A plan whose time has not come
Friday, February 1, 2013
I am a firm believer in bicycle lanes. I truly appreciate efforts to design and build roadways to accommodate all their users, not just cars and trucks. I think encouraging bicycle transit and pedestrian safety makes Wenatchee a better city.
But ... there’s always a but when it comes to bicycles ... there comes a point where you can push too hard. The majority of the public, the drivers of automobiles, are never going to be delighted by the prospect of handing over precious pavement to cyclists. It’s a hard sell in the best conditions. Run hard against an antagonistic public and in the long run you could do the cause more harm than good. It’s the same old story — in a contest between a car and a bicycle, the bicycle loses.
Such is the case on North Wenatchee Avenue. The city is gearing up to rebuild The Avenue from Fifth Street to Miller. There will be real work on basic infrastructure, with upgrades to sewer lines and utilities, new curb ramps at intersections and crossings, better vehicle-detection sensors at signaled crossings, and on top nearly a mile of fresh new pavement. Not glamorous, but important.
Nobody seems bothered by that. What sets off the conversation is the where to put the stripes on top. It’s just paint on asphalt, but that decides where the rubber meets the road.
The planning engineers decided this might be the time to float an idea. Connect this short stretch of avenue with the eventual plans to extend the downtown traffic plan and feel. You could reduce the lanes for motor vehicles from two in each direction to one, with a center turn lane. That would make room for bicycle lanes, with on-street parking, while keeping the curbs and hardware as is. North Wenatchee Avenue would be two lanes, with a center turn, through downtown, all the way to Miller. From there north, it reverts to its great, wide congested glory.
At this point in the story steam begins to flow from many a motorist’s ears. Drivers, who think the center of Wenatchee has enough traffic nightmares as it is, don’t like the idea of yielding territory to bicycles. Business owners rightly fret over the potential loss of traffic, and the threat to their income.
Gary Owen, the city’s engineer taking the lead on the project, says that the two-lane plan could have advantages. It follows the goal to be “context sensitive” and consider all modes of transit. It connects with the plan for downtown and its eventual beautification. It improves safety — crossing two lanes is better than four, and this is a dangerous stretch, with four car-pedestrian accidents in five years. It fits with the bicycle network plan drafted by the regional bicycle advisory board, which sees North Wenatchee Avenue as a designated route.
In some ways it accommodates reality. That part of The Avenue was designed when it was a state highway, but it is no longer. Now it gets about 11,000 vehicles per day, which can be handled by two lanes. In contrast, Mission and Chelan get up to 20,000 vehicles per day. The Avenue north of Miller gets 35,000 to 40,000. Going from four lanes to two on this short stretch would slow traffic a little during rush hours, said Owen, but “It’s really not significant.”
Why is this a bad idea? Owen said public opinion “is very much negative.” The plan has gotten exposure at an open house, and in the media, and the majority reaction falls somewhere between please don’t and you’ve got to be kidding. Slow traffic for cyclists with the Loop Trail a block away? Hurt business, increase inconvenience, divert traffic — why?
Bicyclists offer supportive comments. The majority, vehemently, says no. “It’s pretty plainly clear the community is not interested,” said Owen.
The City Council and mayor will make the final decision. If they decide against two lanes in favor of four, they will be heeding public opinion, which is a big part of their job. And as a cyclist, I will lose a bicycle lane I probably wouldn’t use much, anyway. It may come in the future, when fewer people hate it. I would vote against this if I were them.
Losing a bicycle lane to avoid overwhelming public resentment is not a bad trade. It’s not worth it, and if it doesn’t happen Owen advises keeping it in perspective. “In the end, they are just stripes,” he said.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.
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