No easy walk: Two cities’ cycling and pedestrian infrastructure

0
310

Photo by Daniel Wirtheim

by Jordan Green

Bill Petrie has suffered from various health complications related to high blood pressure since he was diagnosed in 2010. He got his blood pressure back down through medication, and once his doctor cleared him, he started riding short distances on his bicycle — no more than five miles at a time.

A Winston-Salem native, the 45-year-old Petrie moved back from Durham recently, and by that time he had started riding his bike to work. He lives out in the county at the north end of the city near SciWorks, and commutes into downtown. At first, before he built up his endurance, he would drive partway and park his car at Reynolda Village, and then finish his trip to his job at Downtown Perk on his bike.

IMG_0357
Green Valley Road in Greensboro is a prime candidate for sidewalk. (photo by Jordan Green)

“It’s helped me shed about 35 to 40 pounds,” Petrie told me. “Some of it I’ve put back on, and I’m going to have to be more aggressive. It’s a family-genetic thing. With cycling, I’m not having to graduate to more powerful drugs. I’m on an entry-level drug.”

Both Winston-Salem and Greensboro are actively trying to reduce barriers to cycling and walking through investment in bike lanes, sidewalks, pedestrian signalization and other infrastructure. Outside the two cities’ densely developed downtowns and areas around some university campuses and hospitals, cyclists and pedestrians still generally encounter a hostile and even dangerous environment. The inertia of 70 years of auto-oriented sprawl is hard to overcome. Beyond college students and knowledge-based workers gravitating to Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter, Petrie is part of a small cohort of residents who are actively incorporating cycling and walking into their lifestyles as transportation options.

The 2015 Bicycle, Pedestrian and Greenways Master Plan Update, or BiPed Update, which is set for final approval by the Greensboro Metropolitan Planning Organization on Sept. 23, provides a stark picture of the terrain for cyclists and pedestrians in both cities.

“Like many other cities across the United States, especially in the South, the historic roadway development pattern in Greensboro since the 1940s was focused almost exclusively on easy automobile access and mobility to the exclusion of other modes,” the plan reads. “The goal clearly seems to have been to enable smooth and unobstructed motorized traffic with very little to no consideration of pedestrians, bicyclists and land-use implications. This approach created an unbalanced development pattern where alternative choices such as walking and biking became inconvenient, unattractive and dangerous.”

The bicycle and pedestrian plans for both cities emphasize to varying degrees investment in a well connected network of bicycle, pedestrian and greenway facilities to create healthy and livable communities. While Greensboro started adding bike lanes and adopted its first bi-ped plan in 2006, the city has made only halting progress due to lack of funding. Meanwhile, Winston-Salem has aggressively moved forward with plans to add bike lanes across the city with bond funds approved by voters last year that are specifically earmarked for the project.

Winston-Salem is also a step ahead of Greensboro in adopting transportation policies that put cyclists and pedestrians on equal footing with motorized vehicles. The Winston-Salem Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, a local intergovernmental entity that incorporates all the municipalities in Forsyth County, has adopted a Complete Streets policy, in contrast to its counterpart in Greensboro.

The Greensboro bi-ped plan recommends that the MPO and city adopt the policy. As the plans spells out: “In contrast with automobile-focused street design, the goal of complete streets is to enable all users to access destinations safely, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit users.”

IMG_9544
Pedestrians, cyclists and cars share Spring Garden Street. (photo by Daniel Wertheim)

Spring Garden Street, which bisects UNCG and connects the campus to student housing in the west and downtown in the east, is cited in the plan as “an example of a complete street, with sidewalks, bike lanes and transit.”

While the state of North Carolina adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2009 and released design guidelines in 2012, the state hasn’t always been a reliable partner to the cities.

“Unfortunately, this policy is more of a paper policy than a consistent implementation practice,” the Greensboro bi-ped plan states. “For example, NCDOT sometimes declines to provide sufficient space for bicycle accommodations on new bridge replacements unless the locals agree to pay for the extra width, even where such accommodations are provided for in an adopted pedestrian and bicycle plan.”

While transportation planners in Greensboro were carping about the state stinting on its obligations, voters in Winston-Salem approved a $42.4 million streets and sidewalks bond last year.

“Eight-hundred-thousand dollars of those funds was dedicated to bicycle-lane construction, mostly striping on the streets,” Matthew Burczyk, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said. “When we were gathering projects we looked at our bicycle master plan and we looked at the top priorities. Eight or 10 years ago that project was put together. There was a list of projects that the planners and citizens thought were priorities. About 12 bicycle-lane projects are scheduled for the next year and a half.”

The bond sets aside $10 million for sidewalk construction and repair, but the big-ticket item is street resurfacing, at a cost of $15.3 million. Street resurfacing is one infrastructure investment that benefits both motorists and cyclists.

“Street resurfacing, while it does primarily help motor vehicles, it’s also done as a service for cyclists,” Burczyk said. “If a street is bumpy it can be uncomfortable for drivers, but it can be really treacherous for cycling.”

Beyond the consideration of safety for cyclists, street resurfacing also literally lays the groundwork for significant investment in bike infrastructure. As both Burczyk and Daniel Amstutz — his counterpart with the city of Greensboro — pointed out, street resurfacing provides an opportunity to add striping for bike lanes. Cities can also add “shared lane markings,” which both encourage cycling and alert motorists to be more aware. More radical adjustments include lane reductions that make room for bike lanes while shortening the distance required for pedestrians to cross the street.

Greensboro’s bi-ped plan plainly states that the overall condition of the city’s street system is “poor.”

The plan cites a “pavement condition survey” commissioned by the city in 2012, which found that to address immediate needs by resurfacing 342.9 miles, the city would have to spend about $97.7 million.

The city’s bi-ped plan recommends construction of 268 miles of bike lanes, 20 miles of cycletrack to be segregated from motorized traffic and 41 miles of shared lane markings by 2035. The city acknowledges that implementation in the bike infrastructure plan “is held back by deferred street maintenance.” Since 2006, when the first bike lanes were painted onto Spring Garden and Florida streets, the city has added three miles per year. “It is impossible to implement all the recommended bicycle facilities within the timeframe of the plan at this rate,” the document reads. “Therefore it is critical to meeting the bicycle facility implementation targets that the city significantly increases investment in the annual resurfacing budget.”

The city’s underinvestment in sidewalk maintenance comes across as even more scandalous in the report.

“In recent years, Greensboro has cut street repair budgets, with which sidewalk maintenance has been grouped, using the savings to close citywide budget gaps, to help pay for other short-term priorities such as more police officers and projects such as the Greensboro Aquatic Center and natural Science Center expansion, and to minimize increases in local tax rates,” the report states. “Repair of sidewalk, to include retrofit of noncompliant curb ramps, has been backlogged for many years and has only recently had a concerted effort to improve the worst areas. Sidewalks in disrepair affect all users, especially those using wheelchairs, walkers and strollers.”

IMG_9448
A woman in a motorized wheelchair moves along Northwest Boulevard. (photo by Daniel Wertheim)

The city spends $200,000 per year on sidewalk repair, which covers about three-quarters of a mile. At that rate, staff projects, it would take 82 years to bring all sidewalks rated as “poor” up to good condition, “at which point many more segments of sidewalk will deteriorate and slip into the ‘poor’ category.”

The city started retrofitting its roadways by adding sidewalks in 2003, after mandating that developers install sidewalks for all new residential and commercial construction. But it’s difficult to gauge the city’s progress in filling in the sidewalk gap because of incompatible measurement systems — streets are measured by the centerline while sidewalks are measured separately on either side of the roadway. In contrast to the fuzzy picture in Greensboro, the portion of streets in the Winston-Salem MPO that lack sidewalks has been clearly quantified: 65 percent.