric suburban development is an experiment that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order of things because it is what we see all around, and in our collective psyche is the “American dream,” a non-negotiable way of life that must be maintained at all costs. But it is only in the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile. What we are finding is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era operate like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.

The root of the problem is that auto-centric development, in which residential and commercial areas are widely separated, requires tremendous amounts of land as well as infrastructure that is costly to build and maintain, while yielding very low tax revenue per acre. As long as strong growth continues and new revenue is generated to cover the short-term costs, we have the illusion of wealth because we are delaying infrastructure maintenance and personnel costs. This is the current state of Anne Arundel County.

Even with robust growth, we are starting to see the effects of these long term-liabilities, as indicated in the General Development Plan:

“Over the years, due to rising construction costs and other factors, the county has struggled to keep pace with the ongoing demand for maintenance, renovation and rehabilitation, and replacement of existing infrastructure and facilities that have been in place to serve the existing population and employment base.”

For citizens, this is most visible in the roads and traffic resulting from this development pattern. We cannot build our way out of congestion — we don’t have the land and most certainly don’t have the money. Yet we continue to promote development that virtually requires the use of an automobile.

The General Development Plan has goals, policies and actions to produce fiscally productive development, yet our specific regulations that developers must follow still produce the same patterns: greatly separated residential and commercial areas; big, dangerous roads; throwaway strip malls and parking lots. All this requires lots of driving. And it does not generate enough tax revenue to maintain the required infrastructure. We need to change these regulations to return to a traditional pattern of development in which neighborhoods are at a human scale with appropriate mixed use — places where people can walk or bike for many of their daily needs — while having viable transit options to connect these neighborhoods with the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. There are still many places like this remaining in the country, such as the suburbs built before World War II. We should be emulating them for a fiscally sustainable future.

This essay was part of Becoming the best is a series of essays exploring the question of what it would take to make Annapolis and Anne Arundel County “the best.”

The Kobayashi Maru Test

Last night, the Annapolis Planning Commission faced their Kobayashi Maru test. How will they decide whether access to the Rocky Gorge planned development is via Aris T Allen Boulevard or Yawl Rd: place the lives of Rocky Gorge residents in grave danger by turning off and on a highway or assuring the destruction of the Oxford Landing neighborhood with 48 homes worth of traffic down their main street?

Followers of this development have been watching this issue come to a boil slowly over the last two years. But, for those not familiar with the development and this issue specifically, let me recap.

Rocky Gorge is a planned development of 46 units of single family and townhouses south of Aris T Allen Boulevard. For a good overview, you can see the site plans here (76MB) or search for project PD2016-001 on the Annapolis eTRAKiT project tracking site for all the project details.

location

The project has a long and sordid history with many, many complicated facets. It began with two annexations of land in 2003 and 2005 followed by development approval (SE2005-11-547) and initial grading, the financial crisis of 2008, bankruptcy and sale to a capital management firm and most recently restarting the development in 2014. This history, while important to how we got to this point, is for the most part, water under the bridge, not to mention that the more you dig into understanding the history, the more questions arise. That said, one of the limitations placed on the development by the annexation agreement was no direct access from Aris T Allen Boulevard. However, that was predicated on a “relief road” south of the development, but for many practical and environmental reasons was never, and will never be built.

As the design and review of the restarted development progressed, due to the access limitation in the annexation, Yawl Rd was the only way in and out, straight through the center of the Oxford Landing development built in the late 1980s. And of course the residents objected, so resolution R-33-14 to remove the annexation restrictions was introduced to the City Council. If passed would open the door to alternative access via Aris T Allen Boulevard.  It wound it’s way through the process and was ultimately passed. I wrote about it here and here and the Planning Commission,  Transportation Board, and The Capital also thought it was not a good idea. Once the restriction was removed, it went to the State Highway Administration (SHA) for a decision as they “own” the road (MD 665). After an additional traffic study and meetings with the SHA, access was granted with addition of acceleration and deceleration lanes.

yawl_access

Rocky Gorge – Access Via Yawl Rd

Once this access was granted by SHA, the site plan was substantial altered to change the access from Yawl Rd to Aris T Allen. As such, the project went back to the Planning Commission, which brings us up to date for the meeting last night and the Kobayashi Maru test.

665_access


Rocky Gorge – Access Via Aris T Allen (right in right out)

The developer’s representative Allan Hyatt gave a long and somewhat tedious presentation. He is a lawyer and every presentation I have seen him make to a city Board or Panel is treated in language and actions like a trial, explicitly stating everything for the record along with expert testimony, even though the Planning Commission does not officially recognize “expert witnesses” (a point of snickering with the chair). This was a public hearing so a number of people spoke, residents, representatives of ARTMA, the Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation, Oxford Landing, and Alderwomen Finlayson/Pindell-Charles, indicating significant safety problems with either access scenario – deadly car crashes on Aris T Allen or kids run over by cars on Yawl Rd.

Kirk

Those were the only two choices on the table: 1. Approve the application as submitted (design with ingress/egress to Aris T Allen only, other than a pedestrian/emergency connection to Yawl Rd) or 2. Deny the application and revert to the prior approval (design with ingress/egress via Yawl Rd only). Virtually all the Planning Commission members expressed frustration with these equally bad choices. There must be alternatives that would not be unsafe for users Aris T Allen or residents of Oxford Landing, but how? Like Captain Kirk, they chose a different way: leave the public hearing open indefinitely and allow the applicant – who fortunately saw the writing on the wall – to look for alternatives.

It is my hope that all parties involved can think about innovative solutions that attempt to mitigate the compounded mistakes and prior planning decisions that lead up to this scenario and hopefully learn a lesson and apply it future developments. The suburban design pattern of cul de sacs and hierarchical road networks is a detriment to incremental growth that is so important to a healthy Annapolis as it was intended by design to be static and does not scale well. See this short video for a primer on incremental development and why it is important. Much of downtown Annapolis and inner West Street developed this way and has been better off for it.

Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern

Contemporary cycling in the United States is largely viewed by the public as a recreational endeavor. However, it was not always this way. For distances greater than that easily covered on foot, bicycles were the preferred mode of local transportation prior to the early 1900s when the automobile came into wider use. During the next half decade, bicycles were seen primarily as children’s toys. The 1970s and 1980s brought a new boom in bicycle sales for adult recreational purposes and this was augmented by the “Lance effect” in the early 2000s, introducing a large number of people to performance cycling.

As a result, most infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century was geared around this recreational aspect of cycling, primarily off road paths in parks, “rails to trails” efforts and even mountain bike facilities. It is only in the last 10 years that urban areas have started to look again at bicycles as part of their transportation strategy and to construct suitable infrastructure to implement it. By most measures these efforts have been fairly successful in increasing the numbers of transportation cyclists, but still not to a level of places like the Netherlands where there is upwards of 30% bicycle mode share. The United States will likely never achieve that kind of mode share if for no other reason than our systemic land use issues, but in areas where the land use patterns do support bicycle transportation, we can get to more modest shares like that of Portland (7+%). What actions can be taken take to increase this mode share?

Largest Gains

There are four types of transportation cyclists: Strong and Fearless (<1%), Enthused and Confident (7%), Interested but Concerned (60%) and No Way No How (33%). To this I would add a fifth group: “Unseen Bicyclists”, who have no particular interest in cycling other than as a nearly free mode of transportation that is faster than walking. In order to get to work they often must ride in inhospitable areas for cyclists.

In years past, transportation cycling in urban areas has included the three of the five smallest groups, personified by the bike messenger (Strong and Fearless), the racer who decides to commute (Enthused and Confident) and the guy riding the squeaky mountain bike on the sidewalk late at night (Unseen Bicyclist). Together, these groups never reach the critical mass/tipping point where transportation cycling would be seen as something normal people do. The question is how to encourage the largest untapped group (Interested but Concerned) to embrace transportation cycling as a way of life?

Infrastructure Is The Key

I use the word “infrastructure” here as it captures the Zeitgeist, but to be more precise, I mean the built environment that cyclists experience trying to get from place A to place B. Interested but Concerned cyclists who would definitely drive to a safe place to ride recreationally, first and foremost, need to feel safe in order to participate in transportation cycling. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition that, if not met, significantly degrades the return on investment of any infrastructure as it will not be widely used. Critics will point out that there s no demand, and thus a waste of money. The largest factor in achieving this perception of safety is separating cyclists from fast moving vehicles. An on road bike lane on a 6 lane arterial with speeds of 40+ mph, often the result of Complete Streets efforts implemented by state DOTs, while fine for a fast road cyclist, is not going to make the average Interested but Concerned cyclist feel safe.

md2 bike lane

On road bike lane on MD 2 in Edgewater, Maryland. I ride here often, but I am in the Strong and Fearless Group. (Google)

The second condition that must be met to entice Interested but Concerned cyclists is that the routes need to be direct and efficient from a time standpoint. Dedicated cyclists inherently like cycling as an activity and as a result are willing to “pay extra” in terms of time and effort to do it, but in order for regular people to take up transportation cycling, there has to be real value over other modes. Most recreational bicycle facilities that feel safe are often circuitous or if they are direct, require cyclists to stop at every cross street or curb cut or even worse require pressing a beg button and waiting a full light cycle, making the trip an annoying and time consuming process. As Strong Towns pointed out in the “Follow the Rules Bikers” piece, typically our cycling infrastructure is geared to automobiles, which puts bicycles on the same footing as cars. If there is no time saving advantage, why not just drive? That’s what the Interested but Concerned cyclist would do.

Residential neighborhoods with low and slow traffic offer acceptable routes for the Interested but Concerned cyclists and can be direct if the development pattern is a grid of streets with good connectivity. But so often local subdivision regulations or requests by residents close off streets to through traffic and once they are closed, very hard to reopen even for pedestrian or bicycle access. Yet, they can have a significant positive impact on the efficiency of a route.

victor parkway

Victor Parkway in Annapolis, Maryland has a fence between adjacent neighborhoods. The only way around is using a notorious five lane arterial that adds a half mile distance. It took a significant effort with the City of Annapolis to get even the pedestrian gate opened. It helps but is still unpleasant for cyclists. (Google)

Start With An Insider

A decidedly un-Strong Towns approach to getting Interested but Concerned cyclists engaged in transportation cycling would be to advocate for a huge pot of Federal transportation dollars and plan a perfect Shangri La bicycle network. Municipal governments often won’t do anything because of the perfect solution fallacy. They know this approach is not workable so anything incremental is rejected because it isn’t a complete plan and problems would still exist.

A better Strong Towns approach would be to work incrementally starting initially with a “do no harm” mantra and building on that to address the issues mentioned above. The number one action a municipal government can take to prevent further harm is adding a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle planner to the staff who has a seat at the table for any infrastructure development and maintenance projects. The singular focus of a subject matter expert who really understands the perspective of the Interested but Concerned, can point out bad designs before they are implemented. Additionally, the insider cultivating relationships with local cycling advocacy groups can be a force multiplier in this regard, utilizing a broad network of people who understand issues at a hyper-local level. This is the foot in the door that will provide internal advocacy for early input to projects. Collectively that will improve the infrastructure over time to raise the interest and reduce the concern in transportation cycling.

An Illustrative Project

I will end with a local example that highlights how a cycling subject matter expert might have prevented a disaster from happening. In Anne Arundel County, there is an on road bike lane along a well-traveled recreational route to view the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis Maryland where I live. It’s essentially a 4-5’ shoulder with bike lane markings. Not great, but good enough to make the average recreational cyclist comfortable, and sadly one of only two marked bike lanes in a county with 4000 lane miles of road under its jurisdiction.

bay_ridge

Bay Ridge Avenue immediately south of Annapolis, Maryland. The driveway on the right is being expanded to accommodate a church expansion.

The expansion of a local church required a turn lane according to the County code. However, this situation was complicated by the presence of a park next door. The park has some recreational paths that are contained within the park and do not serve a transportation purpose in any way. The engineering company that did the design work is a respected regional firm, but the design that was approved by the County makes very little sense from a transportation cyclist’s point of view.

bike squeeze

The bike lane prior to the driveway was replaced with a turn lane. Although common when turn lanes are added, not a good situation for cyclists. But the most egregious change was after the driveway, where the bike lane was blocked with a concrete curb and only resumes after the curb radius where the park path exists to the road. Since virtually all cyclists will be going through, this presents an extremely dangerous situation for cyclists who can get squeezed into the curb by a passing car.

The design makes an assumption that due to the proximity of the park all cyclists are going to be riding on the path around the park – the standard recreational assumption. Because the County does not have a subject matter expert on staff, they assumed that extending the park path in lieu of the bike lane was a benefit, not a detriment. Anyone with local/contextual knowledge would have flagged this design as unresponsive to the typical cyclist pattern and it could have been easily corrected prior to construction with no adverse effect to the church by maintaining the bike lane straight through. Sadly, it was not seen until after concrete had been poured, making a correction difficult and costly.

Why I Ride A Bike

A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016.

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland (Library of Congress)

Let me get this out of the way: I am a bike guy. I love bikes, all kinds – transportation bikes, off road bikes, racing bikes and classic bikes.

But that’s not why I ride a bike for transportation.

I currently reside in Annapolis, the capital city of Maryland, a smallish city of about 40,000 people. The dominant view of cycling here is that it is an athletic or recreational endeavor. You know, “put the bike on the car and drive somewhere to ride”. However, Annapolis is ideal for getting around by bike. It’s compact, only eight square miles, and you can pretty much get to any part of the city and even the surrounding areas that are experiencing a lot of urbanized growth with a flat two or three mile bike ride.

Annapolis Map

Annapolis is very compact.

This is easily within the ability of most people. I ride my 1972 Schwinn around town because it’s a convenient and economical mode of transportation to accomplish my daily business of getting to the DC commuter bus stop for work, shopping, and socializing around town. But there are too few of us and we often feel like lone voices in the wilderness. Thankfully, many cities around the world and a growing number of cities in the U.S. are proving that bicycles can easily be a part of a modern transportation system. What’s missing here to make transportation cycling appealing for more than just the “Strong and Fearless” – or those who have no other choice – are the connecting off-road paths and bike lanes called for in the city’s excellent, but mostly ignored, bicycle master plan.

Bikes are cheap and save money. Despite this area having a very high median income, many residents in the city pay a disproportionally large portion of their income to own and operate a car, never mind multiple cars. Using a bike for around town trips can easily decrease the number of vehicles a family needs to have and saves wear and tear by using the car only for those trips that require it. Riding a bike for my daily needs saves thousands of dollars per year in my family budget. Relatively inexpensive bikes can easily haul a surprisingly large amount of stuff, require very little maintenance and avoid the city parking costs. And, bike riding if viewed as something regular people do, provides equity of access to our streets as Bike Law’s Peter Wilborn writes about in Charleston SC.

Bike towing a moth sailboat.

Yes, bikes can do real work. Extracycle makes great hauling bikes (I do not own one or have any financial interest in the company) and some awesomeness from a local Moth sailor.

Bikes are cheap for the city, too. A lot of the auto-based traffic here is short trips around town, which can easily be done on bikes. The city is geographically constrained by two rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and as a result land is extremely valuable. While the city is in reasonable fiscal shape overall, it has neither the means nor the land to widen roads for more cars. Development is a hot topic here, and the general opinion is we need to lock the door in the Party Analogy. It inevitably conjures the traffic “boogeyman” as the assumption is that an additional person equates to an addition car. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many small bike projects the city could do that would have a high return on investment in mobility. We often hear that Annapolis is not affordable. With a good cycling infrastructure, we can support additional development and can attract younger people who will likely choose bikes for a significant portion of their transportation needs. It doesn’t take much of a shift to bikes to have a large effect on traffic congestion and amount of needed parking.

And finally, there has been a lot of discussion recently in various forums here about rampant speeding in the city. I believe much of this occurs because people spend so much time in their cars in traffic that they have become chronically frustrated, often expressing that frustration as impatience or even road rage towards other drivers, walkers and bike riders. Spending time on the other side of the windshield brings the perspective of non-drivers into clear focus. Everyday riding makes me appreciate the luxury when I do use the car, especially if the weather is bad or I am tired. As a result, I am much more relaxed and courteous behind the wheel when I drive.

May is National Bike Month and we should celebrate transportation cycling. If you are a recreational rider, throw a basket on your bike and make a few trips to the store; if you haven’t ridden in a bike in a while, dust off that bike in your garage or grab an old beater from Craigslist and give it a try. The more people ride, the safer it is for everyone and the more apparent it will become to city governments that bikes can perform real work.

alex_pline_bike (1)That’s why I ride a bike.

Alex Pline is Chairman of the Annapolis Transportation Board, Vice President of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and when he jumps out of a telephone booth in spandex, rides with the Annapolis Bicycle Racing Team.