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The editorial below in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch came out unequivocally against Substitute Bill 1 for Bill #238, the so-called “Complete Streets” bill.

That was something of a surprise, but a very welcome one.

Among other things, the editorial pointed to concerns that have been echoed about both cost, and how it takes traffic engineering decisions out of the hands of the very professionals hired by the county council to make them.

It also acknowledges that bike transportation advocates are not a monolithic group when it notes Some bicycle-safety experts think bike lanes actually make riding more dangerous. This was a reference to a recent letter from me and Nick Kasoff, which was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 3rd, the very day this bill was expected to be approved.

The editorial below concludes:

Complete Streets would give a small number of people a claim on a disproportionate share of public dollars that should benefit the greatest number of people. The council should park this idea.

Quite apart from any argument about cost is the question: Is it the right approach? To that my reply is a resounding “No!” at least on the subject of bike lanes and similar lane-painting exercises.

Bike lanes cannot replace knowledge of what makes on-road cycling safe and in fact compromises it.

Knowledge of safe cycling is available from numerous sources. There are books, such as John Forester’s well knownEffective Cycling (there’s also an Effective Cycling video from Seidler Productions), or the concise Street Smarts booklet by John Allen. There are some excellent videos on-line, such as Dan Gutierrez and Brian DeSousa’s concise The Rights and Duties of Cyclists on both their website and YouTube, and Chris Quint’s comprehensive Cyclist’s Eye View (originally on DVD and now on YouTube in three parts; this link is to part 1). (A video I shot in Ferguson in 2012 is also posted on-line: BICYCLING Made SIMPLE.)

Those are all things you can do during the winter months if you hibernate from bicycling. However, as soon as you get the chance attend one of the three-session 9-1/2 hour Cycling Savvy St. Louis courses offered in metro St. Louis. I did so a couple of years ago and despite being a very experienced and confident on-road cyclist, still found it worthwhile with some novel ideas.

Add caption here...

An extremely complete street in Hamburg, N.Y.
(Photo by New York Department of Transportation)

Editorial: St. Louis County should drop the kickstand on ‘Complete Streets’ bill

To appreciate the complexities of, and the passions generated by, the “Complete Streets” bill awaiting action by the St. Louis County Council, it helps to drive (or ideally, when the weather warms up, bicycle) eastward into the city of St. Louis.

Last month the city Street Department and the Missouri Department of Transportation unveiled new lane configurations along a repaved 1.1-mile stretch of Chippewa Avenue (Missouri Highway 366) between Grand Boulevard on the east and Morganford Road on the west. Because the city already has the kind of “Complete Streets” program being considered by the county, some elaborate restriping was done after Chippewa was repaved.

Complete Streets policies have been adopted by hundreds of communities around the nation. The laws differ by jurisdiction, but in general, they require that when roads are rebuilt or repaved, planners must incorporate features for bicyclists, pedestrians and mass transit as well as cars and trucks.

So when MoDOT and the city repaved this section of Chippewa, they changed the lane configuration. The number of vehicle lanes shrank from four to two. White-striped bicycle lanes were added in both directions, along with a yellow-striped center turn lane. On the outside of the road in each direction are shoulder lanes, some of them for parking and some for pedestrians.

The overall effect is confusing. Cars and trucks now have one lane in each direction instead of two. When we drove it in the middle of a recent workday — a pleasant 50-degree day before the weather got cold — we had plenty of time to idle in traffic and observe that the number of cyclists using the new lanes was precisely zero.

Thanks to lobbying by Trailnet, a nonprofit group that promotes healthy lifestyles, County Councilman Pat Dolan’s, D-Richmond Heights, Complete Streets bill was zipping right along until late last month. Then the county’s highway engineers got into the act.

At the council’s Nov. 26 meeting, the bill was laid aside to gather input from the county’s Highways, Traffic and Public Works division. David Wrone, a spokesman for the division, told the Post-Dispatch’s Steve Giegerich that it would cost at least $300 million to install bicycle lanes along just 15 percent of county roadways. A little math tells us that to do it countywide would cost $1.7 billion.

That’s not what anyone is talking about. The Complete Streets bill doesn’t require the immediate installation of bike lanes. It says that “every transportation improvement project” should be seen as an “opportunity to create safe, more accessible streets for all users.”

In other words, if you’re going to build or fix it anyway, you must consider such Complete Streets features as “sidewalks, refuge islands, bulbouts, pedestrian and traffic signals, accessible curb ramps, crosswalks, bike lanes, cycle tracks, multi-use paths, traffic-calming devices, bicycle parking facilities, signage, street trees and landscaping and public transportation stops and facilities.”

This is a bit much. The bill would have county employees attending national bicycling conferences, “peer advisory committee” meetings and conducting “charettes” (brainstorming sessions) to gather “context-sensitive solutions.”

Their time and money would better be spent designing and fixing roads, with curb-cuts wherever possible and with bicycle lanes only where they are appropriate and won’t clog up vehicle traffic. Some bicycle-safety experts think bike lanes actually make riding more dangerous.

At the very least, the council should know whether the bill will kill people. [My emphasis]

Taxpayers across the region already support the Great Rivers Greenway trail system. There are bicycle paths in parks and neighborhoods to accommodate recreational cyclists. But bicycle advocates tend to be politically active and savvy; they want to see public dollars spent on commuter cycling, too.

They have good arguments on their side: health benefits, zero greenhouse gas emissions, low costs. They are happy to claim the environmental high ground.

What they don’t have is numbers. Nationally, bike riders account for a consistent 0.2 percent of commuter traffic miles. For every 500 commuter-miles by motorized vehicle, someone else is riding a bike 1 mile to work, usually someplace far less sprawling than St. Louis County.

Complete Streets would give a small number of people a claim on a disproportionate share of public dollars that should benefit the greatest number of people. The council should park this idea.

Copyright 2013

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