Opinion: People biking and walking deserve safe and comfortable access to the Division/Church corridor

[Note: A version of this post appears in the December 27 edition of the Portage County Gazette, p. 5, under the headline “People biking and walking deserve safe access to city streets.” The original below contains links to references for assertions in the print version.]

These remarks are intended to motivate Stevens Point to find a balance among all road users for safe and comfortable access to destinations along the Division/Church corridor. The ongoing project to decide how to improve Business 51 within the Stevens Point city limits provides an opportunity for our community to achieve this balance.

Many people do not drive motor vehicles. Some are too young to drive, some can’t afford to drive, some are physically unable to drive, some are legally unable to drive, and some choose not to drive.

A recent Washington Post article cites a University of Michigan study reporting that among 18- to 39-year-olds, over 15% do not have a driver’s license.

(Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/08/07/why-arent-young-people-getting-drivers-licenses-too-much-hassle/ )

Recent US Census data show that 4.5% of Stevens Point residents commute to work by bicycle, and 12.5% walk to work. These are transportation trips to work and back, not recreational trips. This totals 17% of our city that bike and walk to work.

(Source: Computed from 2007-2011 American Community Survey, Table B08301: Means of Transportation to Work, 5-year estimate.
Raw numbers in the table: Total workers – 13647, Bicycle – 608, Walked – 1702.)

It is simply fantasy to believe that everyone always drives.

Those who don’t drive need the same access on Division/Church for the same reasons that those who do drive: that’s where they work, that’s where they shop, that’s where they live, and that’s where they go for entertainment.

Our city streets, unlike state and federal roads, are largely constructed and maintained using Stevens Point property tax. Every homeowner and renter pays for our streets through these taxes, whether they go by foot, by bike, or by motor vehicle. Some claim that those who don’t pay gas tax or motor vehicle fees are not paying for city streets and have no right to expect access. But that argument ignores the facts to the contrary and is invalid.

Everyone deserves safe, comfortable, and convenient access to the public right-of-way, regardless of the legal mode of transportation they choose. Division/Church currently does not meet any reasonable standard of being safe and comfortable for those who do not drive.

Some claim that accommodating non-driving people on Division/Church is pointless because there are no such people. The reality is that past decision-makers built a street hostile to non-driving people. The potential for bicycling and walking on Division/Church is unrealized today due to their failed planning.

Bicycle accommodations are one of the fundamental goals of the Business 51 improvement project. This goal addresses the lack of safe and comfortable bike access along Division/Church. Claims that bike lanes are included only to access federal funds are false. Those requirements merely restrict the types of accommodations allowed. Funding this project without federal dollars does not eliminate the goal of providing bicycle accommodations on Division/Church.

Our city has a responsibility to find a balance so that all residents can use the public right-of-way on Division/Church for their personal business. One person’s trip to a destination on Division is not more important than another person’s trip to a destination on Division just because one drives and the other bikes. If critics of the proposed alternatives for Division/Church believe that the business of people who bike or walk is less important than theirs, then they should state that bias for the record.

Cities across the US have discovered that when streets are built to be safe and comfortable for non-driving people, then biking and walking increase, resulting in vibrant places to live, work, shop, and play.  According to Wikipedia, about 20,000 projects like ours have been built across the US.

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_diet )

The Project for Public Spaces webpage has case studies of a dozen of these successful projects. These include projects in Milwaukee, Orlando, Seattle, and Poughkeepsie, which is about the same size as Stevens Point. Warnings of dire problems due to the designs of those projects are identical to those heard in criticism of the proposed alternatives for Division/Church. Yet after construction in those places, such problems failed to materialize.

(Source: http://www.pps.org/reference/rightsizing/ )
(Related article: http://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/01/23/road-diets-are-changing-american-cities-for-the-better/ )

Our city has an excellent staff of traffic engineers. In addition, one of our alderpersons has substantial traffic engineering background. These experts have explained repeatedly based on data collection and Federal Highway Administration guidelines that the proposed designs for Division/Church will create a functional street for decades to come.

But some people with absolutely no experience in traffic engineering and no data for making decisions feel they understand how to design streets better than these trained professionals. These people would ask our alderpersons to spend $35 million while ignoring the data and ignoring expert analysis. How can such people not consider that a wasteful approach to spending? If critics of the proposed alternatives for Division/Church actually believe that our traffic engineers are incompetent, then they should state that bias for the record.

Some fear that the proposed alternatives for Division/Church threaten their choice to use a motor vehicle for their transportation needs. Any concern that cars and trucks will somehow be prohibited in Stevens Point is frivolous. On the contrary, appropriately balancing the walking, bicycling, and driving needs of our residents will actually create additional safe and comfortable options for moving about our city. Transportation choices will be expanded, not restricted, by the proposed alternatives for Division/Church.

In summary, it is irresponsible to ignore the plain fact that a significant portion of our community does not drive. All residents must be ready to accept reasonable change and compromise so that our city can become an even better place for everyone: people who walk, people in wheelchairs, people who bicycle, people who take transit, and people who drive.

Note: This post is based on comments I made to Stevens Point Common Council on Monday December 16 regarding an item connected to the Division/Church Corridor Study project. The main discussion is the same, but I have edited it to make it more suitable for reading by a general audience instead of for being spoken directly to our alderpersons about a specific agenda item.

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