The buffered bike lanes on Research Parkway looked nice. They provided safe passage for cyclists who lived in busy northern Colorado Springs, and cycling advocates say the lanes represented some of the best bike infrastructure ever planned and installed in the Pikes Peak region.
But the lanes enraged a vocal group of Briargate neighbors. And now, three months after their installation, the city has decided to pull the plug on the buffered lanes while members of Bike Colorado Springs, a cycling advocacy group, fear that future cycling projects may be endangered.
With three lanes running east and west, city planners say that Research Parkway was made to carry about 48,000 cars a day, but the actual volume was more like 22,000. The road was wide, fast and had become dangerous with speeding drivers. In an effort to slow traffic, the city made plans to "right-size" Research by removing one lane in both directions.
The city's non-motorized transportation plan, meanwhile, had targeted the neighborhood as a location in need of bike infrastructure. Connectivity — trails and bike routes that actually lead somewhere — has always been a problem in the Springs. Using the outside traffic lanes as buffered bike lanes would be a unique first step.
"This was a relatively novel kind of infrastructure on a big road," says Cory Sutela of Bike Colorado Springs. "It's an important spine for future connections that we need in that area of town."
The traffic lanes were removed and bike lanes were installed in late September. Plans called for the lanes to remain as a demonstration project — an experiment in transportation — for one year while the city collected data. If the traffic slowed and the slimmed-down version of Research provided safer travel, then it would remain as two lanes and the bikes could stay.
The outlook seemed good. National studies had shown reducing lanes resulted in slower traffic, according to Kathleen Krager, city transportation manager.
But a few days before Christmas, the city issued a press release explaining that it had killed the project. The plan did not meet expectations. Cars had not slowed and the speeding problem on Research would be addressed the old-fashioned way ... by writing tickets. Another contributing factor to the project's demise was a loud campaign by neighbors who overwhelmingly opposed the plan, according to Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, who said in the press release, "The bottom line is that the vast majority of residents in the area of the demonstration project are opposed to the project and the vast majority of people who support it do not live in the affected area."
Angry citizens gathered in online forums, including the Facebook page "Restore Research," set up by Rebecca Marshall. A RestoreResearch.com webpage was created, plus a Change.org petition that garnered 1,751 signatures. Marshall also started a Restore Research gofundme.com account that has raised $580.
Along with the anger came plenty of misinformation created by citizens who said the city had failed to include them in public discussion.
"When the residents spoke up, I think they felt like they were patted on the head by city officials and told that we [the city] know best," says Laura Carno, a gofundme donor who worked for former Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, and who has made a career as a government watchdog. Carno, who weighed in on the Research project on 740 KVOR in early December, also told me that cyclists aren't to blame for a decision that the city made, and she didn't believe the neighbors are anti-bike.
But information distributed by the groups reads much differently.
The Briargate neighbors have accused the city of closing the Research lanes in an attempt to bolster the area's status as a bicycle-friendly city. RestoreResearch.com claims that, "The city has told us that this is about 'traffic calming.' We can only conclude the city is not being truthful and that our lanes were taken due to fitting into a taxpayer-funded playground for a small handful of avid cyclists."
Marshall's gofundme site includes a paragraph with wildly misleading information. It reads in part: "We weren't given a head's up about the project and did not receive any emails from the city that they were considering this change. The cycling community, on the other hand, had been personally contacted by the traffic engineers clear back in May of 2016. The city hopes this change will force us to ride our bicycles to commute to our jobs and for shopping trips."
In contrast, those involved in the project say information was publicly posted online. Signs were placed in the area and the city says it emailed HOAs in the neighborhood. The cyclists say information about the project was available to all at the same time. And to date, nobody has been forced to ride a bicycle. Attempts to reach Marshall via email and Facebook were unsuccessful.
"I don't care if people ride their bikes," says Allen Beauchamp, a longtime cycling advocate who chairs the Bike Colorado Springs Education and Encouragement Committee. "I just want them to be able to do so safely."
Beauchamp adds that Bike Colorado Springs is very public about its activities and strives for inclusion."There is nothing closed-door about the work we do," he says.
Cyclists believe pressure by the neighbors caused the city to fold its tent on Research. Pushback against change is nothing new, but the city insists that it conducted a thorough public process. Meetings in the area were lightly attended with very little interest shown by Briargate residents, according to Sutela. "Just because you don't show up, doesn't mean there was no public process," he says.
He's also frustrated that a small group of complaining citizens can override years of planning and public comment. "There was a method set up for citizen input, but now we're making decisions because we have a group of people phoning the mayor three times a day," he says.
Marshall's closed Facebook group has changed its name to "Sensible Streets" and is "opposed to eliminating motor vehicle lanes throughout our city." The group includes 759 members and claims it wants to prevent future "Roadway Diets." There are currently 18 right-sizing projects on the schedule.
What's more, there are signs Marshall's group may be working with SaferCC, the group behind the opposition to a proposed lane reduction and bicycle infrastructure project in the Old North End. Beauchamp notes that fliers similar to the ones that appeared in Briargate opposing the Research project are now showing up in the Old North End. They call out City Councilor Jill Gaebler and Suthers for causing "traffic congestion."
Sutela and Beauchamp say that, while the effort by the city to create the bike lanes was admirable, the lanes may have been more successful elsewhere. Cyclists were slow to use the lanes and bike traffic had decreased in colder weather. And while the buffered bike lanes made for safer cycling, the driving was much different, and perhaps more dangerous, with lanes for accelerating and decelerating removed.
"This is not the hill we want to die on," Sutela says. "But this is concerning. It looks like they want to be a thorn in the side of other bike projects."
Krager took responsibility for halting the Research Parkway project, though it seems clear that Suthers made the final call. She said the city can do better in communicating when road changes are planned.
"I think we did our typical communication, which involves concentrating on people within a certain distance of the road we're working on," she says. "What we didn't do was reach people who live farther away but who still use the road. That was a good lesson to learn."
Krager insisted that bike infrastructure will remain in the city's plans.
"I think some people in the bike community look at this as a defeat," she says, "but we're going to continue to go forward."
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