Anchorage could use Bike Plan

April 30, 2009 

While riding with a friend through the streets of Anchorage last summer, we maneuvered across the road, signaling with our left arms out our intent to turn left. Safely across, we slowed at a traffic light, but not before hearing the shouts of some preteens on the sidewalk across the way.

"Get on the sidewalks!" they yelled, among other cruder things, as if they had the answers to all of life's problems.

As a parent, I wanted to stop what I was doing and walk right over there to give them a lecture on treating people, especially those older than them, with respect. As a cyclist, I knew zipping back across the street could be a real problem.

So Tiffanie and I just rode on, ignoring the kids and shrugging off their ignorance. The thing is, those kids got it all wrong, and that's just one of the problems with the Anchorage cycling scene that needs to be addressed.

It's one of the reasons I'm so glad to see the details of the Anchorage Bicycle Plan mapped out and on the books for future development. The plan, completed after years of work and under public review since March, is a wish list of about 150 construction projects that will add more than 70 miles of new bicycle lanes, 50 miles of bike paths alongside roads and at least a dozen miles of greenbelt trails.

The estimated cost for the projects is $81 million over the next 20 years.

Before succumbing to sticker shock, though, there are a few things to think about. Critics of the plan say we are no Portland or San Diego, and improving the bicycle network in Anchorage (and Chugiak-Eagle River) is an indulgence our northern city can't afford.

I beg to differ.

Ask the families of the eight people who have died since 1994 as a result of bicycle-vehicle collisions how they feel about that. Is $81 million too much? By my math, the cost of these improvements comes to a paltry $14.50 per person per year, but it would never come to that. According to Jon Spring, an Anchorage consultant on the plan, a majority of the costs associated with the improvements would come from federal money. And while there is no breakdown of actual taxpayer costs, the truth is, the plan is simply a guide and not an etched-in-stone $81 million bill waiting to be paid. Many of the projects, Spring said, are simple, requiring only painting of bike lanes, to improve safety for commuters and recreational cyclists.

And that's what it's really about: safety. I've had plenty of close calls myself, with vehicles honking at me for attempting a perfectly legal left-hand turn, giant 4x4s roaring within inches of my shoulder on narrow roads, or for riding in the road when there are no shoulders whatsoever. Most times, I try to avoid the problem areas, opting for side roads and bike paths to stay away from Anchorage's ignorant, impatient drivers, too busy on their cell phones to slow down and look out for the traffic around them.

Often, I'll break city code by riding on sidewalks or taking shortcuts on pirated paths, because I know it is safer than facing drivers for whose vehicles I am no match. It's not a good solution to a problem that won't go away without the much-needed fixes in Anchorage's new bike plan.

Despite Anchorage's northern location, it really is an ideal cycling location. While the season may be shorter than more southerly cities, the conditions in summer -- not too hot, hilly or wet -- are favorable for cycling. Furthermore, when creating the Anchorage Bike Plan, researchers looked specifically at such cold-climate cities as Minneapolis and Chicago, and areas of Canada, to find appropriate comparisons for realistic cycling improvements.

I venture to guess that those who complain that cyclists don't belong on the roads are not cyclists themselves. Some people ride bikes for pleasure, some for competition, and others for commuting. For a growing percentage of Anchorage's population, cycling is their only mode of transportation, either for personal or economic reasons. For these people, especially, I hope the Anchorage Bike Plan comes to complete fruition. It's time the gas-guzzling road hogs around us realize that they are not the only vehicles on the road, and that theirs is not the only way.


Outdoors freelance writer Melissa DeVaughn and her blog "Deadlines and Stopwatches'' can be reached at www.melissadevaughn.com

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