Lessons learned: implementing bicycle boulevards
From Joan Pasiuk, Director, Bike Walk Twin Cities
After six years in the business of running a bike/walk pilot program we have many accomplishments to herald and more than a few lessons learned.
This past week it has impossible to avoid reflecting on bicycle boulevards. The long-beleaguered Jefferson Avenue bikeway project in St. Paul reached a dramatic conclusion. The project, which provides a network connection across the southwestern part of the city, linking Mississippi River Road on the west to the Sam Morgan Trail on the east, incorporates a stretch of bicycle boulevard design elements and will be fully implemented this year.
Lesson 1: Progress is relative.
The job Congress handed us was admittedly challenging -- to make investments with the goal of shifting trips from driving to bicycling and walking, and to demonstrate results. In our first three years of developing solicitations, we had numerous key elements in our sights, including:
- mind-blowing transformational work in European cities,
- dramatic bike/walk successes in out-front US cities,
- an amazing local base of recreational bicycling, and
- big opportunities to fill network gaps.
Early assessment work gave us a pretty good "big picture" of where we were starting; clearly not all fourteen communities in our grant area entered the pilot opportunity with the same bike/walk project capacity. And, even with our best efforts over several years to educate, motivate, and inspire on all fronts, not all communities are able to reach the same level of project delivery.
During all project planning and implementation, BWTC has been engaged with jurisdictional authorities. We've been face-to-face in negotiation, shoulder-to-shoulder getting work done, out in front pushing beyond status quo, far upstream trying to deal with design guidelines and institutional barriers, or on the sidelines letting city process play out.
It was more than a little tricky knowing where to place ourselves on this continuum. Ultimately our journey with each community is about how far they were able or willing to travel toward a best-practices project. Some Saint Paul residents asked us to deny all funding for Jefferson because of a last-minute dilution of safety features. The project meets the bar we set as a requirement for the award, and although Transit for Livable Communities and others hoped the project would reach a higher threshold, it is a fundable and successful addition to the network. Progress is relative.
Lesson 2: "Bicycle boulevard" is not the most productive term.
Bicycle boulevard design belongs in the Twin Cities. Those of us who have been to Portland or Berkeley could not help but be wildly enthusiastic about the value of bicycle boulevards in creating safer and more welcoming bike/walk travel.
This design was, however, a totally new concept in our region. We tried very hard to call them "Bike Walk Streets," but that term never stuck. All the projects we have funded are named by their communities as bicycle boulevards or bikeways. We could have been more assertive about the language, steering the discussion and the route designation to a term that truly indicates community benefits.
I found just last week very wise advice from Greg Raisman of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (thanks, Greg): "Bicycle Boulevard: Lots of time talking about bicycle scofflaws, who pays for what, confusion about whether parking will be stripped for bike lanes on the residential street, and why this project is catering to a small minority of people who don't even live on the street." Amen.
So, Portland has christened "bicycle boulevard" streets as Neighborhood Greenways. According to Greg, this term shifts the discussion to "benefits of traffic calming, [a] focus on crossing types, discussion of other elements that the project can offer. A recognition that creating a safe place for all residents, including seniors and children is an important change that can happen to the street."
This dynamic-of different terms generating remarkably different discussion-played out on Jefferson, as on cue. No one was able to visualize the design elements benefitting walkers (safer crossings, slower motor vehicle speeds, more vibrant street life). The image that dominated was of a raging peloton not moms pulling kids to daycare in trailers or elders walking to church or coffee shops.
Lesson 3: Keep equity issues and vulnerable users prominent.
Our best city investments are those that clearly regard the needs and visions of the people who are unable to come to public meetings or participate in electronic survey processes: the people who can benefit most from these projects. They are struggling folks using bike/walk/transit connections to juggle two or three jobs and family commitments. Or they are stranded at home because the streets are not friendly to the most vulnerable users. These nonmotorized projects enable transportation options that are economic lifelines for many residents.
Lesson 4: Skate to where the puck will be.
The folks who often are vocal in public processes are the young professionals and parents who will continue to choose to drive less and bicycle, walk, and take transit more. For the first time in more than 60 years, Americans are driving less, with Gen Xers and Millennials leading the trend. Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy tells this story.Communities that not only do a good job of providing for current residents but also design to address emerging trends will be better off.
Bicycle boulevards - uh, Bike Walk Streets or Neighborhood Greenways - are part of where the puck is headed. And, Jefferson Avenue Bikeway has been a long process with a pretty happy ending. This bikeway is a significant addition to the network -- Saint Paul's second bicycle boulevard and the 8th in the pilot area. Whatever you call it, consider it progress in the work of real transportation options for real people. Onward.