By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Sunday, October 30, 2011

One of the country’s leading experts on bicycle infrastructure offered area cyclists advice last week on ways to maket cycling safer in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

“Go ahead and think bold,” said Mia Birk, the author of “

Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet


Mia Birk (Photo: Heather Higgins)

Birk is the president of Alta Planning and Design, a firm that specializes in developing bike trails and greenways. She served in the mid-1990’s as the Bicycle Program Manager for Portland, Ore.

Nearly 8 percent of commuters bike to work in Portland, the highest proportion of any major U.S. city and 10 times the national average. In Charlottesville, 2 percent of commuters use a bike, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

“This idea that people just woke up in Portland and started riding a bike is a myth,” Birk told an audience of cycling enthusiasts at Lane Auditorium. “We’ve been on a really long journey.”

Birk explained that Portland was a very automobile-centric city 20 years ago.

“Portland was built around the streetcar, and then the automobile came in full force after World War II,” Birk said. “Highways were built in all directions, ripping through many old neighborhoods.”

Birk credits legislation passed in 1991 that allowed cities to spend federal money on bike facilities and sidewalks. Cyclists organized an advocacy group called the Bicycle Transportation Council to lobby for specific safety improvements. Specific attention was paid to make sure Portland’s bridges had lanes for bikes.

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Before the lecture, members of Bike Charlottesville took Birk on an 11-mile ride around Charlottesville to showcase past and future improvements.

“Some of the successes that we’ve had with our bicycle plan in Charlottesville have been with connecting the east side and west side of town,” said cycling activist Ruth Stornetta.

The group also visited dangerous locations, such as the intersection of 4th Street SW and Main Street.

That is where cyclist Matt King was killed by a city public works vehicle in April 2010.

Stornetta said most of the community’s entrance corridors are dangerous for cyclists. There are no bikes lanes on Emmet Street or Avon Street, which can discourage people from even considering riding into the city.

The city is considering designating Rialto Road as a “bike boulevard,” which would involve putting up signs to tell cyclists to use it as an alternative to Avon Street. That road is too narrow to support bike lanes without significant investment from the city.

Such a bike boulevard is in the works for the Old Lynchburg Road corridor. There is not enough room to include bike lanes in a forthcoming project to add sidewalks, so a decision was made to route bikes onto Monte Vista Avenue instead.

Other common hazards were experienced during the ride. Despite the presence of a dozen bicycles and riders, the group could not get the left-turn signal at the intersection of Monticello onto 5th Street Extended to recognize they were there.

“It’s not the weight,” said Jeannie Alexander, the city’s traffic engineer. “The signal is triggered by metal from the cars.”

One highlight of the trip was the crossing of a pedestrian and bike bridge that crosses Emmet Street.

The bridge allows bikes to avoid crossing the well-trafficked Emmet in favor of other routes.

Charlie Denney with Alta Planning and Design (Photo: Heather Higgins)

“In bicycle infrastructure planning, the biggest thing is identifying what the barriers are and finding out what you can do to overcome them,” said Charlie Denney with Alta Planning and Design.

The tour gave a chance for casual cyclists to ride along with experts to get a sense both of etiquette and safety. For instance, riders used hand signals to let each other know when glass and other debris littered the bike lanes.

“I like to ride to work, but I sometimes don’t because I end up running late and I’ll drive in,” said city resident Susan Elliot. She said many of her friends would like to bike but are concerned about their safety.

“They are seriously concerned even about bike lanes on busy roads like West Main Street,” Elliot said.

Stornetta said the biggest threat to cyclists is the danger of parked cars opening their doors into the bike lane.

“Cyclists need to be educated and learn to ride towards the left of the bike lane out of the door zone,” Stornetta said. “Drivers need to be educated to look before they open their doors.”

“You have to be really careful when you’re passing stop cars on the right through an intersection,” Stornetta said. “That was part of the problem when Matt King was killed.”

After the ride, Birk encouraged city and county planners to work on filling some of the holes in the existing bike lane network.

“I think there’s a lot of potential here to tighten things up or to even look for parallel routes,” Birk said.


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