When Sam Weatherby biked home to Eagle River from work in East Anchorage last week, he traveled on a mile-long stretch of road where, for the first time in Anchorage, a row of plastic poles stood between him and rush hour traffic.
The poles form Anchorage’s first protected bike lane, which is being piloted this month via a collaboration between the Municipality of Anchorage and the Alaska Department of Transportation to test out whether protected bike lanes are a feasible way to improve cyclist safety.
Another goal is to find what it might take to expand the use of protected bike lanes around the city, which have taken off in communities across the Lower 48, and have been shown in some communities to decrease collisions and increase bike use. They work by providing a visual and physical barrier between bikes and vehicles, said Brad Coy, Anchorage’s Municipal Traffic Engineer.
It’s the first phase of a project. Next summer, the city is planning to expand to more streets in downtown and Midtown Anchorage.
The new bike lane — which runs the stretch along Pine and McCarey Streets between DeBarr Road and Mountain View Drive — is funded by a $1 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration, and is meant to allow the city to “try something new” when it comes to improving cyclist safety, Coy said.
The lane is being officially launched via a public ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Polar Bear Playground at Russian Jack Springs Park. It will stay standing through the end of the month or until the first snow falls, Coy said.
For Weatherby, who passes through the route almost daily, the pilot seems like a step in the right direction, but he said he hopes that any permanent protected bike lanes include physical barriers that cars cannot easily run through.
He said he loves cycling — his wife tells him she’s seen a notable decrease in his stress levels since he started commuting by bike — but doesn’t always feel safe, especially on busy city roads.
“I liked the concept,” he said. “I think it helps a little bit visually. But (cars) still could go right through those, you know,” he said, gesturing to the plastic poles.
Coy said that this is the kind of feedback the city is hoping for, and that a less flexible barrier between bikers and cars is something they are considering for permanent versions.
The city is also enlisting winter road maintenance staff to help inform what it might take to maintain future protected bike lanes through the winter — they pose a particular challenge when it comes to plowing large amounts snow, he said.
The location for the pilot project was chosen because it is part of the popular Moose Loop trail system that connects to many parts of the city, and because it was already partially buffered from traffic, which made it easier to implement quickly, Coy said.
Protected bike lanes are a way to make would-be cyclists feel more secure when biking around Anchorage, said Alexa Dobson, director of Bike Anchorage, an advocacy group focused on improving bikeability and cyclist safety in the municipality.
“A lot of folks are comfortable riding on our multi-use trails, but aren’t necessarily comfortable taking trips when they have to be on streets where cars can be passing at really high speeds,” she said.
The push is part of a broader effort in Anchorage to shift toward more bike-friendly policies and infrastructure. In August, the Anchorage Assembly passed an overhaul to city rules for bikers that they said could help make bicycling safer and more of a feasible option for residents.
Over the next month, city contractors and Bike Anchorage volunteers will be taking surveys of cyclists in the area to learn what they think about the protected lane, and what improvements might be needed. The city also will be using traffic cameras to collect data on vehicular speeds and cyclist volume to measure broader impacts on traffic patterns, Coy said.
“We’re hoping that what we’ll see is that it’s a lot easier for folks to make the choice to take more trips on their bikes,” Dobson said.