Northwest Builds for Bikes

By Katie Hawkins

Streets, sidewalks and road sharing, oh my! The Northwest’s transportation needs are being impacted by the ever-growing cycling population, and several cities are on the fast track to incorporating bike-friendly infrastructures into the design of roadways, parking facilities, and public transportation systems. Portland and Vancouver, B.C., are leading the way with ambitious plans for 2030 and 2040, respectively, and King County and Idaho are following close behind. Between 2007 and 2010, the Seattle Department of Transportation spent nearly $28 million on bike projects for its Bicycle Master Plan, aiming to become the best city for cycling in the U.S. within the next 10 years. Meanwhile in Idaho, the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program will include accommodation for bicycles on all-new roadway construction projects, and many communities in the state have already developed bicycle/pedestrian plans.

Roadways, Infractures, Options

 Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver

Depending on the project and available funds, infrastructure improvements for cyclists and others road users can take time to complete, but generally, the less controversial the project is, the less time it takes to make it happen. In most cases when it comes to cycling specific improvements, if motorists aren’t impacted by the changes, projects take about one year to complete (roughly two public meetings, plus design time and construction). If the endeavor involves major funding, takes away from drivers, or businesses feel they would be negatively affected, it often takes much more time to get approved and realized.

The least controversial and therefore quickest forms of bicycle infrastructure are the addition of sharrow markings on the streets, which notify drivers that cyclists also use the route. The addition of bike boulevards or neighborhood greenways that parallel major roadways has become the most popular form of road sharing projects in Vancouver, B.C., and Portland in recent years. These bikeways, which separate riders from heavy motorized traffic, is safer for cyclists and keeps all road users happy, and therefore tends to have a faster implementation period. Various methods are used to discourage drivers from taking advantage of the significantly reduced traffic by giving right of way to bicycle boulevard users at intersections, posting low speed limits, using multiple speed bumps and displaying abundant signage.

Adding bike lanes to existing streets proves to be more controversial, as they take longer to install and usually require the removal of a lane of traffic or parking spaces, which often doesn’t bode well with drivers. Nevertheless, once approved, implementation is relatively inexpensive.

Vancouver, B.C., took separation to the next level by adding medians to keep bike lane users away from proximal vehicle traffic while providing access to major arterials. This type of infrastructure requires more funding and can prove controversial for similar reasons as the simple bike lanes do.

Designated bike trails are the most time consuming projects. Though motorists generally do not debate them as much, they cost much more to build (estimated at around $1 million per mile) and, unlike projects that alter existing streets, trails must often be constructed from scratch. It takes many years to raise enough to fund and see these projects through.

Public Transportation

While road infrastructure represents a large part of a cyclist’s transportation equation, public transit also assumes a major role.

Many cities are creating more complete transportation networks by adding bike racks to buses, trains, and ferries. King County in Washington; Boise, Idaho; Vancouver, B.C.; and Portland have all converted their buses to provide front-mounted racks. Bikes are also allowed on Vancouver’s SkyTrain, Seattle and Portland’s Light Rail, and bike racks have been added to Sound Transit’s Sounder, Central Link, and Tacoma Link trains in the state of Washington. The Cascades Amtrak trains, which run from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, Ore., also accommodate bicycles for a $5-10 fee. In general, across the Northwest bikes can be boarded on the ferries for one or two dollars, while Clackamas County doesn’t charge any extra for bikes.


Bike Boulevards, bike corrals, and separation from auto traffic all combined to create a better and safer experience for all.  Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver

Bike Boulevards, bike corrals, and separation from auto traffic all combined to create a better and safer experience for all.

Although it’s convenient to be able to bring the bike everywhere you go, at times it is easier to leave it behind in a secure facility.

Designated bike parking areas can be found outside of most train stations. SoundTransit, Light Rail, and SkyTrain all recommend using bike racks for occasional or one-time storage. Those who frequently use the same stations can opt to rent a bike locker for a monthly or annual fee.

Bike stations have also been popping up around some cities, providing 24-hour covered, indoor bike storage facilities that often include lockers and even a shower. Private stations are often included in large corporate buildings or health clubs, but public access stations also exist. The first such bike station to open in Oregon was on the ground floor of the Intermodal Transit Facility in Hillsboro. Other close by locations include Portland State University, Lloyd Athletic Club, RiverPlace Athletic Club, and the Dekum Building.

Bike racks, or corrals, are by far the most common form of bike parking and are typically installed by city workers at the request of businesses, property managers, and citizens. More than 70 business owners in Portland have petitioned for the removal of vehicle parking spaces to replace them with bike parking. Now, bike racks/corrals are usually included in new construction or site improvements.

Economically, it’s a cheaper alternative compared to other parking costs. In 2005, the Transit Cooperative Research Program published a 79-page report called Synthesis 62, which states: It “typically costs between $150 and $200, and bicycle lockers between $1,500 and $2,000. By comparison, the cost to construct automobile parking can range from $3,500 to $12,000 per space and between $10,000 and $31,000 per space for structural (garage) parking.”

All of these improvements are great for those with bikes. But what about those who don’t own one, but would like to get around in a fast, cheap, and non-carbon emitting way?

Bike racks have been installed on all city buses in the Northwest.  Photo by Bicycle Paper Photo by Bicycle Paper

Bike racks have been installed on all city buses in the Northwest.

Bike Sharing Initiatives

Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and several organizations in Idaho are all looking at various degrees to take the next step — bike sharing — where for a fee individuals may borrow bikes from a designated station for short-term use, usually around downtown areas and college campuses. They can then be returned at different locations and used at will throughout the day. Thousands of commuters already use these networks in Washington, D.C., Miami, Denver, and 12 other U.S. cities. Recent bike sharing implementations in Paris, Lyon, and Montreal, have shown that, in addition to supporting active and healthy living, the system extends the reach of transit and walking trips, helping to alleviate capacity issues and typically trigger renewed interest and participation in cycling.

The University of British Columbia has already installed their own bike sharing program — the Purple and Yellow (P&Y) fleet — where anyone can become a member for six hours of volunteer work, or $15 for students and $20 for faculty, staff, and community members. With paid membership and one night of volunteering at a Tuesday P&Y party, members can gain access to 50-100 public bikes. The city of Vancouver is catching on to the idea and plans to have a more widespread system by spring 2012. Portland city council approved $2 million in funding from the federal government for a bike share program on August 17, 2011.

After commissioning a team of graduate students from the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning in January 2010, Seattle decided that the demand for bike sharing is a worthy expenditure. King County plans to apply for federal funds after recently hiring Alta Planning and Design to implement the project. The group is working with a number of partners in the region, including City of Seattle, City of Kirkland, City of Redmond, University of Washington, Children’s Hospital, Cascade Bicycle Club, Microsoft, Sound Transit and Puget Sound Regional Council, with hopes to be up and running sometime in 2012. Initially the program would include downtown to the University District.

Medians that separate cyclists and motorists don't have to be boring concrete structures. Photo by City of Vancouver Photo by City of Vancouver

Medians that separate cyclists and motorists don't have to be boring concrete structures.

However, there is some controversy about bike share projects. The questions of topography, weather, sidewalk space, and helmets — which are required in King County — remain problematic, and many believe that funding could be better used elsewhere in the community. Yet, with the growing number of riders in all three cities, there seems to be enough of a demand for an alternate form of transportation.

The bottom line is that cities in the Northwest have had to accommodate for the growing interest in cycling, and in turn, the urban design that is making life easier and safer for riders is continuously drawing more to the healthy, sustainable, and low-cost lifestyle. Some infrastructure changes may take longer to pass because of funding and controversy, but with more reasons than ever to switch from four wheels to two, it may not be long before critics join the crusade.

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