Spokane Journal of Business

Revving up pedal power

Spokane efforts under way to raise bicycle-friendly status

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-—Mike McLean
Kate Johnston, of Washington Bikes, lines up for the Commute of the Century lunchtime bike rides at Riverfront Park.

While Seattle and a few other West Side cities are bearing much of the load for Washington state’s recent ranking by the League of American Bicyclists as the most bicycle-friendly state in the country, efforts are under way here to ensure Spokane can carry its own weight.

Spokane is one of 13 communities in the state rated as bicycle friendly by the League of American Bicyclists.

Since 2010, Spokane has earned a bronze rating, and, more recently, Liberty Lake also attained a bronze rating. Seattle is the only city in Washington state to receive the league’s highest rating of gold.

Four cities, all in Western Washington, were rated silver.

Spokane and Liberty Lake joined four Western Washington cities at the bronze level.

Former Spokane resident Barb Chamberlain, executive director of Seattle-based Washington Bikes, a statewide nonprofit bicycle advocacy group, says that while Spokane hasn’t jumped to silver level yet, the city isn’t exactly coasting with its current rating. Rather, Spokane actively is improving its status as a bicycle-friendly community, she says.

Chamberlain says Spokane gets high marks from the league for education and encouragement, largely because of bicycle programs in elementary schools and community events such as SpokeFest and Bike to Work Week.

“Spokane has great encouragement events,” she says. “There are a lot of ways in which volunteers in the city work to get more people riding.”

Spokane Public Schools provides a highly regarded bicycle curriculum to its fifth graders, Chamberlain says.

“It gets more kids to bike and walk to school, and parents can feel more comfortable about it,” she says. “It’s an inspiration for what schools are doing now statewide. School districts are applying to put the curriculum in their physical education classes.”

The next push by bicycle advocates here will be to support building out the bike master plan with more infrastructure and signage, Chamberlain says. While overall infrastructure and signage haven’t earned high marks from the league yet, they are improving, she says.

“Spokane has made definite infrastructure progress,” she says, citing improved bike lanes on Southeast Boulevard, for example. “I notice the difference when I come back to Spokane. The lane that came down Southeast Boulevard used to end at Fifth Avenue. Now there’s a definite continuation over the freeway.”

Washington Bikes recently opened its second office here in Spokane, where bicycle activist Kate Johnston now serves as the organization’s school and family coordinator, a position partly funded by the Empire Health Foundation.

Johnston was born and raised in Spokane and currently lives on the North Side near a bus line and a bike lane, both of which provide her convenient commute routes downtown. She says she can bike to work in 25 minutes.

The Washington Bikes office here is located in Empire Health Foundation’s temporary quarters at 1023 W. Riverside, and will move across the street into the Civic Building later this summer.

Johnston, who has a teaching certificate and has studied urban planning, says she primarily will promote healthy eating and active lifestyles at seven elementary schools with the goal of reducing childhood obesity. She says she’s also working on a grant to promote safe routes for children to get to school in communities throughout Spokane County.

Washington Bikes worked to ensure Spokane was one of 17 midsized cities included in the latest Benchmark Project conducted by the nonprofit Alliance for Biking and Walking, which tracks bicycling and walking trends in the U.S. and publishes a report every two years.

For many comparisons in the Benchmark Project report, Spokane, with a population of 209,289, was grouped with St Louis; Pittsburgh; Anchorage, Alaska; Madison, Wis.; and Baton Rouge, La., which have populations ranging from 229,633 to 381,640.

Spokane was rated as most consistent within that group in education and encouragement efforts regarding bicycling and walking. The report recognized Spokane’s school-sponsored bicycle education courses, youth pedestrian education courses, bike to work events, its bike and pedestrian inclusive “complete streets” initiative, and city-sponsored bike rides.

Within the six-city group, Spokane fell in the middle to upper middle in other categories. For instance, Spokane tied with Pittsburgh as the second highest in the percentage of commuters who bike to work at an estimated 1.5 percent, while Madison ranked highest in that group at 5.2 percent.

The report says Spokane has 54 miles of on-street bike lanes and 31 signed routes, again second to Madison, which has 112 miles of on-street bike lanes and 116 signed routes.

Louis Meuler, a principal planner with the city of Spokane, says the city has added about 15 miles of dedicated bike lanes and shared on-street lanes called sharrow lanes in the last few years.

The city in recent years also has constructed 2.5 miles of new bike and pedestrian paths, including additions and improvements to the Fish Lake Trail, the Centennial Trail, and Iron Bridge Trail, Meuler says.

Bicycle and pedestrian-friendly projects planned for the next few years include the Ben Burr Trail, bike lanes on both sides of High Drive, bike lanes on Addison Street, and improvements to the Millwood Trail, he says.

Aurora Crooks, director of Spokane County’s commute trip reduction program, says bicycle commuting here is trending upward.

Crooks surveys employers that have more than 100 employees to quantify the modes of transportation their employees use to commute to work.

“By law, large employers must encourage employees to use commute alternatives,” she says, adding that 102 employers in Spokane County are required to participate in the commute-trip reduction program, and 32 smaller employers voluntarily participate in the program.

Crooks says 3 percent of the survey respondents who work in Spokane indicated they bike to work.

Tom McFadden, a mechanic at the Two Wheel Transit shop in the South Perry District, says he agrees Spokane is becoming more bike friendly, but there’s still lots of room for improvement.

McFadden says he urges transportation planners to view cycling as a year-round activity. (See related story on page 19.)

Some tend to conceive of bicycling as fair-weather, daytime activity, says McFadden. He adds that some municipal bike facilities aren’t designed for use in the winter.

McFadden says Interstate 90 and the Spokane River are still barriers to bicyclists in Spokane due to few bicycle friendly crossings.

In Spokane Valley, a League of American Bicyclists analysis estimates that 1.1 percent of the city’s population of 90,638 commute to work by bike. Of those, more than two-thirds are women, making Spokane Valley one of the top midsized cities in the U.S. for women bicyclists, the league says in the recent analysis titled “Where We Ride.”

Carolbelle Branch, a spokeswoman for the city of Spokane Valley, says the city last year updated the bike-and-pedestrian elements of its comprehensive land-use plan with goals to expand opportunities for nonmotorized transportation and improve safety and convenience of the city’s pedestrian and bicycle network.

When Spokane Valley started forming its current bike-and-pedestrian master plan last year, it posted a survey that garnered 350 responses and helped the city develop priorities for improving bike and pedestrian connectivity, Branch says.

“We have a lot of opportunities for expansion, but we’ve got a start on it,” she says. 

Spokane Valley has added five miles of bike lanes on its street network in the last two years and has published a popular bike map that highlights 17 city attractions that can be visited by bike, Branch says.

Washington Bikes also contends that being bicycle friendly is good for business.

Here are a few of many findings Washington Bikes has compiled from various surveys regarding the economic impact of bicycling:

•In Washington state, annual gross income from bicycle retail stores alone is estimated at $162.4 million, supporting more than 2,000 jobs. 

•In a survey of visitors to Portland, 78 percent of respondents indicated the city’s bike friendliness was a factor in their decision to visit.

•A number of studies have found that being located closer to an off-street bicycle facility or bike boulevard increases home values.

Brandon Blankenagel, an engineer with the city of Spokane, who helped organize Commute of the Century lunchtime bike rides during the recent Bike to Work Week here, says, “We need a balanced transportation system for Spokane to be competitive economically.”

Mike McLean
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Deputy Editor Mike McLean has worked his entire journalism career in the Inland Northwest. Mike, who also lives to reel in fish and crank up music, has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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