Monday, August 18, 2008

Maintaining progress

As I have written before, Mayor Abramson's commitment to improve bicycling conditions in Louisville has had a tremendous and generally positive effect. Significant changes in attitude over the past several years at local and state transportation and land use planning agencies, strengthened by good continuing education for their staffers, have also paid off in better designs for some new and rebuilt roads and intersections. Nonetheless, no bicyclist could mistake greater Louisville for Shangri-La. We still face many challenges with "the built environment" ranging from unnecessary inconveniences to life-threatening hazards. Here are a few thoughts for continuing to improve roads and paths to make bicycling safer, more convenient, and more popular.

First, enforce the bicycle-related standards that we have. About four years ago, the Land Development Code incorporated a provision requiring bicycle parking at new or expanded commercial and institutional developments. I haven't noticed a significant increase in bicycle parking at new buildings in Louisville since then. Louisville Metro has used grant funding to install spiral stainless steel racks on public sidewalks upon request by neighboring businesses, but that program is not intended to satisfy the Land Development Code bicycle parking requirement that private developers provide bicycle parking, just as they provide automotive parking, at their own expense. It appears that someone is failing to enforce a good new standard. Other local standards not consistently applied include where and how to stripe bike lanes (per the Metro Complete Streets Manual Chapter 4 - Market Street has several examples of inappropriate and nonstandard bike lane striping) and cleaning broken glass from automotive crash sites.

Second, develop new local design standards according to best practices proven elsewhere. The Metro Complete Streets Manual describes how to route bike lanes or multi-use paths through various types of intersections, but says nothing about how to design the intersections themselves. Two intersection designs, mini traffic circles and modern one-lane roundabouts, have proved excellent elsewhere and deserve application here. Both eliminate stop signs, dramatically reduce the number and severity of crashes, slow motor vehicles without requiring a full stop, and allow bicyclists to proceed safely through intersections without stopping in most cases. Another missing standard here is a safe street-path intersection design to keep cars off paths without using steel bollards (posts) that can cause injuries to bicyclists and runners. Even if bollards are deemed necessary, they should be painted a bright color and festooned with reflectors to minimize chances of crashes, especially at night.

Third, develop and apply detailed construction standards. Bicycles are much more sensitive than cars are to uneven or damaged surfaces. A vertical mismatch between a concrete driveway and the asphalt road surface, a pavement crack running parallel to the travel direction, or a utility grate or cap sunk an inch below the pavement can cause a catastrophic crash for a bicyclist. Public agencies in our region, as far as I know, have no construction standards to address these and other issues that may seem trivial to motorists but can have life-or-death significance for bicyclists. We need to assign to the appropriate agencies the responsibility to attend to these details.

Fourth, maintain what we have. Gravel, sand, crash debris, fallen leaves, etc. can make a shoulder, bike lane, or intersection dangerous for bicyclists. Standard twice-yearly street sweeping schedules cannot keep streets acceptably clean. We should increase the frequency of regular cleaning and maintenance for any street in the bike route network, whether or not it includes a striped bike lane. We should use truck-mounted pavement roughness detectors (already used in some places by Kentucky Dept. of Highways) to identify streets in need of patching or repaving. This would help apply our paving funds more efficiently than repaving on the basis of a fixed schedule. We need to set aside the money necessary to clean our paths immediately after storms that leave them covered with dangerous mud and debris. It should not take citizen complaints to get paths cleaned - the responsible agencies should have path maintenance included in their standard protocol for dealing with significant storms. 

None of this work is glamorous, but all of it would contribute to major improvements in the bicycling environment. The bicycling community would do well to let our elected officials know that we appreciate the high-profile special events and announcements of new paths, but that the success of the mayor's initiative to make Louisville a bicycle-friendly city depends on taking care of the details in a systematic and continuing way.

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