PORTLAND — Bicyclists and pedestrians will have a chance to weigh in on the city’s plans for improving nonmotor transportation in a meeting at the Merrill Rehearsal Hall on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Officials plan to reveal a draft version of their Pedestrian and Bicycle chapter for the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The chapter, still under development, will give a full treatment to low-impact transportation in the Comprehensive Plan, which currently glosses over the subject in a few pages, said Bruce Hyman, the Public Services Department’s bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator.
A $1.8 million federal grant intended to reduce obesity is behind the concentrated effort, which sees the city “moving in some different directions in terms of biking and walking and infrastructure,” Hyman said.
“Instead of looking at bicycling and walking within their own silos, we’re looking at them in terms of the whole transportation system of the city,” Hyman said. The draft recognizes that if public transportation services like the bus aren’t accessible by foot traffic, fewer people will use them, he said.
The plan also calls for the city to diversify its bicycle infrastructure away from bike lanes on major streets to alternate routes known as “neighborhood byways” or “bike boulevards.”
Neighborhood byways represent a new biking and walking transportation management method, Hyman said, promoting streets parallel to heavily trafficked routes with similar connections as alternatives for people uncomfortable with or unwilling to ride on major roads.
Bike lanes “are really important, but we’ve recognized that they’re only serving a small market of people that are currently commuting by biking or want to bike for commuting or recreation,” Hyman said. While many of the city’s most well-traveled roadways, including downtown Congress Street, don’t currently have bike lanes, the ones that do – like Forest Avenue and Marginal Way – are “only good for serious riders,” he said.
Bike lanes are controversial among riders and drivers alike, said Kris Clark, the manager of Back Bay Bicycle at 333 Forest Ave. While the busy stretch of Forest Avenue near the Interstate 295 exit ramp where his shop is located does have a bike lane, it’s one of the worst places in the city to ride, he said.
“A lot of studies have shown it’s actually safer to take a lane, which you have a legal right to do, than to take a bike lane,” he said.
Major street connections appeal to 15 percent or 20 percent of cyclists, Hyman said. Neighborhood byways will serve the rest of the population, he said.
Over the last seven months the city has implemented a pilot neighborhood byway program in the Deering Center neighborhood, Hyman said, placing new signs and street navigating tools around a five-mile network of residential streets stretching from Woodford’s Corner on Forest Avenue west to Nasons Corner, and from Deering Center south towards Rosemont Corner.
The byway connects four neighborhood centers, five schools, and several parks and trails. Tall, vertical signs that visually mimic the markers directing tourists to city attractions help riders and walkers navigate the neighborhood on quiet, residential streets. The city has filled gaps in the sidewalk network and narrowed streets by building medians and slowing traffic speeds.
In the pilot byway, “we’ve been able to address a lot of the traffic and safety concerns in a more holistic sense than we have previously,” Hyman said.
The feedback on the Deering Center byway has been good so far, he said. The final evaluation is not yet complete, but at the meeting Thursday, city officials will unveil another 20 miles of proposed neighborhood byways around the city.
The draft plan, which builds on a series of reports and forums going back to a 1994 transportation plan that targeted walking and biking as the means of 25 percent of all trips, also includes a framework for officials to gauge the “quality of service” of its bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Among its goals are reducing the 491 accidents involving automobiles and pedestrians or cyclists since 2005.
Though not the first time the city has sought public opinion on bike or pedestrian issues, the Thursday meeting “is a very important check with the public,” Hyman said. “Are we hearing them right? Are we joining all the important places?”
While some serious cyclists like Clark and Portland Velocipede owner Josh Cridler think Portland has been responsive to the growing number of cyclists in recent years, they also believe that the city’s attempt to revamp and refocus bike infrastructure will have limited success.
The city’s old, narrow streets limit the amount of space that can be dedicated to bikes, said Cridler, whose 45 York St. shop specializes in European-style commuter cycles.
Education, too, is an issue, Clark and Cridler said. “People that are biking have to know what’s going on and people that are driving need to know what’s going on,” Cridler said.
But the biggest hurdle to a comfortable, bike-friendly city is geography, Cridler said, not the proximity to cars on most streets.
“I think that people choose not to bike because of hills,” he said.