City Council plans bike lanes, routes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 17, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Not known as a particularly bicycle-friendly city, Salisbury doesn’t have a single bike lane or even “share the road” signs encouraging motorists to give cyclists some space.
City leaders are ready to change that.
Five years in the making, a strategy to make Salisbury safer and more friendly for bicyclists became reality Tuesday when Salisbury City Council unanimously passed the Salisbury Comprehensive Bicycle Plan.
From posting signs to sweeping streets more often to widening thoroughfares, the plan lays out varied scenarios for developing a network of bicycle “facilities,” as bike lanes and routes are called, as well as launching educational campaigns to teach cyclists and motorists how to co-exist.
The city will implement pieces of the plan as funding becomes available, either through grants or tax dollars. Many parts of the plan cost nothing, such as shifting loose-leaf collection to keep roads that cyclists favor clear, or adding bicycle tips, maps and safety information to the city’s website.
The plan will help parents who want to teach their children how to ride on the road safely, said Dan Mikkelson, city engineering director.
“It would have made a huge difference for my family if this plan had been implemented earlier,” Mikkelson said.
Not only does the plan lay out six new bicycle loops — 6-mile to 11-mile routes on city streets — many features suggested in the document will slow down motorists, he said.
Drivers who see bike lanes, signs for cyclists or other bicycle features drive more cautiously, he said.
“It’s one more tool for how to deal with a lot of the complaints we are getting about traffic in neighborhoods,” said Mikkelson, who often bikes to work.
City Council agreed to establish the first bike loop as a pilot project. The 6-mile Historic Districts Tourism Loop will take cyclists through historic neighborhoods, the Rail Walk District and past century-old homes and landmarks like Salisbury Station.
A bicycle serves as the perfect mode of transportation for historic areas, where walking doesn’t cover enough ground and driving doesn’t allow enough time to take in the view, Mikkelson said.
Preparing the historic loop for cyclists will involve minimal resurfacing and repainting, as well as printing maps for the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau and other locations, he said. At $10,000 to $15,000, the project has a good price tag to pull down a grant, he said.
If not, Mikkelson will include the cost in next year’s budget request.
Once the city secures funding, it will take six months to launch the loop. Making people aware of the amenity won’t be a problem, Mikkelson said.
“We have a good tourism market,” Mikkelson said. “It won’t take long for tourists to catch on.”
If successful, the city will pursue five other loops:
• Greenway Connector
• Park Loop
• Southern Connection Loop
• YMCA Loop
• Crescent Loop
The bike plan steering committee, a group of volunteer cyclists and environmental advocates who worked for almost two years on the project, came up with the loop idea.
The plan, which analyzed every city street from a bicycle rider’s perspective, also suggests bike routes. Different from loops, bike routes offer cyclists alternatives to roads that aren’t bicycle-friendly, like Jake Alexander Boulevard.
Other suggestions in the plan are more drastic, like turning four-lane Statesville Boulevard into a three-lane road: Two travel lanes and one center turn lane. The leftover roadway would become two 5-foot bike lanes traveling in either direction.
Called a “road diet” because it decreases the number of travel lanes on an existing street, the idea would meet resistance initially, Mikkelson said.
“Our citizens haven’t seen it before, and they won’t be quick to embrace it,” he said.
But road diets are gaining popularity, and they’re relatively inexpensive if done while a street is being resurfaced anyway, he said. Crews repaint stripes to denote the new lanes of travel, a turning lane and two bike lanes.
Whether Statesville Boulevard ever goes on a diet, just having the plan, which includes cost estimates for all proposed physical changes, will help the city win grants, City Planner Preston Mitchell said.
“Many grant programs won’t consider your application unless you have one,” said Mitchell, who oversaw the creation of the plan.
Funding for transportation projects, including sidewalks like those around Salisbury High School and along Statesville Boulevard, often requires proof that a city is trying to mitigate traffic congestion and improve air quality, both accomplished when more people ride bikes.
The bike plan was funded with a $45,500 state grant and $19,500 in local money. Two hired consultants worked on the project, along with city staff and the steering committee.
The plan isn’t a development project that has a starting and ending point, Mitchell said.
“This is a long-range plan that gives recommendations for how we can improve city streets and make them safer for bicycling,” he said.
Similar to the city’s Vision 2020 and Eastern Area Gateway documents, the bike plan will serve as a planning tool and become a “handbook” for local officials and staff to reference when applying for grants, budgeting and deciding how best to improve bicycle transportation in the city.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.