Friday, April 3, 2009

Thunderous progress

Every year, Thunder Over Louisville - the largest annual fireworks show in the US - attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators to the Louisville waterfront to kick off the final two weeks of revelry preceding the Kentucky Derby. This year, for the third in a row, free valet bicycle parking will be available to people who avoid the automotive gridlock by riding bicycles to the festivities. Bicycles won't be allowed at Waterfront Park, but people may ride on the streets to the valet bike parking location, probably at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Preston Street/River Road.

A cloud has hung over Thunder during the 17 years that I have lived in Louisville. Each year, the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge is closed not only during the fireworks show (which uses the bridge as its launch site) but also for roughly 3 days before the show. The Clark Memorial Bridge is the only legal crossing of the Ohio River for pedestrians and bicyclists within 39 road miles of Louisville. In other words, from Wednesday or Thursday until Sunday morning of Thunder week, you can't walk or ride bicycle across the Ohio River in greater Louisville. There is no alternate route, and until now no alternative besides catching a ride on a motor vehicle crossing on one of the interstate highway bridges.

In 2003, while I worked for Louisville Metro government, I listed 24/7/365 cross-river access as one of my top priorities for the City in its effort to promote bicycling. The people heading the city's bicycle program at the time did not act on that suggestion. In recent months, Jackie Green has threatened to sue state and local agencies over the closure of the Clark Memorial Bridge for Thunder. He points out that the bridge closure denies to non-motorized travelers the Constitutionally-protected right to cross state lines. His lawsuit threats and a barrage of e-mails resulted in meetings, in which I participated, with a representative of the Mayor along with top management of Kentucky Derby Festival, which runs Thunder.

At the first meeting, Thunder organizers stressed the safety and security threats posed by allowing unauthorized people on the bridge in the presence of tons of explosives. The elaborate fireworks show takes over 2 days to stage and a few hours to clean up afterwards. It quickly became clear that they could not possibly allow people walking, bicycling, and running across the bridge during that time. We considered and eliminated a wide range of ideas, including launching the fireworks from the abandoned Big Four Bridge. Eventually we settled on running a van with bike rack every 10 minutes or so to shuttle bicyclists and pedestrians across the bridge. It will operate from the beginning of the fireworks set-up on Thursday at 6:30 AM until Saturday at 11 AM when the fireworks equipment prohibits any traffic. Kentucky Derby Festival agreed to provide the van and driver. We agreed that the bridge would remain closed, with no shuttle, from Saturday at 11 AM until Sunday at about 2:30 AM when the safety inspector sounds the "all clear." This arrangement will reduce the cross-river transportation blockage from nearly four days to less than one day.

I see this as a huge improvement, even though it does not entirely eliminate the inconvenience to bicyclists and pedestrians. The eventual solution lies in the reopening of the Big Four Bridge as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge. It could remain open except perhaps during the air show and fireworks show, and could reopen immediately afterwards. With the prospect of federal money to refurbish the Big Four in the next year or two, we may not need to rely on a van shuttle for more than two or three Thunder weeks.

Jackie is not satisfied, because we have the agreement only in an e-mail and not in a formal, signed legal document. I have every reason to believe that Kentucky Derby Festival will live up to its promise, and I laud them for acting so quickly to solve a problem that came to their attention only a month or two ago.

We continue to make progress getting major institutions to consider bicyclists routinely in their planning. The highway engineers and transportation planners increasingly consider bicyclists in their plans, as their written policies now require. University of Louisville and Bellarmine University officials are showing interest in making their campuses better for bicycling. Development officials and, slowly, developers have begun to make room for bicyclists. Now, Kentucky Derby Festival and other event organizers (such as the promoter of last year's My Morning Jacket concert on the waterfront) are promoting bicycling as a way to get to and from major events. We still have lots of work to do, but the wheels are turning.


David said...

Great job on attempting to solve - and partially solving one of my biggest gripes about Thunder.

I have been cycling to every fair weather (and a few foul weather) Thunder since it started and have been "bummed out" that my favorite cycling feature of downtown Louisville is cordoned off just when it is the most valuable.

Just today I was talking with my coworkers - we work at the foot of the Indiana end of the bridge - that since I will be cycling that I can't access our company's party. We all agreed that there is nothing that can be done to keep the bridge open to pedestrians/cyclists during Thunder (preparations).

Now that you have broached the notion and have gotten a compromise done, I'm very impressed.

Thank you for your service to our city.

bikeolounger said...

As one who crosses the bridge daily, whether on two wheels or in my "cage," thank you for the effort. We'll see if it comes to fruition this year.

It probably won't get my Vanguard across, but I can probably plan for using the Raleigh those days--use of multiple transport modes is one of the reasons I have that bike.

bikeolounger said...

I took the opportunity to use this shuttle Thursday afternoon for my home-bound trip. The driver showed up just as I was nearing the police officer to request a shuttle, so I had no direct discussion with the officer (I have mixed feelings about that--I wanted to go to him and request the shuttle after he told me the bridge was closed to traffic, just to be sure he got the word).

I sincerely hope that the shuttle continues to be offered!