Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Arlington not passing bike plan would be a mistake
A more walkable and bikeable Arlington would be an advantage to that city and a benefit to the region as a whole.
Bike lanes, such as those on Magnolia to the right, have been a success for Fort Worth – and Arlington should consider letting them work there, too.
At some point in the not-too-distant future (most likely after the May 14th elections), our neighbors just to the east in Arlington will be considering the adoption of a couple of new planning documents for the design of their city streets – the Thoroughfare Development Plan and the Hike & Bike Plan. At public meetings on these issues, debate has been ... spirited, to say the least.
The Hike & Bike Plan, as its most recently updated public draft describes, would bring 273 miles of new bike infrastructure to the city of Arlington if it were completely built out. This breaks out as 99 miles of on-street bike lanes (14.7 of which would be part of “road diets” to reduce excessive car space and dedicate it to bike space), 11.7 miles of shared-lane (“sharrow”) routes, 11.9 miles of paved shoulder space, 14.4 miles of signed bike route signage, 7.2 miles of bicycle boulevards, 38.7 miles of sidepaths, 10.5 miles of wide outside lanes, and 79.6 miles of off-street bike paths. Since Fort Worth has become, arguably, the most bike-friendly city in the Dallas/Fort Worth region, and is only getting more so, I thought it might be helpful if I shared our perspective on bike-friendliness to give our friends in Arlington some more information to consider.
To state it bluntly: I feel that not passing these plans would be a mistake, a tragic missed opportunity, and an unfortunate example of short-sightedness.
Last year, Fort Worth passed its ambitious Bike! Fort Worth plan. The plan calls for the tripling of bicycle commuting by 2020, reduce crashes by ten percent by 2020, earn a “Bicycle Friendly Community” designation from the League of American Bicyclists by 2015, and a significant increase in bike infrastructure in the city of Fort Worth to meet those goals. The plan, when built out, will add over 800 miles to Fort Worth’s bike transportation network, with the vast majority (a total of around 700 miles) being on-street lanes and shared routes. The plan was passed by the City Council unanimously, and it has been rolling out since with lots of new bike racks and new lanes & sharrow routes hitting the pavement. (You can see the infrastructure coming this year alone – in addition to the initial Magnolia Avenue bike lanes that came as part of the city’s first complete streets “road diet” two years ago.)
Fort Worth, like many cities around the country, is understanding better that a healthy, livable city cannot grow solely via the automobile. It is important to provide safe, attractive alternatives to allow people the chance to get out of their cars and walk, take transit, or ride a bike – cities that depend solely on the car for transportation are finding themselves choked by traffic, stunted by infrastructure costs, poisoned by pollution, and their neighborhoods wrecked by parking lots, freeways, and the other trappings of excessive car infrastructure. And they’re dangerously dependent upon cheap oil – a resource that, as has been seen by the rise in gas prices over recent years, is no longer something that can be depended upon.
Cities in the 21st century cannot survive on cars alone, so alternatives must be made safe and appealing. Fortunately, bike infrastructure is incredibly inexpensive, with a great “bang-for-the-buck” factor. For little more than the cost of paint and some new racks, cities can make real and significant improvements to their bike friendliness and encourage more residents to make at least some of their trips without a car, which improves things for everybody.
Arlington is rather well-known for its reliance on the car. It’s the largest city in the United States with no public transportation, and its built environment reflects its car-dependent nature: lots of very wide roads with speeding traffic, lots of parking lots and single-use zoning. There is little safe and appealing choice for mobility beyond getting in the car and driving for every single daily activity.
People shouldn’t be forced to burn a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk. Providing alternatives will only be beneficial to Arlington as it faces the new realities of energy and demographics shifts in the 21st century.
With these plans, the city of Arlington has the opportunity to start reshaping itself into a more livable form through the use of bike infrastructure, which is cost-effective and beneficial to health, environmental quality, and traffic.
You see, despite what some drivers may believe, the presence of bikes isn’t going to cause traffic disasters. What’s causing traffic disasters are the cars themselves. Cars take up a lot of space for very little capacity of people. When everybody is forced by the design of the built environment to drive, they choke city streets with traffic and eat up land for parking at an alarming rate. Providing the chance for people to get out of their cars removes some of those hunks of steel from the equation. Reduce car dependency, and you’ll reduce the sheer volume of cars on the road, easing the load on people who still drive. Bikes take up very little space – they’re not what’s going to cause traffic snarls.
Some opponents are concerned about “road diets” – removing traffic lanes to provide space for bikes. (Some are even claiming that there will be a huge number of road diets in Arlington, but in reality, just 14.7 miles of streets under the plans would see road diets.) I know it sounds counter-intuitive at first glance, but removing space for cars doesn’t necessarily create traffic problems.
Fort Worth’s first real road diet happened two years ago, with Magnolia Avenue in the Near Southside between 8th & Hemphill being converted from a four-lane street (two car lanes in each direction) to a two-lane street (one car lane in each direction) with two bike lanes and a center turn lane. Magnolia was already a popular destination, with its wide sidewalks and impressive roster of independent, locally-owned restaurants. There was also a lot of traffic moving along the street between the Near Southside’s medical centers.
While most of the businesses on Magnolia were supportive of the proposed road diet, a few predicted disaster – traffic would snarl up, businesses would close, and nobody would ride the bike lanes. The project went ahead, though, and two years later we’ve got an idea of how things worked out.
Traffic has never, and I mean never, become a problem on Magnolia since the road diet. There are two fewer traffic lanes, but the two remaining lanes are more than capable of handling quite a bit of traffic on their own (especially since cars aren’t jockeying for position between multiple lanes). The center turn lane means that cars no longer swerve around left-turning cars in the left-hand lanes, further freeing up traffic flow. What’s more, the traffic now moves noticeably more slowly than before. Speeds are now in-line with or just below the posted 30mph limit. This means the street is safer – safer for bikes, safer for pedestrians, and safer for cars. Making it slower has also made it a more pleasant place to be.
So, what about businesses? Did they all close up shop because of the road diet? Hardly. There are now more businesses on Magnolia Avenue than ever before since the road diet. Just off the top of my head, since the road diet was executed, the street has seen the addition of Ellerbe Fine Foods, Temaki Sushi, The Usual cocktail lounge, Avoca Coffee, the expansion of Lili’s Bistro, Creative Magma, Cat City Grill, Blanchard Schaefer Advertising, SiNaCa Studios, and Mamma Mia, and is rolling forward with new projects (like Nunu, Shinjuku Station, and the Citizen Theater, plus the forthcoming relocation of the Moncrief Cancer Center) all the time.
(It should be noted that one of the major reasons Blanchard Schaefer relocated to the Near Southside in Fort Worth was to be in the kind of environment created by these walkable, bikeable urban neighborhoods and the kind of talent they attract – and that they relocated to the Near Southside from Arlington.)
If that’s not enough, let’s break it down to dollar signs. Over the last three Near Southside dashboard reports (the three since the Magnolia road diet), full-service restaurant sales (the most prevalent business on Magnolia) have gone from $3,886,987 to $9,908,531.
Clearly, the road diet hasn’t hurt Magnolia, and it could definitely be argued that the slower, calmer, safer, and more pleasant street has created a more beneficial environment for residents, visitors, and businesses.
At the end of 2010, the city conducted a road diet on West 7th Street between the river and University. This street was a conversion of a six-car-lane-plus-turn-lane design into a four-car-lane-plus-turn-lane-parking-and-bike-lanes design. Similarly, 7th Street still works fine, just more slowly (and hence, safer and more pleasant) – the only genuine traffic snarls are, as always previously, caused by slow-moving freight trains crossing at So7. And, clearly, the project hasn’t harmed business on 7th (in fact, city staff have reported that the project has been supported by 7th businesses), and brought the addition of new on-street parking.
More such road diets are coming this year to Fort Worth, both in the Near Southside and in Downtown Fort Worth itself. Cities like Fort Worth have discovered that mere speed and traffic flow are not, and should not, be the biggest criteria for success on every street. Placemaking, and providing safer and more appealing alternative transportation methods, takes priority in making a livable city.
What’s more, around 90% of the new bike lanes and other on-street infrastructure being proposed will require no reduction in number of car lanes, making fears of road diets seem even more absurd.
And, in case you couldn’t tell, there has not been a rash of accidents between cyclists and drivers since the bike plan started rolling out – one of the other claims of the opposition in Arlington. Evidence from around the world indicates that getting more people on bikes on the streets makes things safer for all users as everybody adjusts to the presence of everybody else, and cyclists become more visible. By providing safe and effective on-street infrastructure, you accomplish that goal.
Bike infrastructure is incredibly cost effective – don’t believe some opponents’ claims that bike lanes cost $1 million per mile. The road diet on Magnolia Avenue, which started at 3/4 of a mile (it’s being expanded to the rest of the street this year), cost around $24,000 – that’s the cost for the re-striping and re-signing in total, not just the bike lanes. Another example comes from the cost of the Near Southside Bike Parking Improvement Project that Fort Worth South, Trinity Bicycles, and I put together – we got 80 new bike racks installed, providing bike parking spaces for 160 bikes for less than the cost of a single car garage parking space in the same district.
Unfortunately, many Arlington city leaders (and potential city leaders) are woefully behind the curve on creating 21st century cities, if this article in the Star-Telegram is anything to go by.
District 5 challenger Julie Douglas described on-street bike lanes as “an accident waiting to happen.” She said the city should focus on other priorities, such as cracking down on drunken drivers.
Wilemon said she had not made up her mind, but her District 4 challenger Kelly Canon said part of her opposition was based on the plan’s references to mass transit, which she does not support, as well as her concerns about mixing cyclists and motorists on the streets.
Mayor Robert Cluck said he didn’t believe that the plan was “ready for prime time at this stage,” and challenger Carl Scrivner said he did not support on-street bike lanes.
“We have lots of good trails all over Arlington in our parks, which is an appropriate place to ride bikes,” Cluck said.
These sorts of attitudes from coming from leaders/candidates like Cluck, Canon, and Douglas for a city of Arlington’s size are extremely disappointing. Mayor Cluck’s comments that bikes belong on trails in parks is an example of the sort of misunderstanding of the role of the bicycle that other cities in the region, such as Fort Worth and Dallas, are realizing is a mistake. Bicycles, as being proven in cities all across the United States from Portland to Minneapolis to New York to, yes, here in Fort Worth, are not only great things for recreation on park trails, but a real and effective part of an urban transportation system for day-to-day needs and getting around the city, and can no longer be thought of as a marginal recreation-only activity to be kept out of sight and mind on park trails. (And it ignores that bicycles are legally a part of street traffic.)
There have even been some opponents claiming that the bike lanes are “socialist” or part of a UN conspiracy to force people from their cars.
I wonder what these people think Fort Worth must be like now, with our far larger bike plan being unanimously passed, popularly supported, and being implemented, with our popular group bike rides and bike-friendly businesses. I can tell you, there’s no iron curtain around Fort Worth. There’s no statues of Marx and Mao and Lenin being erected in Sundance Square. Bike lanes haven’t brought the Red Threat down upon our heads. We’ve just decided that maybe providing some safe and appealing alternatives to the car, to allow our citizens the ability to get around in a variety of different ways, is a good and beneficial thing for the livability and health of this city.
And I’ll tell you something else. You want to know what freedom is? It isn’t building a city that forces people to use one mode of transportation. It isn’t being chained to an expensive car for every single daily need. It isn’t being shackled by $4+ per gallon gas, and it isn’t only being able to get around your city via the method that requires sending a lot of money to countries that don’t always like us very much and might want to see us fall, and getting things like air pollution, traffic, car crashes, and concrete wastelands as a result. Not everybody will want to use a bike to get around, and that’s fine. Nobody in Fort Worth is being forced onto two wheels, and nobody in Arlington would either. But it’s vital to the future of American cities that we provide safe and appealing alternative transportation systems to reduce our dependency on cars and oil. And, as we’ve seen in Fort Worth, providing a bike-friendly atmosphere absolutely does get more people out on their bikes for transportation – and that benefits the city as a whole.
Arlington does not exist in a vacuum – it competes on a regional, national, and global stage. More and more cities, including those in this region, are stepping up their games and building more walkable, bikeable, and livable neighborhoods. It would benefit Arlington a great deal to work toward those goals.
A more walkable and bikeable Arlington would be an advantage to that city and a benefit to the region as a whole. I urge Arlington’s city’s leaders to pass the bike plan, and urge Arlington citizens to stand and be heard in support of the plan. I wish the best of luck to planners and Bike Friendly Arlington in making their city, situated between Dallas and Fort Worth where bike-friendliness initiatives are helping make those places better, into a place where bikes are welcomed as a transportation choice.
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