Expert: Area has potential to be bicycle friendly

Across the country, cities and towns that have created bicycle-friendly communities often have had significant returns in the areas of economic development, health and quality of life, among others, a national expert said Wednesday.

Published January 10, 2007 by Martinsville Bulletin 

Across the country, cities and towns that have created bicycle-friendly communities often have had significant returns in the areas of economic development, health and quality of life, among others, a national expert said Wednesday.

And Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, indicated he thinks Martinsville-Henry County has potential to do the same.

Clarke made a presentation at an event hosted by Activate Martinsville-Henry County (AMHC), whose mission is “to improve the health, quality of life and economic vitality of Martinsville/Henry County by encouraging and enabling residents and visitors alike to enjoy a more active lifestyle by developing a walking/bicycling-friendly community.” According to AMHC, these changes will enhance the area’s “attractiveness as a business location and as a destination for environmentally sustainable tourism and development.”

There are three legs of AMHC’s goals: to become, and be designated, as a bicycle-friendly community; to take part in the Safe Routes to School program, which encourages more students to ride bicycles or walk to school; and to take part in the Complete Streets Coalition, which aims to make streets user-friendly for everyone — motor vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians, the handicapped, and buses and their passengers.

The Martinsville City Council and the Henry County Board of Supervisors have endorsed those AMHC goals. The Harvest Foundation has funded the first three years of the initiative, and Activate Martinsville-Henry County will be receiving assistance from the Safe Roads to School National Partnership, Complete Streets Coalition and the League of American Bicyclists.

The bulk of Wednesday night’s presentation dealt with the Bicycle Friendly Community program of the League of American Bicyclists (ALB). Clarke said that since 2002, when ALB started giving four award levels in the Bicycle Friendly Community program, more than 70 of the nearly 200 municipalities or regions that applied have received such designations. Only one of those municipalities is in Virginia: Arlington.

Clarke said the designation criteria include the applicant’s engineering (such as the network of bike lanes or paths), education provided, encouragement to bicycle, evaluation and planning of and for the municipal or regional bicycle network, and enforcement (to ensure safety and amiable relations of bicyclists and motorists).

Clarke gave example after example of the benefits and returns Bicycle Friendly Communities have received from their efforts and investments. Perhaps the premier example is Portland, Ore., which had about 80 miles of bicycle trails in the early 1990s and today has 260 to 280 miles. The number of people bicycling has increased dramatically during that time. For example, just the number of bicyclists traveling over four bridges increased from 2,500 to more than 13,000 a day, Clarke said. Bicycle businesses also have opened.

Clarke said that the bicycle industry generates $90 million to $100 million a year in Portland.

He noted in general that bicycle tourism and rides are big business. Bicycle vacations are the No. 3 outdoor vacation activity in the United States. The N.C. Department of Transportation has reported a nine-to-one return on investment for Outer Banks bike improvements.

Clarke said becoming a bicycle-friendly community may reduce motor vehicle traffic, save motorists money (with gas around $3 a gallon or more), help reduce air pollution and help improve people’s health through increased physical activity. He said a recent study showed that people who don’t smoke, eat healthfully and are physically active will live an average of 14 years longer. Also, he said, a more physically active person will save an average $500 to $600 a year in health costs.

Clarke said a study was done of 12 bicycle-friendly communities, which together had about 25 million people, and 12 bicycle “unfriendly” communities, which together had about 25 million people. An estimated 2 million more people in the latter group would have been physically active if their communities had been bicycle-friendly, he said.

Clarke also noted that the cost of developing bicycle trails and bicycle parking areas can be a fraction of the similar costs for motor vehicles, although some large cities have spent millions on developing elaborate bicycle networks.

Becoming a bicycle-friendly community can improve an area’s quality of life and make it more attractive to businesses choosing a place to locate, Clarke said.

Asked what he thinks of the current potential in the city and county, Clarke indicated he is impressed with the community leaders committed to the initiative, and he thinks some bicycle lanes could be developed immediately on some streets and roads in the area, and that other roads and streets offer potential. He said he thinks there is “the beginning of a bicycle network” here.

Another example of a bicycle-friendly city Clarke gave was Boulder, Colo., which is making progress toward its goal of having only 25 percent single-occupancy-vehicle trips on its roads. In Henry County and Martinsville, it’s probably 80 to 85 percent, he said.

Asked about specific improvements planned so far, Jeannie D. Frisco, program manager for Activate Martinsville-Henry County, said that the Virginia Department of Transportation has approved adding a bicycle lane to the design of a section of Liberty Street between Kings Mountain Road and Commonwealth Boulevard, and she is hopeful a second bicycle lane will be approved.

Also, she said, officials are studying the possibility of narrowing the motor vehicle lanes a bit and adding bike lanes on sections of Starling Avenue (from Church Street to Mulberry Road) and Spruce Street (from Indian Trail to Irisburg Road). Also, several “Share the Road” signs have been placed on roads and streets to alert motorists that bicyclists also use the roads. And the Dominion Foundation awarded a $50,000 grant to double the size of the Fieldale walking-and-bicycling trail from 1 mile to 2 miles.

Frisco did not have an estimate of the costs of a Liberty Street bike lane, and she thought the costs of the Starling and Spruce Street bike lanes would be minimal — “just restriping paint.”

Frisco said that a committee of Activate Martinsville-Henry County will be meeting with national, state and local experts and developing long-range plans.

About 25 people attended the meeting, which was held at the Southern Virginia Artisan Center uptown. Representatives of Complete Streets, BikeWalk Virginia/Virginia Trails, as well as city and county officials, members of a local bicycle club and others attended.