Bellingham bicycle plan aims to create safe paths for commerce

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 30, 2013 

Bicycling isn't just recreation. Timothy, for example, relies on his bicycle to go three miles to his doctor's appointment - his disability prevents driving. Agnes, a 75 year-old widow, pedals a three-wheeled "grocery getter" 10 blocks to the senior center for lunch - she gave up her car when her vision declined. The Bellingham Bicycle Master Plan will improve the facilities for trips like those made by Timothy and Agnes - and for all of us. It's a plan for a network everyone could use to get to school, work, shopping and entertainment. Bellingham is a Silver Level Bicycle Friendly Community award recipient from the League of American Bicyclists. The completed Bicycle Master Plan will be a key step toward earning the Gold Level award.

Timothy and Agnes represent the thousands of people in Bellingham who use bicycles for short daily errands. Bicycling benefits them, but it also benefits motorists. How? When they bike, they reduce the number of cars on the road. A few of the benefits are: lower costs for street work, reduced wait times at traffic lights, more parking spaces at destinations. In Bellingham, people on bicycles represent 6 percent of all trips: that's a lot of asphalt our taxes don't have to pay for.

Public coffers save money on health benefits from active transportation, too. People who cycle or walk for daily transportation get daily physical activity, preventing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The public cost of chronic disease is in the hundreds of billions - and rising. Lost productivity at work, reduced economic participation and the increased health insurance premiums are examples we all share. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 75 percent of our health care dollars go to treatment of chronic disease, and most chronic disease can be prevented by moderate lifestyle changes. The CDC encourages cycling-friendly community design.

Bellingham has much to be proud of in encouraging cycling over the years. When the CDC began promoting more bike- and walk-friendly community design in 1995, Bellingham was already three years into building its Greenways trail network. Bellingham's 68 miles of trails are augmented by 65 miles of bike lanes (more miles, for those who are counting, than Platinum-level Bike Friendly City Davis, Calif.). Bellingham has funded bicycle education and encouragement programs through Whatcom Smart Trips and everybodyBIKE since 2006. What's left to do for bike friendliness? Here are a few key priorities that can help us hop the curb:

Build connectivity: This means connecting trails with the bike lanes, adding bike boulevards and cycle-tracks, creating seamless networks and routes to destinations and neighborhoods. For example, Agnes can use her three-wheeler on quiet streets to get within a block of her eye doctor, but the high-traffic road on that last block is an insurmountable barrier. Connectivity will address these kinds of small - and big - gaps.

Attract new people to ride bicycles, especially women and children: Women make more bike trips in Amsterdam than men, bringing their bike mode share to the highest in the world: 47 percent of all daily trips are made by bicycle there. Bellingham has already achieved a high level of bicycle use among men, but the rate of women cycling for transportation remains low. The key ingredient is the protected cycle track. Research shows that cycle-tracks that physically protect bicyclists from car traffic successfully attract women to bicycle for daily trips. New York City installed European-style cycle-tracks in 2009 and already in 2010 the New York Times was heralding the increasing number of "young women in stylish attire turning heads as they roll by." Public bike share systems attract lots of new cyclists.

Enforcement of bicycle traffic rules could be bumped up a notch to target both people on bikes and driving cars. Let's face it, some cyclists act like outlaws. Enforcement, along with education, is a useful way to increase the number of people on bikes who comply with red lights and stop signs. That alone will convey a welcome message that cycling is for civilized people. Enforcement tools against drivers who injure cyclists could include a court-ordered traffic safety refresher course clarifying how to share the road.

Transportation needs change over the course of our lives and Bellingham's Bicycle Master Plan will serve a wide range of abilities with a bright bicycle friendly future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen Barton is bicycle and mobility program manager for the Whatcom Council of Governments. For more information, go online to .

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