Patrons of the path

By on September 24, 2014

Blazing safe pathways for cyclists and pedestrians.

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A rendering of the new Pathway 22. A victory in bike safety, this pathway marks the introduction of cycle tracks, or protected bike lanes, to the valley.  Image courtesy Brian Schilling/Pathways.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – In the 1970s a movement sprouted in America that attempted to lump motorists and cyclists into one category. Vehicular cycling, spearheaded by John Forester, a Brit who moved to Berkeley, Calif., in 1940, enforced a notion that bicycles should be treated in the same manner as vehicles, sharing the road accordingly.

While it decidedly behooves cyclists to follow the same rules of the road that motorists adhere to (and it’s the law), it’s no secret which party has a better shot of surviving an accident. Here in Jackson Hole, we recently bore witness to this truth on September 5 when 23-year-old Amy Bennett sustained fatal injuries after she became distracted and fell beneath the wheels of a tractor trailer on Millward Street. En route to work on her bicycle, the Jackson Hole Playhouse actress died three days later.

In an attempt to cull more info on the accident, Jackson Hole Police Department officials have been scouring the valley for witnesses who can supply pieces to an ill-fated puzzle. Detective-Sergeant Russ Ruschill said JHPD has exhaustively tapped three eyewitnesses for details on the accident. But each was on the opposite side of the truck that Bennett fell beneath.

“We’ve brought witnesses back in several times and gleaned more information … I have a pretty good idea of what happened but I am not prepared to draw a firm conclusion,” Ruschill said Friday on the heels of another round of eyewitness interviews.

While Bennett’s freak accident is perhaps not an issue of bicycle safety – beyond, say, remaining keenly aware of one’s surroundings – it presents an opportunity to discuss some local efforts under way to improve the well-being of cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Two-wheeled teachings

At one time or another someone you know, or maybe even you (gasp), has received a ticket while riding her bicycle in Jackson Hole. While some folks scoff at pedaling citations, issued to bikers who don’t heed stop signs, for example, law enforcement officials are either issuing warnings or tearing tickets in the hopes of propagating a critical message.

“I am a cyclist myself and I know that – it’s hard to say this and make people understand it – if you are on a bicycle and you are in a collision with a vehicle, you are going to lose,” Ruschill said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re right.”

Enforcing bike laws also sends a message to oblivious bikers who are bequeathing cyclists with a bad rep, causing “bikelash” here in the valley.

“I’m always surprised when people are vitriolic against cyclists but I think it is typically because they probably had a bad encounter at one point or another with a cyclist who disobeyed traffic laws,” said Katherine Dowson, Friends of Pathways interim executive director.

Since June, Ruschill noted four bicycle-vehicle collisions in Jackson Hole, not including the Bennett case. According to collision reports, two of the accidents were the fault of motorists and one was attributed to a cyclist’s neglect. The fourth accident, in which both a motorist and biker attempted to park in the same spot but didn’t see the other due to foliage, was neither party’s fault, according to the collision report. “Really that means that both parties were to blame,” Ruschill said.

Ruschill noted a key factor causing bicycle-automobile incidents in the valley is bikers who assume a pedestrian identity when traveling on crosswalks, expecting cars to yield to them when in fact they need to behave like a vehicle and wait for traffic to clear.

Pedal and pedestrian ambassadors

Advocating for pedaling folk and pedestrians in the valley is Jackson Hole Community Pathways and the nonprofit established to support pathways, Friends of Pathways. Some of their recent work is focused on gleaning community input and implementing cycle tracks, which although utilized for years in Europe, is still a renegade idea in much of the United States.

On Friday, Friends of Pathways brought in the independent research group Headwater Economics to conduct two focus groups examining the needs of pathway users and non-users alike. Feedback garnered from the focus groups will help formulate questions for a survey that will find its way into 2,500 local PO boxes come October.

“We’re looking for real numbers on the value pathways bring to the community – how they play into the daily lives of local people since so many populations use pathways,” Dowson said. “We want to understand where missing links might be and how data might be used to communicate who is using the pathways; there is a misconception about pathway users – it’s not just elite athletes or lycra-clad cyclists.”

Community outreach is a key part of FOP’s work. As a part of its Ride and Stride program, it partners with valley schools to offer instruction on bicycle safety. “We have pedal-less bikes that young children – who may have not had the chance to ride a bike before – can glide on and get a feel for bicycling,” Dowson explained. “They also learn important behavior such as proper hand signals and stops on a bike and how to correctly wear a helmet.”

FOP also is enhancing safety on trails, too. If you’re a mountain biker or trail runner frustrated by folks who don’t observe trail etiquette, you can thank FOP for placing those nifty little signs on area trails indicating when and who to yield to, encouraging the use of bike bells and picking up after pets, among other instructive messages. FOP also oversees a five-person trail crew, which maintains trails on Snow King, Teton Pass and Munger Mountain.

But perhaps Pathways’ most recent notable victory aimed at improving safety for cyclists is the introduction of cycle tracks on West Broadway, an area that has long been unsafe and wholly unwelcoming to the average cyclist and pedestrian.

Yielding success in cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and now American metropolises like San Francisco, Portland, D.C. and New York City, cycle tracks are protected bike lanes that enhance the safety and experience of bikers, pedestrians and motorists. Some cycle tracks utilize grassy medians complete with planters to separate lanes. Others employ a thick, raised layer of cement placed between lanes for bikers and motorists. In Jackson, a six-inch concrete curb will serve as a buffer between vehicles and the cycle track.

While our traffic and bike safety issues are certainly not analogous to New York City, if cycle tracks can offer organized chaos in the Big Apple they stand to harmonize a disorderly section of Jackson Hole. According to the New York City Department of Transportation, after the city installed a protected green bike lane on Columbus Avenue, bicycling increased 56 percent on weekdays, crashes decreased 34 percent, speeding decreased, sidewalk riding decreased, and traffic flow remained similar.

According to Pathways, The Pathway 22 East Project includes pathways tracing Broadway between the Flat Creek Bridge and the “Y” intersection of highways 22 and 89, and west on Highway 22 between the “Y” and Spring Gulch Road. Included in the project are a six-foot wide protected bike lane, or cycle track, a separate eight-foot wide pedestrian sidewalk and a 10-foot wide pathway along the west side of Highway 22. The six-foot cycle track also will continue on the east side of Highway 22 from the “Y” intersection to Spring Gulch Road.

Research indicates that cycle tracks invite more cyclists onto the roads while bolstering the comfort of motorists and pedestrians. According to a 2012 study in the American Journal of Public Health, protected bike lanes reduce biker injury up to 90 percent. Additionally, the nonprofit People for Bikes found that even drivers who never ride bikes themselves overwhelmingly reported greater comfort around physically separated bike lanes.

Jackson Hole Community Pathways director Brian Schilling noted that West Broadway near the “Y” intersection presents a much different set of challenges than other roadways in town.

“There is not a one size fits all solution for safe cycling,” he said. “In some places it’s reasonably safe to do a bike symbol on the ground, like … Hansen near Redmond, for example, where traffic is slow (though there is always a chance for a crash or conflict), but if you look at big picture numbers and historical data there is a hierarchy of facility types. As you increase vehicular traffic, speed, and number of lanes, then you increase protection for vulnerable users and pedestrians with a striped bike lane … then you go to West Broadway, where there are multiple lanes and speeds are often exceeding 35 miles per hour, that’s when you want a separate facility of some sort.”

Key cycling partners… and naysayers

It’s not difficult to spot Jackson Mayor Mark Barron riding his bicycle around town. The mayor is a vehement supporter of developing a cohesive pathway system in the valley.

“I ride my bike as often as practical because it’s easier and a lot more fun than jumping in my car and sitting in traffic,” Barron said. “If on a busy day, I ride my bike for 10 or 15 minutes from one meeting to the next and let the breeze in my hair and connect with nature it can completely alter my day.”

During the 2012 National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., Barron, County Commissioner Ben Ellis, former FOP executive director Mike Welch and Schilling could be spotted cruising around the city enjoying D.C.’s bike share system while donned in suits. Elected officials complete the vision for pathways, as all projects must receive planning and funding approval before moving forward.

“We’re trying to mirror the heritage of national parks and getting people outdoors … and pathways provide commuter alternatives to vehicles and a recreational opportunity for families and visitors who come to see our parks,” Barron explained.

But we can’t talk about pathways without acknowledging that it has recently been the target of opposition a la the Jackson Hole Tea Party and some residents who want to see taxpayer money diverted toward other projects.

Tea Partiers hoped to coerce voters into vetoing all SPET proposals on the primary ballot, including a $3.5 million proposal to fund the completion of the South Park Loop pathway. The proposal narrowly passed by 200 votes in the primaries, prompting Jackson Hole News&Guide to cry “pathways fatigue” in a story published after the election. The story quoted two people in opposition to the beaucoup bucks currently flowing to pathways. But speculation about the public’s “fatigue” becomes a stickier pursuit when you look at voter turnout – tallied at a mere 30 percent. Couple that with a robust community celebration Sunday for the opening of the Snake River Bridge and it appears there may be more zeal for pathways than fatigue.

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Throngs of children unleashed onto the new Snake River Bridge Sunday during its unveiling. Photo: David Swift.

Whether there is a pathway “fatigue” of any sort among community members, Schilling says he acknowledges the costly nature of pathways projects and that they hinge on public support. He said he would be fine with zero pathway SPET proposals on the ballot next time around.

“I would love to see a road or sewer project instead on the next ballot … That’s the pickle we’re in – we don’t have a dedicated source of revenue … we have to go directly to voters to approve funding, whereas other projects have dedicated funds and all they have to do is say, we want to build this project and get approval from a planning standpoint,” Schilling said. “Pathways has a bake sale quality to it: ‘please support our project!’ We have funding to keep us busy for three to four years so hopefully there won’t be a need to go to voters in next few years.”

All wheels welcome

Ultimately, when people are provided with safe ways to trade their vehicles for bicycles or a pair of walking shoes, research from the United States to Europe indicates folks enjoy better health and become more active participants in their surroundings, connecting with their neighbors and patronizing more businesses, while the positive environmental impacts remain something we’ve known about for years.

Schilling believes we have a special opportunity in the valley to host a synergy of transit options, which will in turn accomodate the needs of a broad swath of people.

“Over the past 60-plus years, all the resources have gone towards prioritizing automobiles, while biking and walking have largely been neglected, so people didn’t really have the freedom to choose something other than driving,” he said. “If we make it even marginally better for biking and walking, and still basically just as easy for vehicles, then you have a choice. It’s not about saying no to cars, it’s about making it safe enough for other modes so that people have the freedom to choose what works best for them. When you build a system that works for all ages, all abilities, all modes, that’s freedom, and that’s equality.”

A few rules to bike by. . .

Chances are even if you often ride your bike, you may not be familiar with Wyoming’s bike laws, which include:

• Only one person to a bicycle, except when the bike has been outfitted for more than one rider. (Who doesn’t love to tandem cycle?)

• The law does state, however, that parents may transport a child “securely attached to his person in a backpack or sling.” (Sounds safe.)

• Cyclists may only ride two abreast on roadways and are required to ride as near to the right as possible.

• It is against the law to carry anything while riding your bicycle that might prevent you from keeping both hands on the handlebars.

• If you ride at night, your bike must be equipped with a white light on the front visible from 500 feet and a red reflector on the back visible from 600 feet.

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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