Here are 4 ways we can improve bicycle commuting in Rochester
Since moving to Rochester a little more than a year ago, I have been impressed with the city's bicycle infrastructure — from the 85 plus miles of bike trails that weave in and out of neighborhoods to the numerous bicycle lanes and sharrows that dot city streets.
But as someone who depends on a bike to get from point A to point B, I'm always interested in learning more about what we can do as a community to make our roads safer for bicyclists.
That's why I was thrilled to be invited to join a group of local officials and bike advocates Wednesday morning for a tour and presentation led by Steve Clark of the League of American Bicyclists.
"It really is good for the environment; it's great for economic development; it reduces congestion," Clark said. "I think we can all agree that we want to live somewhere where our children are safe to ride a bike or walk to school."
The nonprofit first named Rochester a bronze-level city for bicycle friendliness in 2010, so most of our conversation focused on the steps we can take to achieve a silver ranking. The following are my four key takeaways from the discussion:
1. Greater connectivity
"You have a wonderful trail system right now, but there are some definite gaps in your system," said Clark. "Right now, it's still difficult for a lot of people to actually get to work on a bicycle, or to go shopping or get to a restaurant."
The statement by Clark echoes remarks made by several others who attended Wednesday's event. The problem is especially evident in the downtown area, where bicyclists are often forced to hop on busy streets in order to make a connection.
Mitzi Baker, the head of the city-county planning department, said she would consider Rochester a bicycle-friendly city once the on-street network hooks up with the trail system and a bicyclist is easily able to navigate through the city center in every direction.
What's the trick to getting that accomplished? "Having somebody on staff whose job description says explicitly that they are to consider the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians in all forms of infrastructure," said Clark.
2. Road diets
Rochester has adopted a complete streets policy, meaning any time the city builds or rebuilds a road, it will look at what type of surface will accommodate all types of users. Second Street SW is a good example of this policy.
But many of Rochester's major roadways have yet to undergo such a transformation. Just 17 percent of arterial streets are equipped with bike lanes, compared to an average of 33 percent for other bronze cities.
That doesn't mean Rochester's roads aren't wide enough; it will just require a different approach. In many cases, that means converting a four-lane road into three traffic lanes, also known as a "road diet."
"There has never been a road diet where safety didn't improve," said Clark. "It's a no-brainer."
In addition to adding space for bicycles, Clark suggested shrinking the width of car lanes, citing research showing that narrowing traffic lanes actually encourages drivers to travel slower and be more alert.
He also said reducing speed limits could go a long way toward improving safety. A bicyclist hit by a motorist traveling 40 miles per hour has about a 20 percent survival rate compared to 95 percent for a vehicle traveling 20 miles per hour.
3. Support from businesses
It shouldn't come as news that young people, more so than previous generations, want to live in places with alternative types of transportation. That makes it increasingly important for cities to have good transit service and bike infrastructure if they want to recruit top talent.
However, only one local business, the People's Food Co-op, took the necessary steps this past year to be certified a bike-friendly business by the League of American Bicyclists. Mayo Clinic applied for the designation but only received an honorable mention.
"You got to be all in, not half in," said Dorian Grilley, executive director for the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. "If the [Mayo Clinic] was all in, this would a different place."
There is reason to be optimistic, though. Mayo recently formed a committee tasked with achieving the bike-friendly designation. Plus, there are another six businesses in town looking to become certified, according to Kelly Corbin of We Bike Rochester.
Ways businesses can encourage bike commuting range from adding racks and repair stations to developing incentive programs. One study found each mile on a bike generates a $0.42 per mile economic gain to society compared to a $0.20 per mile loss for driving.
4. Change in culture
"Bicycling is a viable mode of transportation and truly a solution to a lot of the problems cities are dealing with," said Clark.
Both the Destination Medical Center development plan and the city's comprehensive plan place a heavy emphasis on creating a pedestrian-friendly community. But as I write this, less than 2 percent of the population uses a bicycle as their primary source of transportation.
While that number may seem low, the number of bike commuters in the city has actually increased by 79% since 2000. And there's plenty of room for growth. Rochester already has a large number of commuters who regularly walk, carpool or use public transit to get to work.
The key, according to bike advocates, will be developing the necessary infrastructure to encourage more people to hop on two wheels. One initiative that could help build momentum is the creation of a bike share program.
"With bike share, we'll get more visible bikes on the streets, which will help us make the case for more bike facilities and a culture shift for citizens, commuters and visitors alike," said Corbin.
% of population who use bike as primary mode of transportation
About Sean Baker: Sean is the founder and editor of the Med City Beat. Under his direction, the site has transitioned from a small news blog to one of the most widely-read publications in the city. Prior to launching the site in 2014, Sean spent about two years producing television news in Green Bay and Rochester. His office is above a brewery, so please excuse any typos. Twitter.
(Cover photo: The Med City Beat)