Biking to a better Eugene
By Alan Pittman
With global warming threatening “drastic implications,” Eugene needs to “reach for the gold” in bicycling, Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy said at a recent biking and walking summit.
Eugene now has a silver rating for bike friendliness from the League of American Bicyclists. “Frankly, silver is not good enough,” Piercy told the gathering of 225 in October at the UO.
But Eugene may face an uphill climb to a gold bicycling rating and greener future. Bike commuting rates in Eugene are decreasing, not increasing, according to U.S. Census data. In 1980, 8 percent biked to work. In 1990, 5.8 percent biked, and by 2000, 5.5 percent biked.
During the last three decades, Eugene built an acclaimed bike system that led the nation with 33 miles of off-street paths, 90 miles of bike lanes and five river bridges. Mayor Piercy called bicycling “a major source of our community’s identity, economy and lifestyle for 30 years.”
But now, Eugene may be resting on its laurels as other cities pass it by on the bike path. Eugene trails gold-rated Corvallis, with 7.5 percent bike commuting, and gold-rated Portland, where the biking rate almost doubled in the last decade.
Biking is good for the planet, good for the city and good for you, studies show.
Locally, biking offers one of the fastest ways to reduce global warming. Because 92 percent of local power is hydroelectric and not from fossil fuels, green buildings here don’t have as much impact on reducing carbon dioxide. The average local person generates almost 10 times more global warming per day by driving alone than by using energy in the home, based on carbon accounting data. A person who bikes to work instead of driving for one day in Eugene saves the rough carbon equivalent of turning all the lights out in her house for two months.
Given the big green impact of biking, Sue Wolling of the Eugene Bicycle Coalition (EBC) said she’s disappointed the city’s sustainability initiative hasn’t focused on it more. “Where’s bicycling in this?” she asks. “It just seems like a no-brainer.”
Biking also saves on the major source of local air, noise and, indirectly, water pollution. Less of all of this pollution helps the local environment and makes cities more pleasant. And those still driving enjoy less traffic.
When people burn calories rather than oil, they are healthier. Inactivity and diet are now the second leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., behind tobacco. In Oregon, 57 percent of us are now overweight or obese.
With efficient bike facilities far cheaper than freeways, bicycling lowers taxes. With biking far cheaper than $3-a-gallon gas or $22,000 for a Prius, bikes also fatten wallets while clearing skies and slimming thighs.
They’re also just fun. Albert Einstein was famously photographed with a big smile on his bike, where he said he first thought up his theory of relativity while riding.
WHERE’S THE MONEY?
But while bikes offer a lot of transportation bang for the buck, the city has invested comparatively few bucks in biking.
The regional TransPlan adopted in 2003 included a billion dollars for new and improved roads and freeways. Only about 1 percent of the money was targeted for bicycling. That’s far less than the 5.5 percent bike commuting rate, a rate TransPlan planned to slightly decline by 2015.
“For all the rhetoric, everything related to cyclists is an afterthought,” said Paul Nicholson, owner of Paul’s bike shops and a former city councilor.
The city used the summit meeting to kick off a new bike/pedestrian plan for the city. The plan focuses on vision, promotion and education more than increased funding, said Rob Inerfeld, the lead city planner on the project. “It’s not capital projects per se.”
But Susan Stumpf of the GEARS cycling group said the city will need to put in more money to back up the ambitious vision people are talking about. “I think it’s got to” have more funding, she said.
And now might be the perfect time for the city to tap into big federal bike spending. Local Congressman Peter DeFazio, a former bike mechanic and frequent bike advocate, is now chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which controls billions in federal spending. At the summit, DeFazio said he’d like to see Eugene become the top mid-sized city in the nation for cycling.
But Eugene continues to lavishly fund car infrastructure while bike needs remain unmet. The $150 million new I-5 Beltline interchange is now under construction to serve urban sprawl in the Gateway area. Tens of millions of dollars in improvements to the Beltline freeway to serve Triad and other urban sprawl are planned. The Eugene City Council recently backed a proposal to build a $16 million parking garage for a developer downtown at a total cost of about $80,000 per parking space.
At the same time, the city has for years refused to prioritize funding to address dangerous conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. At the summit, participants placed scores of dots on city maps to identify needed fixes. Several participants complained of conditions on Willamette Street from 24th to 29th, for example. The area of fast moving traffic lacks bike lanes and has narrow sidewalks with telephone poles in the middle of them.
“It’s scary,” said Jan VanderTuin of the Center for Appropriate Transportation (CAT).
The lack of funding to fix dangerous roads for cycling has taken its toll. In 2005 there were 89 reported bike accidents in Eugene, an increase of 56 percent from 2001. In that five year period, a total of 322 cyclists were injured and five were killed. On May 16, almost 200 bicyclists participated in a local “Ride of Silence” to remember cyclists killed or seriously injured by cars, and to call for drivers to share the road.
More bike lanes and paths increase safety and increase cycling. Portland credits its big increase in bike commuting to a near tripling of its bike lanes and paths in the past decade.
Eugene has extended recreational paths along the river and in the West Eugene wetlands in recent years. More projects in the works include bike/pedestrian bridges over the I-5 and Delta freeways, extending the riverfront bike path to Santa Clara and bike lanes on 18th Avenue. But a decade ago, the city backed off completing plans for additional key bike lanes in the central city after objections about lost parking, and the subject hasn’t come up since.
“That was pretty discouraging,” said CAT’s VanderTuin of the defeat of the city’s bike lane master plan. “It was sort of shocking.”
BIKE THEFT CAPITAL
Eugene may no longer be the leader in bicycling, but it’s tops in bike theft. Last year Eugene was the only smaller city named to Kryptonite Lock’s 10 worst cities for bike theft. Bike theft and the fear of it is a major deterrent for bicycling, cities have found.
Last year 717 bikes were reported stolen in Eugene. There’s little evidence local police have prioritized the problem. Only 68 of the stolen bikes were reported recovered.
Summit participants criticized police for prioritizing ticketing bike protesters, sometimes by sending as many cops as bicyclists, rather than focusing on bike theft. “While the Eugene Police Department is concerned with Critical Mass rides, it’s not so concerned when your bike gets stolen,” wrote one participant anonymously.
“I’d like us to not be the capital of bicycle theft,” said cyclist Charles Biggs during a visioning session.
Better bike parking could help reduce theft and promote bicycling. But the city’s bike rack requirements have many loopholes. Only new buildings or major changes in use have to have racks. Even when racks are required, city officials sometimes waive the requirements. That’s what happened with the new Market of Choice at 29th and Willamette. The bike rack in front of the store sits in a deep puddle because the city waived covered parking requirements.
“That’s a bunch of b.s.,” said EBC member Paul Moore of loopholes in the code.
Portland has taken a more proactive approach to bike parking. The city has a large downtown bike parking and showering facility and will pay for new bike racks for many businesses that request them.
Besides addressing theft, many bike advocates say that kids hold the key to the future. Cities have focused programs on increasing the numbers of children biking to school. Eugene has a similar program but faces an uphill battle.
Eugene’s system of school choice has undermined the tradition of nearby neighborhood schools and left many school kids with long commutes. Many of the city schools now suffer dangerous morning traffic jams of rushing parents driving their kids to the schoolhouse.
Another key to increasing biking is good land-use planning. With longer trips more likely to be made by car, urban density is a key to bicycle commuting. But Eugene is becoming less dense, not more dense. Since 1950, Eugene’s population density (people per acre) has declined 29 percent with urban sprawl.
Under TransPlan Eugene is supposedly pursuing a strategy of “nodal development” to make areas more dense and bikeable/walkable. But the nodal development standards lack teeth and enforcement and so far have done little to reduce sprawl and driving.
Large employers, including Symantec, PeaceHealth, U-Lane-O (now the Oregon Community Credit Union) and The Register-Guard, have left downtown in the last decade for sites on the northern edge of town that are far harder to bike to, especially with Beltline providing a wall to north-south bike connections.
Bike advocates praise the city for organizing the summit to promote bicycling.
“It’s really good what they did,” said VanderTuin. “People were coming out of the woodwork that I hadn’t seen.”
“It’s been fantastic” networking with all the bike advocates at the summit and at smaller follow up meetings, said Stumpf of GEARS.
But bike advocates said they’d like to see the city do even more to promote cycling.
Every year Portland closes lanes on all 10 of its central bridges, including the towering I-5 bridge, for a bicycling/hospital fundraiser that attracts huge crowds. “It infects those 17,000 people with the idea you can bike in a city,” said Michelle Poyourow of the state Bicycle Transportation Alliance.
Sue Gorham of the Convention and Visitors Association of Lane County (CVALCO) said such a big event in Eugene would be great for cycling and tourism. “A nice fun event where they close off the streets and only let the cyclists in for the day,” Gorham said. “We could definitely do that.”
Besides closing bridges, EBC’s Moore said he’d like to see Willamette Street closed one Sunday morning a month for a healthier “bike and walk the gut” event.
Planner Inerfeld said that Eugene already has bike bridges dedicated to bikes but allowed that closing car bridges and/or roads may be possible.
VanderTuin said a big bike event would be “wonderful,” but he’s skeptical the city will support it. He said CAT tried to create a human powered parade in the city, but it collapsed in a few years after the city demanded up to $2,000 from the small nonprofit for police.
“CAT can’t afford to do this stuff,” VanderTuin said. “The question is, where does the government come into the picture?” he asked. “I haven’t seen it yet in this town where there’s really innovative things coming from the government entity.”
EBC’s Moore said he heard a lot of great ideas at the summit, but now he fears they won’t translate through city staff into a vibrant new plan for Eugene. In the process, “It all gets melded down to American cheese on white bread.”
Bike innovation could come from city leaders. But the city appears to lack the strong bike advocates it had in the past. Eugene used to have a bicycle advocate as mayor, Ruth Bascom, and a bike shop owner and two regular bike commuters as city councilors. Now, councilors rarely ride to meetings, and there appears to be less interest in the subject. City staff plan to take the new bike/walk plan to the city manager in the fall for administrative approval rather than to the city council.
In recent years Eugene disbanded the city council’s bicycling committee and cut its bike coordinator position to half time. By contrast Davis, Calif., has two full-time bike coordinators and two bike advisory committees in a city less than half Eugene’s size. Davis also has a 17 percent bike commuting rate and the top Platinum rating for bicycling.
But Moore hopes leaders will come forward. With gas prices up and global warming sizzling, Moore said Eugene shouldn’t miss its “biggest opportunity” in years to bike into a better city.