November 25, 2013

GUEST ROOM | Paths, Not Paint

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A large black pickup truck made its move to pass me after closely tailing me. Its gigantic rear-view mirror clipped my handlebars, knocking my front tire perpendicular to my bike. My body’s momentum continued forward over the bike and I caught myself on the pavement. The truck continued moving, my existence so minimal that the driver either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care — I’m still not sure which is worse. In shock, I picked myself up and looked down at my bloody palms and knees. My front bike tire had been curled like a potato chip from the force. I dragged my demented bike the remaining distance to my final test before summer vacation. With bleeding palms I sat down to write my essay, bitterly dripping blood in strategic places to accentuate my best points.

All things considered, I was lucky — at least I wasn’t killed. My cuts healed in the following weeks and I suffered no long-term injuries. I do not blame the driver as much as I blame the city planners. Sadly, there will always be inconsiderate people driving, and bikers are especially vulnerable to their whims. After all, there was no shoulder where I was riding. But, surprisingly, cities can be designed in ways that don’t place bikers on the periphery, as just another variety of roadkill for careless drivers. I believe that the vulnerability and unpleasantness generated by being in close proximity to cars is a large part of what stifles biking culture.

Over the past decade, I have watched the City of Ithaca attempt to increase its bike friendliness. This is a worthy cause; it lowers health costs, stimulates the local economy and decreases fossil fuel use. The Cayuga waterfront trail that runs through Cass and Stewart Park was one of the biggest steps for the city. While this trail is beautiful, it is for leisure, not for commuting bikers. For the commuter bicyclists, the city painted bicycle symbols with arrows on some main roads in downtown Ithaca. While I appreciate the effort, those symbols are not making my commute to school any safer or easier. I would rather that money be saved and put toward significant change, like bike lanes or separate paths.

The Black Diamond Trail, which runs from Cass Park to Taughannock Falls, is a recent attempt to provide a commuter path for bicyclists. Scheduled to open in Fall 2014, this path, which passes 500 ft from my house in Ulysses, provides my neighbors and me with a safe and beautiful path into downtown Ithaca. The next two phases of the trail connect Buttermilk and Treman State parks to Cass Park. Furthermore, the city has many more proposed trails, which are waiting for funding, to connect Dryden, Trumansburg and Caroline to a network of separate bike paths that feed into downtown Ithaca. With such significant infrastructure on the outskirts of Ithaca, it is time for the city to start planning how that bike traffic is going to move through downtown more holistically.

A Public Attitude Survey of Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning undertaken by Wilbur Smith Associates in 2007 attempted to assess attitudes relating to transportation: “Among respondents who said it was somewhat or very difficult to bicycle in their communities and who bicycle in a usual week, many (37 percent) gave no bike lanes/roads too narrow/no shoulder as a reason. Respondents also cited roads that are too busy/have too much traffic (26 percent) and no trails or paths (17 percent).” The study also found that a majority of people supported additional bike lanes and paths. This is surprising, given that less than one third of people biked at all in the past year, yet it reflects a desire for safer paths among the general population. It is fair to conclude that people at least want the option to bike safely.

Considering the multitude of proposed commuter paths, Ithaca is poised to become a very bike-friendly city. In the long run, paths will foster biking in Ithaca, lowering overall health costs and increasing the safety of bikers. These paths all feed into downtown Ithaca, which currently has few bike lanes and no separate bike paths. With many streets dedicated to cars, the city should consider creating separate bike paths throughout Ithaca. This move would cement the legitimacy of biking as a mode of transportation among the population, and give bikers a stress-free path through the city.

Jamie Johnson is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected] Guest Room runs periodically this semester.