Cyclists: Ride for Your Lives! Greensboro Moves Slowly Toward More Bike-friendly Streets
The New South looms ahead: a sprawling suburban landscape of condos, discrete office parks and endless chain restaurants bisected by Interstate 40 and a series of little-used railroads and jagged industrial access roads.
With the temperature hovering just below freezing on this early March morning, I’ve decided to ride my bicycle from my rented house on the western edge of downtown to my job in the Adams Farm subdivision where Greensboro bleeds imperceptibly into Jamestown and High Point.
Mine is a fairly typical automobile commute of nine miles that involves about half an hour of stop-and-go traffic during the morning rush ‘— ten minutes longer than the average Greensboro worker spends in his car on the way to work. My time in transit is a function of the contradiction between my desire for a hipster existence in close proximity to UNCG and downtown and the cheap commercial property values that make it more economical to do business out in the suburbs.
On the bike, I have to map out a circuitous hodgepodge of low-traffic streets that adds an extra mile to my journey, thus completely avoiding the major thoroughfares of Wendover Avenue or High Point Road that would normally carry me to work. It’s actually an easy trip, gliding over the asphalt in the chilled late winter air. But I don’t leave my house until 8 a.m. ‘— after the peak of the morning rush hour ‘— so it’s kind of cheating.
My bike route takes me south on Mendenhall Street and then west on Spring Garden Street, including the only half-mile stretch of painted bike lane in the city, which runs through the UNCG campus.
It’s bliss. Even past Aycock Street, where the painted lane ends, the drivers are courteous.
But by the time I reach the Holden Road intersection, where the road widens to four lanes and Mexican tiendas and auto shops begin to crop up, the car traffic is piling up behind me. At the light, I take off fast to avoid getting pushed off the road, and I steel myself against the temptation to swerve into the storm drain pan where loose gravel or a well-placed grate might send me flying.
The only other rough stretch is Fairfax Drive, a two-lane road that connects Merritt Drive and Hilltop Road. Small trucks zoom around me and a Budweiser delivery truck lumbers past on its way to a pick-up at RH Barringer Distribution Co. in this mixed-use light industrial and residential area.
Coming home is altogether different.
It’s 6 p.m. Cycling through a woody area of Hilltop Road, cars are either swerving across the yellow line to avoid me or creeping along behind me and edging past slowly. To be fair, they don’t have much choice. There’s no shoulder. At times, the cars are six deep behind me.
Dusk is rapidly approaching. I know it’s nearly suicidal to not have a taillight, and I curse myself for not being prepared. By the time I ride across the Merritt Drive bridge over Interstate 40 it’s practically dark and traffic is heavy. I take advantage of a rare patch of sidewalk, which seems safer. This approach has its own hazards though: by taking yourself out of the mainstream of traffic, you risk getting hit by cars from feeder streets that zoom up to the intersection without paying attention to the crosswalk. Conversely, one time a car swings out from a left turn lane and nearly swipes me as I’m crossing a feeder street. It seems that drivers are in the habit of watching for other cars, but not pedestrians or cyclists.
Later tonight a cyclist, reported by the News & Record to be a skilled auto mechanic, will be struck and killed in a hit-and-run accident as he rides against traffic on US 220 north of Summerfield.
Riding against traffic is always unadvisable and might have been the critical factor in the accident, said Robert Carter, a dreadlocked sales rep at the Greensboro bicycle shop Cycles de Oro. Even so, Greensboro and the surrounding towns are clearly not designed for commuter cyclists.
A look at Greensboro’s bicycle transportation infrastructure suggests that the city is poorly equipped for riding across town. The city has about 80 miles of fragmented pedestrian trails in greenways and parks. The longest stretch runs along Buffalo Creek for three and a half miles through Latham and Lake Daniel parks from Moses Cone Memorial Hospital to the Friendly Center shopping area.
The Bicentennial Greenway, which is supposed to eventually link Greensboro and High Point, begins at Bur-Mil Park and meanders through Greensboro’s northwestern suburbs before ending at Horse Pen Creek Road. Even when the project is completed, it will only link Greensboro’s Battleground Park with High Point’s City Lake Park, said Roger Bardsley, a planner with the Guilford County Community and Economic Development Department. The two city governments of Greensboro and High Point would have to take responsibility for extending the trail into their downtowns.
One of the chief critics of Greensboro’s approach towards cyclists is Sheldon Helmar, a former bicycle-store owner from Grand Rapids, Mich. who now manages his wife’s home acupuncture business. Helmar’s head is covered with a wild explosion of curly brown locks that, along with a beard and faded denim shirt, make the 49-year-old cycling activist somewhat resemble Jerry Garcia.
‘“The city decided to focus on recreational trails,’” he said. ‘“They forgot about grocery stores, the post office ‘— places you need to go at least once a week. They’ve compartmentalized cycling.’”
As for swimming in the mainstream with automobile traffic in a city that disdains bike lanes, Helmar sees two unattractive choices.
‘“If you’re going to go anywhere, you have to take a major road and battle traffic, or you can take a convoluted path and it’s maybe three times as far,’” he said.
Some of the most eager cross-town cyclists are the students at Guilford College and UNCG. Students from both colleges attested that Friendly Avenue, which connects Guilford College to downtown and passes close to UNCG, is one of the most harrowing rides in the city.
‘“There are no bike lanes at all,’” said James Croonenberghs, a senior at Guilford College. ‘“So, once you start going towards Greensboro from Guilford College, you never know whether cars are going to ram into you. It’s not a relaxing ride. I tried riding on the sidewalk, but it runs out ‘— and besides, it’s illegal.’”
Bardsley confirmed Helmar and Croonenberghs’ assessments.
‘“Greensboro has never done bike lanes,’” he said. ‘“A lot of times there’s a drop-off on the shoulder, and you don’t want people riding in the drain pan. You want a car to be able to go by you without swinging out into the other lane.’”
Greensboro, like most other North Carolina cities, follows the guidelines of the American Association of Highway Transportation Officials, which does not stress designated bike lanes, said Peggy Holland, a transportation planner for the city of Greensboro. Rather, AASHTO’s manual advises building new with a minimum of three feet of right of way on either side for bicycle traffic.
Helmar takes a dim view of Greensboro’s transportation planning practices. The city suffers from sprawl, he said, which he believes degrades residents’ quality of life and hobbles the city’s economic development.
‘“Greensboro bases its decisions on greed and short-term profits,’” he said. ‘“We suffer incredibly from low land values. Why we have all these abandoned housing and shopping centers is because it’s always easier to build new. The people who are making decisions who are 40 to 70 years old ‘— they grew up in an auto transportation world, and they think that’s the way it’s always going to be. Clearly, our priority is cars, not people.’”
City Councilman Robbie Perkins, who represents north-central Greensboro’s District 3, might phrase it like this: The city’s priority is people who drive cars.
‘“You’ve got a lot of cars out there and you don’t have a lot of cyclists,’” he said. ‘“The transportation focus has been to move the cars. The focus has not been on bike lanes on every major corridor.’”
He said he rides a bike when the weather is nice, but he sticks to the greenway trails and doesn’t ride on the street.
‘“Road dollars are scarce, and I think realistically you’ve got to look at the bicycle as a secondary activity,’” he said. ‘“The tail will never wag the dog.’”
When asked if he’s researched the transportation infrastructure of Portland, Ore., a city of slightly more than half a million people that was rated the most bicycle friendly city in the United States by Bicycling magazine, Perkins said: ‘“No. I think before we add bike lanes, we’d like to get some sidewalks in the city. The need for bike lanes has not risen to the top of the pond.’”
Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said the city is committed to developing the bike trails into one connected network. She said Greensboro has money from the state for sidewalks that can also be used to build more trails.
Unlike Perkins, she believes bike lanes would be a good investment for the city.
‘“It’s an excellent idea; it’s better than good,’” she said. ‘“With our air quality that people are becoming concerned about, and with rising gas prices it’s something we need to do.’”
She agreed with Helmar that Greensboro’s development has been inordinately tilted towards automobile transportation, but sees it as the result of short-sightedness, not favoritism.
‘“I don’t think we were as conscious or proactive as we should have been,’” she said. ‘“ Our cognitive map was not as expansive as it should have been.’”
By the standards of Greensboro, a city with a reputation for friendliness towards the real estate interests, Portland’s development policy would probably be considered radical social engineering.
‘“Despite the fact that we have a lot of rain, people’s main mode of transportation is bicycling,’” said Brendan Finn, a Portland assistant city commissioner. ‘“It’s almost trendy. We have a lot of outdoorsy people here who really enjoy the fact that they can get to any of the four corners of the city on a bike. They’re environmentally and health conscious.’”
City policy mandates that the bicycle network must grow with population expansion, and new development is required to enhance alternative transportation options.
When the last freeway, Interstate 205, was completed in Portland, it came with bike lanes on either side, Finn said.
Portland’s comprehensive plan for development requires publicly funded projects to build bike lanes in new roadways, and it provides incentives to developers to keep the city compact and accessible to cyclists.
‘“If you provide an area where people can park their bikes, we’ll allow you to build a bigger building,’” Finn said. ‘“We also have transit-oriented tax breaks where we give people a tax abatement based on proximity to transit lines and bike lanes. So it’s an incentive to developers to build in a place that’s accessible for bikes.’”
The city’s land use review process for new housing, retail and office developments requires developers to present a comprehensive bicycle plan that provides for either bike lanes or off-road trails.
The city offers a carrot for cycling ‘— and wields a stick against cars.
‘“In the city of Portland it would be extremely difficult to build a Home Depot or Wal-Mart because we don’t allow you to build a big parking lot,’” Finn said. ‘“By no means are we anti-car, but we’ve found that it’s saved the city a lot of money. We feel that the bang for the buck justifies it. We like having that kind of reputation.’”
Portland became the city with the highest number of bike lanes by jumping ahead of a state law passed in 1973 to protect farmland and develop alternative transportation options. At the time, pollution and sprawl-weary Californians were pouring into the state.
‘“Tom McCall, our governor at the time, wanted to put up a sign at the southern border of Oregon that said: ‘Welcome to Oregon. Please enjoy your stay and then leave,”” Finn said. ‘“The California model of strip malls and subdivisions wasn’t acceptable to the people of Oregon at that time.’”
The strong support for property rights and unfettered business that characterize the Tar Heel State make it unlikely that the Greensboro of 2005 will turn out to be much like the Portland of 1973 ‘— although Holland said she and a handful of other city officials are studying the Portland model. A few intrepid riders are forging ahead into the brave new world of cycling-as-primary-transportation-mode anyway.
Franko Calmes, a 27-year old ex-marine from Atlanta who describes himself as a non-traditional student at UNCG, rides his Giant ATX 760 between home, school and work every day, barring hail, sleet or ice storms.
He bought his bike at a yard sale for $25 and has discovered it saves him money and keeps him in shape. He’s been riding since last July. He rides mainly downtown: to classes at UNCG, to his job as a cameraman at First Horizon Park, and to the movies on Battleground Avenue and the Friendly Center. When he needs to do his laundry, he stuffs his clothes in a military C-bag and pedals to the laundromat.
‘“It’s been more a pleasure than anything else,’” he said. ‘“The only disadvantage is you have to deal with the elements. I have a trash bag to put my clothes in if it starts raining ‘— what I learned in the military. It’s called weatherproofing.’”
He’s had some frustrations, but they’re minor.
‘“Cars will sometimes go over into the right lane,’” he said. ‘“Instead of going around me, they ride right beside me to prove they dominate the road.’”
Even so, he prefers cycling in Greensboro over Atlanta because the streets aren’t as congested, even though Atlanta has more bike lanes. Greensboro has other advantages too.
‘“If I were to grade the streets, I would say they were an eight, just in terms of not having a lot of glass,’” he said.
Bardsley, the Guilford County planner, thinks Greensboro may be ready for a more bicycle-friendly transportation infrastructure. The push to bring residents back downtown is a harbinger.
‘“When you’re trying to reduce automobile use, you provide an avenue to get you from here to there that’s safe and convenient ‘— and is not a car,’” he said. ‘“The other way is that when you’re building a community you push things together that aren’t the same thing ‘— retail and housing, for example ‘— so you have origins and destinations that are basically on top of each other. There’s no need to get in the car because it’s fifty feet away.’”
Cycling advocates in North Carolina have gained more respect and a greater share of transportation budgets in recent years, he added.
Tom Norman, director of the NC Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation, said it’s inevitable that automobile use will decline and North Carolinians will increasingly look to bicycles as an alternative.
‘“Based on the cost of purchasing land in large roadway projects, I’m not sure we can just widen roads forever,’” he said. ‘“North Carolina has been shifting from a state with a largely rural population to a state with a largely urban population. And purchasing fuel tends to be more of a bite out of your budget, so it makes sense that more of a share of public funds for transportation would go to public transportation, biking and walking.’”
Holland added: ‘“The new developments that I see are keeping cycling in mind. There are new subdivisions that are including trails as part of their overall plans, which I don’t think we would have seen ten years ago. While the connector trails don’t exist yet, give ’em a chance.’”