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Spring's downtown bicycle infrastructure progresses despite growing pains 

Streets are a-changin'

click to enlarge Plenty of folks rode bikes to the opening of Legacy Plaza. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • Plenty of folks rode bikes to the opening of Legacy Plaza.
This fall, with little fanfare, the city of Colorado Springs installed innovative bicycle lanes on a downtown strip of Weber Street.

The new striping placed drivers in the middle of the road, flanked by parked cars, while cyclists rode closest to the sidewalk. The design is meant to better protect cyclists, but the response to the lanes was mixed at best. While many in the cycling community rejoiced that the city was finally trying the long-sought configuration, plenty of drivers were confused. Some sat behind parked cars, believing they were part of traffic. And an Independent reporter witnessed a driver, who was turning into a parking lot, hit one cyclist, who was riding in the lane. The driver, apparently, didn't see the cyclist.

At the urging of bicycle advocates, the city quickly put in vertical delineators — thin plastic posts that stick out of the pavement, indicating where cars are parked. The markers helped the traffic flow, but the initial frustration speaks to the problems the city has had with increasing bike infrastructure, a key goal. City leaders are especially focused on downtown bike infrastructure because of increased traffic and parking woes, environmental concerns, and a new generation of workers that highly value multi-modal transportation.

There have been some notable wins — and not just with the lanes that are slowly being added downtown. On Nov. 9, the city celebrated the completion of the first phase of Legacy Plaza, near Interstate 25 and Fontanero Street. The plaza provides a staging area for events, a meeting place for cyclists and parking. It's one step in the city's now-aggressive push to finish the Legacy Loop, a non-motorized route that encircles downtown and has been envisioned for a century.

The Cimarron interchange, a state project, also was recently completed, and features new trail connections and bridges linking the Midland Trail to the Pikes Peak Greenway.

Then there's the 2016 completion of the "Experience Downtown Colorado Springs" master plan, put together by the Downtown Partnership, which places a strong emphasis on bicycle infrastructure. The city's Bicycle Master Plan, which covers the whole city, is in its final stage. (You can comment on it through Dec. 10 at coloradosprings.gov/bikeplan).

While the public seems conflicted about the changes, Mayor John Suthers' chief of staff, Jeff Greene, says leaders are focused on building a city that will function in the future. And despite the bumps, he says, "I'm really enthusiastic about what we're doing here."

In their efforts to piece together the bike routes, city leaders have met with gripes from both sides.

Cyclists have often been frustrated by short bike lanes that lead nowhere, the result of the city adding the lanes as it repaves streets, the most economical method. And Cory Sutela, advocacy chair for Bicycle Colorado Springs, a program of the nonprofit Trails and Open Space Coalition, says there are larger, intertwined problems with safety and public relations. On Weber Street, for instance, he sees two lessons: First, the city didn't tell citizens what it was doing and why it was doing it, and second, it failed to make the new lane alignment clear for drivers. That led to driver frustration and increased danger for cyclists, he says.

"My opinion," he says, "is they could use a lot more paint."

The city does, in fact, mark bike lanes in some high-congestion areas with green paint, but it didn't do so on Weber Street. And even the vertical delineators, which Sutela says have been very helpful, will be removed for winter — the city's snowplows can't get around them.

Sutela predicts that will create the same problems all over again. "Nobody wins," he says, "by not doing proper implementation."

Over time, Sutela says, these glitches lead to a building resistance to any bike infrastructure. That's why he has worked with other bike organizations and businesses to advocate for better bike lanes. His group is also planning to create a network of supportive businesses to champion the cause.

There is cause for the concern. Drivers have been vocally resistant to certain bike projects, particularly the process known as "right-sizing," wherein bike lanes replace lanes of traffic. While the configurations are generally driven by traffic safety concerns, not the desire to add bike lanes, the public outcry often seems aimed at cyclists.

Right-sizing has been recently tried, or proposed, in the Old North End and on Research Parkway, only to trigger a slew of angry feedback. In fact, those who hated the change on Research Parkway formed an online group to raise hell in city government, and the city quickly backed down and returned Research to its previous alignment.

Greene, puts it plainly, "This has been a very auto-centric community and it has been that way for years."

But change is going to come, he says, so the challenge is: "How do you bring about change that's going to be beneficial for all? And it's really hard to do."

Before those Weber Street lanes were striped, he notes, the city met with the fire department, the police department, local businesses, and the Downtown Partnership. And, he says, it's not like Colorado Springs just made up that alignment — it's been successful elsewhere and improved safety. In fact, he says, he's witnessed protected lanes working well in Denver on South Broadway.

Colorado Springs' own system, however, is neither as familiar to drivers as Denver's, nor as well connected and logical — though Greene expects that to improve in coming years, particularly in downtown, which has the city's highest concentration of bike commuters.

The 2016 downtown master plan is quite specific about bike lanes and trails. These so-called "greenways" are to be located mostly on lesser-used streets in the urban core, creating a logical grid with wayfinding signs that will, as Downtown Partnership Executive Director Susan Edmondson puts it, allow anyone to feel safe. The plan doesn't just make room for cyclists — it's also been tailored for drivers, pedestrians, those using wheelchairs, and public transit.

"I think, obviously, the challenge is [full connectivity] doesn't happen with one particular project," she says. "They all have to connect and feed into each other."

Edmondson says that the master plan looked at details from the style of parking on streets, to traffic, medians, and the future traffic load on the street. Pikes Peak Avenue, for instance, may be a less-congested street right now, but with the Catalyst Campus located there and other projects planned, the Partnership is expecting heavier traffic in the future.

Bikes can ease that congestion, she says. Besides, she adds, public infrastructure should be for people, no matter how they get around.

"Roads existed for centuries," she notes, "before the automobile was ever created."

But Greene says that since the city's No. 1 goal with infrastructure is to keep people safe, the building of bike lanes may take time. The city wants to continue to meet with stakeholders and make sure it's implementing the best plans, ones that won't have adverse side effects. And even then — if Research Parkway is any guide — there will be issues.

"We're gonna make mistakes," he says. "Our lessons learned is 'how do we improve on it?'"

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