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Colorado Springs attempt for more bike infrastructure comes with growing pains

November 1, 2016 Updated: November 2, 2016 at 7:13 am
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Zach Russell, left, and Janet Winterhalder with COS Racing ride eastbound on Research Parkway at Windy Hill Drive Tuesday, November 1, 2016, in the buffered bike lane that has been in service since the end of September. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Kate Brady is at a coffee shop in a budding section of Colorado Springs' northeast side, excitedly discussing a project nearby. It has been happening on Research Parkway since the end of September, when crews painted stripes and placed posts on the two outer lanes of the six-lane corridor to convert them into the buffered bike lanes that make anyone in Brady's position happy.

Many feel much differently.

"Change is hard," Brady says.

Into her ninth month as the city's bike planner, she is overseeing Colorado Springs' most robust attempt at a modern approach to bike friendliness. The buffered lanes - seen more and more in cities around the country - stretch almost 3 miles between Austin Bluffs Parkway and Chapel Hills Drive. They add to the city's 110 miles of on-street bike lanes.

City officials say the lanes could "right size" Research Parkway, which a study found to have been built too large and welcomed drivers to speed beyond the posted 45 mph limit.

"We don't think there will ever be enough traffic to warrant all those lanes," said Tim Roberts, the city's senior transportation planner who has been involved in pinpointing places for bike infrastructure around the city, with the help from a 2014 survey by the Pikes Peak Council Area of Governments that identified corridors for such. One of those was Research Parkway.

Also, officials believe the buffered lanes could bring the Springs closer to the League of American Bicyclists' gold status as a bicycle friendly community. The city's strategic plan calls for a step up from its silver designation, which Denver also has. Fort Collins, with about 190 miles of on-street bike lanes, and smaller Boulder, with nearly 80 miles, share the highest platinum rating.

Officials speak in terms of what the lanes "could" do, for the lanes are not permanent. Keeping them will be determined by the summer, when Research Parkway is scheduled for repaving.

Brady, of course, would like to see them stay and sprout elsewhere in the city. In describing the lanes' benefits, she and other advocates start with the comfort they provide, the space a rider gets from traffic. Indeed, Brady thinks more buffered lanes could spell fewer accidents. According to five-year data she's collected, an annual average of 58 cyclists in the city are involved in police-reported crashes with vehicles, with three being killed over those five years.

And she thinks the lanes could attract more cycling commuters, including on Research Parkway, which could not be considered a popular pedaling spot. Cyclists had been sharing space with pedestrians on the sidewalk.

"It makes sense because of the overlay they're doing next year," said Allen Beauchamp, the longtime city advocate who works for the Trails and Open Space Coalition on a project to connect downtown neighborhoods on bikes. "While (Research) is not one we would've selected, we understand this as the right step in the right direction. This type of infrastructure should be used all throughout Colorado Springs."

In deciding to keep the buffered lanes after repaving, officials say they will consider the number of cyclists they count on Research Parkway. Brady thinks it will take time for that number to rise.

"If we want more people riding bicycles, that means we have to tap into the people who may have wanted to ride but haven't felt comfortable sharing space with traffic," Brady says at the coffee shop.

From the next table, local Linda Rife glances over. She shakes her head in apparent disappointment. As someone who drives Research Parkway to work, she lends her two cents.

"It's just a pain," she says of the buffered lanes. "You're used to coming up and merging right into the lane, and there's all these big posts."

Brady listens, as she has listened to the many complaints the lanes have inspired this fall.

High opposition

Another factor in the decision to keep the lanes will be public input, officials say. So far, the loudest input has been from opponents, whose points are listed in a petition. They argue that traffic through the corridor will grow with the area and that vehicles would in fact clog up with fewer lanes; that the low demand of cyclists does not justify the lanes; that safety is not improved. Ire intensified after a vehicle collided with another in the days after the buffered lanes were installed.

"There have been a few accidents," city spokeswoman Kim Melchor wrote in an email, "but based on initial reports from the police none of them were connected to the bike lanes.

"One month is really too soon to properly evaluate accident rate changes," she added, "but we will be determining any changes as part of our final conclusions."

Complaints have reached up to City Hall's highest office.

"I'm not surprised," Mayor John Suthers said. "People have been used to flying on Research going 65 mph, and now they're having to go 45, and they're seeing these bike lanes and going, What the hell is this?"

While not a cyclist himself, Suthers is an outspoken proponent of the city increasing its bike infrastructure. He speaks of it as a task necessary to be competitive, to attract businesses and young professionals. Those effects are supported by advocate research, and they've been alluded to by Gov. John Hickenlooper as part of his urging the state to focus on its bike friendliness as population booms.

Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado, said he's pleased with infrastructure that's been planted in recent years, particularly with the addition of buffered lanes. He declined to compare Colorado Springs' progress.

"One of the challenges is just that it's something new," he said. "Folks have a natural resistance to change a lot of times. But what happens is they get accustomed to it, and it starts getting a lot of use and a lot of support."

Adjustment factor

This year in Denver, crews have installed 15 miles of on-street bike lanes, with buffered lanes coming recently to five corridors. The city is monitoring a pilot program with a two-way protected bikeway running through downtown's South Broadway.

Tessa Greegor, bike planner in the League of American Bicyclists' platinum-rated Fort Collins, said about 10 miles of buffered lanes have come online over the past three years. She said she's heard little opposition as the city continues to place more lanes on streets due for overlays.

"Really, doing that is part of our street maintenance program," she said. "When the street department goes out to repave a street, we're looking to improve our bike network. It's definitely the most cost-effective approach."

According to a recent analysis from the Colorado Public Interest Research Group that used cost projections in cities' bike master plans, Fort Collins spends the most per capita ($43.12) toward infrastructure, followed by Durango ($42.67) and Boulder ($22.07). The interest group did not compare Colorado Springs, as Brady in her first year is forming a plan for the state's second-largest metro area.

Advocates see the physical challenges for connective bike infrastructure in a city that sprawls more square mileage than Denver, Seattle or Portland. And they see what they describe as perception challenges, too.

"We do know that there is an adjustment factor," Suthers said. "People do need to adjust to the presence of more bikes."

At the coffee shop, Brady hears the naysayer speak of the buffered lanes as "a nuisance."

"It just seems too wide," the woman continues. She says she has not ridden her bike on the lanes.

"Give it a try it sometime," Brady says.

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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