Biking in Bethlehem: be safe, have fun (24)

(24th in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability)

Anne Felker lives in Bethlehem, works with the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation (CAT) as a board member and cycling instructor, and has been active for many years on the City of Bethlehem’s Citizens’ Traffic Advisory Committee.  She encourages anyone interested in joining her weekly women’s ride on the towpath to check out the ride schedule at LVCAT.ORG for more details.

You can always find the link to the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation (CAT) on the Gadfly sidebar.

Gadfly:

I’m one of those people you see riding a bicycle on the streets of Bethlehem.  I’ve been doing it for years, and in addition to walking, my bike is my primary form of getting around town.  I’m interested to read the thoughts of Kate McVey on the mysteries of sharrows in Bethlehem.  Those shared lane markings, or sharrows, show where cyclists should safely ride and have the side benefit of letting the car drivers know that bikes belong on the streets.

I must admit, though, I get nervous when I hear people talking about installing bike lanes in Bethlehem. Bike lanes are not a magic bullet; unless we are willing to give up lots of on-street parking to install protected bike lanes — steps which I do not see us having the political will to do now, though I’m willing to continue working in that direction —  cyclists have to be comfortable sharing the roads with cars.  Slapping down some paint on a road side and calling it a bike lane gives the least experienced cyclists a dangerously false sense of security, increases the likelihood of car/bike conflicts, and encourages vehicle drivers to shout at cyclists all the more to get off “their” roads.

With a view to encouraging cycling in Bethlehem as conditions exist currently, I offer the following observations:

  1. CYCLING LOOKS SCARIER THAN IT IS

Our roads are plenty wide enough for both bicyclists and drivers.  For example, our main east-west thoroughfare, Broad Street, used to have a trolley line running down the middle and now, even with on street parking on both sides, there’s plenty of room for a bicyclist riding visibly and faster moving traffic passing.  If you don’t like the bigger streets, take the less traveled — Market Street does have more stop signs and signals, but as a result the car traffic moves much more slowly.

Often, when I get to where I’m going, and someone sees me locking my bike or carrying my bike helmet, I will get exclaimed at as if I just walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  “I could never ride with all those cars and trucks on the road!”  I could point out that a cyclist travels through town an average of 8-12 MPH, so if I had a conflict with another vehicle, I am safer than if I was tripping through the streets in a vehicle at 30-40 MPH, even with all that metal and glass surrounding me.

I’ve come to understand such exclamations are much more about that person’s anxiety than about cycling being in any way significant or special.  Not to be macabre, but I suspect we might have a more realistic perception of the relative dangers of any kind of travel If we marked every spot where a motorist died or was severely injured in an accident, as we mark where an unfortunate cyclist meets his or her end.

To me, at the end of the day, traveling by bike is mostly mundane. Enjoyably so, but cycling a mile or so to the library or the coffee shop is just not that big a deal.

  1. SAFE RIDING IS VISIBLE RIDING

It may seem counter-intuitive, but as a cyclist you are far safer riding out in the lane of traffic than you are hugging the shoulder or riding next to the parked cars.

There are several reasons for this.  Primarily, if drivers don’t HAVE to see you, they won’t.  They won’t slow down, and that’s unsafe for you.  They won’t notice that you are going straight while they are turning right, and they will cut you off, and that’s unsafe for you.  Riding next to parked cars puts you at great risk of riding smack into opening car doors, because parked  drivers don’t look for cyclists before they swing open their doors.  Also, riding on the side of the road puts you in loose gravel, potholes, broken glass, and other car detritus.

Look at where those sharrows are, on the roads that have them.  Our Bethlehem Streets Dept installed them properly; the sharrows show where you as a cyclist should position yourself.  Try it.  Take that near middle-of-the-lane spot, ride in a straight line and you will find you are out of the road debris, out of the door zone and clearly visible to all drivers.   On roads without sharrows, the principle you need to follow is this:  Ride as far to the right as you can safely travel in the lane going in your direction.  This means, you stay out of the door zone and visible to other drivers, and usually will put you in the middle of your travel lane.

The basic rules of riding a bike are to act like a vehicle — ride with the flow traffic, stop at all stop signs and lights, signal your turns, etc.. So, for example, where there’s a right turn only lane and you are going straight, look behind you, signal your move and get into the lane of traffic that’s going straight.

  1. THE MORE OF US WHO RIDE, THE SAFER WE ALL ARE

There’s some intriguing research, cited by Peter Walker in his 2017 book How Cycling Can Save the World, that shows that the cyclist mode share outweighs even helmet use as a safety factor for cyclists.  Translation from transportation-nerd jargon:  The more of us who ride our bikes, the safer we all are.

I don’t know all the reasons for this, but I’ve noticed over the years that my experience as a cyclist has made me act differently when I get behind the wheel of my car —  I drive slower as well as more cautiously, than I did when I was only a car driver.

  1. HELP IS AVAILABLE

When I first took to my bike I was baffled at how to go about it, but in that pre-internet time there weren’t a lot of resources for someone who wanted to learn to travel by bike. Now, though, we have plenty of resources, both online and in person.

An array of on-line resources includes: cyclingsavvy.org; bicyclecoalition.org (Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia); transalt.org (NYC’s advocacy group Transportation Alternatives); adventurecycling.org (resources for long-distance bike travel) and our very own lvcat.org, the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation.

For those in Bethlehem, consider a visit to CAT, if only to check out the many resources available there. (FULL DISCLOSURE:  I’ve been involved with CAT since its inception over 25 years ago, for many years as its attorney and in more recent years as a board member.)

For about the price of a tank or two of gas, you can become a CAT member.  Located at  1935 W. Broad Street, CAT has a fully-equipped bike repair/maintenance shop, open to you and staffed by volunteers who can walk you through most any bike problem.  Don’t know how to work your gears? need to replace or repair a tire or pump up a flat one?  Need to get rid of a squealing brake or a noisy chain?  Go to CAT.  CAT also offers basic and advanced mechanics classes.

Most useful to anyone considering swapping out car rides for the occasional bike trip, CAT offers classes on how to ride the roads safely.  They can also help with logistics like route choices best suited to your comfort levels and how to equip your bike for city travel.

  1. BIKING IS ENJOYABLE

Doh! Do I really have to say this?  Of course cycling safety is serious, but riding a bike is fun.  It’s human-scaled transportation at a speed that connects us to our beautiful city.  You don’t need special shoes or lycra or glow-in-the-dark clothes.  Get on your bike, pedal, smile.  It’s that simple.

Anne

You can always find the link to the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation (CAT) on the Gadfly sidebar.

The pedestrian bridge and improving our sidewalks are not mutually exclusive goals (23)

(23rd in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability)

Paige Van Wirt is a Bethlehem City Councilwoman, physician, and small business owner.

Gadfly,

I am responding to Kate McVey’s piece as I am mentioned in it a few times. I am very happy to be having a dialogue about this, and happy citizens have a forum in Bethlehem to air their ideas. While this forum is valuable, I think the most powerful advocacy out there is coming and speaking before city council. It is remarkable how an informed, passionate citizen can sway opinion and open minds.

In terms of the bike lanes in Bethlehem, I agree they are inadequate. The concept is “sharrows,” which are shared lanes between bikes and cars. They are meant to help indicate where cyclists should be safe. They are less preferable than dedicated bike lanes, which I agree should be implemented in Bethlehem. This would cost time and tax dollars, but that does not mean it can’t be done. Citizens coming and speaking before council about their concerns and desires for safe cycling lanes is a very effective way of advocating for the dedication of tax dollars, or asking the city to obtain grants with the help of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission; the LVPC has a number of ongoing projects and exploratory studies to address this very issue — how do we foster safe cycling in the valley. I encourage you to come and speak and let City Council and the Mayor’s administration know how you feel. We would benefit from dedicated bike lanes on certain streets in Bethlehem. Even better would be an off-road set of paths and trails that could be shared by pedestrians and cyclists alike. Ironically, to your point, a pedestrian bridge would be a valuable part of any off-road system. A local group
involved in cycling advocacy is Lehigh Valley Coalition for Appropriate Transportation: http://www.lvcat.org/lvcat/. [You can always find this link on the Gadfly sidebar.] Walk Roll Lehigh Valley, through the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, is creating a master plan for walking and cycling in the Valley: https://www.lvpc.org/walkrolllv.html. These organizations are open to the public and welcome your advocacy and input. For every project, there is a cost/benefit analysis that must be data-driven and easily understood by the citizens.

I could not agree with you more about the condition of our sidewalks. In many places they are deplorable. The legal structure in Bethlehem means that homeowners are responsible for our sidewalks, and that puts a serious financial burden on homeowners as neighborhoods age and root systems wreak havoc on our sidewalks. One idea for improving our sidewalks is to increase code enforcement in houses that are sold — the sidewalks must be repaired, if needed, before the sale goes through; we should target absentee landlords in this particular transaction. This is a law on the books in Bethlehem which we are not consistently enforcing. Another idea I have proposed to the administration that we take a small portion of the $2.5 million we are using for street paving from the casino transfer fee and dedicate it to our sidewalks; the casino transfer fee is a one-time cash payment Bethlehem will see in the sale of the casino. As it is, this portion of the CTF is entirely dedicated to street-paving. Our streets must be maintained, but so must our sidewalks, as not all transportation in Bethlehem happens in cars walking is a valuable form of transportation. There are ways to offer grants to homeowners with this money instead of loans, to get our sidewalks into good shape.

Where I do disagree with you is the idea that when it comes to transformative projects like the pedestrian bridge project, and the sad state of many of our sidewalks, that the situation is zero-sum gain. It is not. The purpose of the pedestrian bridge study is to answer many of the questions you pose, and to explore the many different federal and state alternative transportation funds available for projects like the pedestrian bridge project. Most pedestrian bridges in the US are built with federal and state alternative transportation funds (along with tourism-related taxes such as the hotel tax), and there is no reason Bethlehem should not claim its share of those funds. The project, if feasible, would help create an off-road walking circuit in Bethlehem, linking our north and south downtowns, and transform our relationship to the river. I encourage you to bring your questions to future meetings of the pedestrian bridge project, as all citizen input, critical and laudatory, is welcome.

We should fix our sidewalks, look at the structure and costs of developing dedicated bike
lanes, and we should explore projects that may change the way we link our two downtowns and create a healthy, livable, and joyous city. These are not mutually exclusive goals and in fact should occur side by side.*** The funding for these goals is out there — we must must now show the will to implement them.

Paige

*** For a similar view, see “smandrew’s” comment on the previous post in this series.

Some replies to Kate (22)

(22nd in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability)

The condition of public infrastructure in Bethlehem is not so good. Our streets, sidewalks, parks, Payrow Plaza, etc. need much work. The questions become, how much will it cost and where does that money come from? And, all of these grants from the federal, state, and county governments, they are also public ‘tax dollars’ so it’s not exactly free money. I was reminded of that often when I was the City of Bethlehem’s grants administrator. A comprehensive approach to allocating limited funds to a myriad of needs is always a challenge for public officials.

Dana

Well said, Kate! You are absolutely right. Most of the sidewalks in the City are bad because of the trees that the City planted years ago. These are also the owner’s responsibility and the City can plant another tree in a location where you have one removed (which you have to use their “approved” contractors). The sidewalk in front of my home is raised, but to fix the sidewalk I will need to remove the tree in front of my home, which will cost me $7,000+(not including the cost to replace the sidewalk). Not to mention the damage it will do to my water line and foundation of my home! When I sat in on the Northside 2027 meeting a couple of weeks ago, they talked about adding more trees! WHAT? Who the heck did they survey? The trees are a nuisance (although quite beautiful), but for a middle class homeowner it is way too costly to care for these trees and the damage they do to your sidewalks/homes. Instead of a bridge, why aren’t you helping your homeowners??

Julie

I have also noted—and mentioned to city officials & council members—the many major problems with sidewalks. These are, of course, the property owners’ responsibility, but the city has to set sidewalk safety standards and enforce them. (They might want to start with sidewalks on city property!)

The bike symbol on the streets is often called a ‘sharrow’ and signifies both that the lane in question is to be shared by bicycles and motor vehicles and that the bicyclist should occupy the lane and stay away from the danger zone near parked cars.

Peter

Walking and biking: “let’s get our priorities straight” (21)

(21st in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability)

Kate McVey is a concerned citizen, 30-year resident of Bethlehem, professional organizer, dog owner, mother of two children, been around, kosher cook . . . explorer.

Ok, Gadfly, so let’s talk about walkability and bikeability for the City of Bethlehem.

I’ve attached photos of the current bike paths I took recently early on a Sunday morning. Well, actually I’m guessing this is a bike path because I don’t really know what a bike painted in the middle of a busy street really means. Is that a bike path? What are cars to Kate bike 1do? That can’t be bike paths because they are painted in the middle of busy thoroughfares. Elizabeth Avenue has several such painted bikes;  Fahy Bridge has a painted bike;  Main Street has painted bikes. (Several years ago a biker was tragically killed on the Fahy Bridge.) Does this mean that cars are to yield to bikers? Does this mean that bike traffic (against all bike-riding regulations) should travel in both directions in that one lane?  If the city is going to paint bicycles in the middle of busy streets, please inform the public as to what those painted bikes mean. I am pretty astute, and if I don’t know what I am to do when I drive on a street with a painted bike, I’m guessing a lot of people don’t. Is it simply: BEWARE BIKERS MAY BE ON THE ROAD?

Ok. So let’s tackle the walkability issue. There’s been a lot of discussion about this as several citizens and at least one council member really want a pedestrian bridge across the Lehigh River. Hmmm, there are three existing pedestrian crossings at this time. Do we need the expense of a bridge for bikes and walkers when there are already three?  Where is this bridge to be located? What is it connecting? Do we need it? Is the Lehigh River a river that requires contemplative crossing? Will there be benches placed along it for sitting and watching the sunset etc.? Is there something exciting going on in the River? In Denver I have watched kayakers (outside of REI) do their thing in rapids below — that was fun. But do we have this in Bethlehem? The Lehigh River is a fun recreational place, but simply to walk across it doesn’t offer that much gratification. Usually pedestrian bridges connect one immediate social area to another; that, if my understanding of placement of this Bethlehem bridge is correct, will not be what this proposed bridge will do. And, I am very open to correction.

I have two dogs, and I walk a lot. Here are pictures of sidewalks within one block of my house. They certainly are not safe. I have fallen while walking because a sidewalk slab was raised four inches up from the next slab. These irregularities are all over Bethlehem. Many older adults I have spoken with won’t walk in Bethlehem because of the bad sidewalks and the risk of falling. They feel much safer going to the gym to walk. When Kate walks 4events that are clearly walkable from my home come up, no one near me wants to walk to them because they don’t want to fall on the poorly lit and treacherous sidewalks.

I saw that Councilperson Paige Van Wirt announced that money had been secured for a feasibility study of a bridge. I really hope that these funds came from private money (not taxpayer)  for this study. To replace sidewalks is very expensive. $40,000 allocated for a feasibility study would be better spent correcting poor sidewalks that are now the responsibility of the homeowners. I understand there are loans available to residents for sidewalk replacement, but a loan needs to be repaid. Residents simply do not have the thousands it takes to replace sidewalks. It isn’t as if it would be several hundred dollars; my research is that is would be several thousand.

So, where are we?  Would a pedestrian bridge be a nice perk for some of our citizens?  Indeed. Is it necessary when so many other things are needed? I think not. Will it make Bethlehem more “walkable”? Not when the sidewalks are of such poor quality that you must constantly be looking down so as not to trip.Kate ADA 1

I understand that the Sierra Club favors the bridge. Have they given thought to some of these other issues? Is it not in the interest of Sierra Club to want the entire City to be more walkable? I don’t believe I have seen or heard anything from them concerning the deplorable condition of our current sidewalks. If a resident has to drive to access the pedestrian bridge, then the carbon footprint problem is increased, not diminished

Finally, there is this sidewalk on Elizabeth Avenue. As ADA regulations require a four-foot-wide sidewalk, this space is not compliant. While the City is busy putting in and correcting the curb cuts around the City (my favorite are the elaborate curb-cuts put in at Macada Road and Center Street where there are absolutely no sidewalks for miles, so good luck to the person in a wheelchair; once they cross the intersection where the heck are they going to go?), perhaps the person responsible for ADA compliance for Bethlehem should be investigating the sidewalks also. Just saying . . . let’s get our priorities straight, and if walking and biking in Bethlehem is a goal, let’s start with real bike paths and good sidewalks.

Kate

Leisure to watch the Spring come in

The Gadfly invites “local color” photos of this sort

Gadfly got high on all this talk of walkability and bikeability.

Peeled his fingers from the keyboard.

Fished some Aardvark beauties out from way under the bed.

And went for a walk this afternoon.

Paying attention to the sidewalks, Anon., paying attention.

But they didn’t break my Spring spell.

Great to be retired.

People would ask me what I would do when retired. Echoing Thoreau, I would often say, “I’d finally have leisure to watch the Spring come in.”

Nature’s miracle.

What’s blooming around your way?

Vicki Snow drop

Victoria R. Leister

“The snowdrop is the first flower of the year that shows its nice flowers. Often the blossoming of the snowdrop is a sign that the winter is transforming to springtime. Therefore the snowdrop symbolizes hope, the hope that this winter will finish too, that new warmth will enter our lives.”

Existing bridges not good for either biking or walking (20)

(20th in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability)

Peter Crownfield is officially retired but spends most of his time working with students in his role as internship coordinator for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley.

Gadfly:

Ped bridge would not be a panacea, but existing bridges are not good for either biking or walking.

On the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, biking in the traffic lanes is very dangerous at most times, so cyclists ride on the sidewalk, which makes it very bad for pedestrians.

On the Fahy bridge, there is only one sidewalk which duplicates the cyclist-pedestrian conflicts just as it does on the Hill-to-Hill Bridge.

Add to that the problem that both bridge sidewalks often have standing water that make these walks unpleasant unless you’re wearing waterproof shoes (not comfortable in summer) — and in winter, snow & ice removal is inconsistent, so icy conditions are common.

Peter