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Planners attempt to make Greensboro bike-friendly

by Amy Kingsley

Greensboro consumers have been lining the pockets of local bicycle retailers ‘— buying supplies for commuting and recreation ‘— particularly since gas prices started rising after last summer’s hurricanes.

It’s a good time to be in the bicycle business, and it might soon be a better time to be a bicyclist, if the city follows through on an emerging plan to add marked bike lanes to city streets. Consultants from Greenways Inc. unveiled a preliminary strategy to increase commuter pathways from the lone strip on Spring Garden Street to 1,200 miles of interconnected facilities at a series of meetings the first week of April.

Public meetings for the Greensboro Metropolitan Area Bicycle, Pedestrian and Greenways Plan started last fall with several meetings and surveys to gauge demand for such facilities. Members of the community met with the consultants and local department of transportation planners to brainstorm the best placement for bicycle lanes, sidewalks and trails.

The fruits of that labor were displayed on a series of long tables outside the city council chambers on April 5. About 25 citizens gathered to examine the bicycle-pedestrian maps, ask questions and make suggestions.

Although Greenways Inc. President Chuck Flink expressed enthusiasm for the comprehensive nature of the report, one audience member in particular attacked the process as politically rigged. He disagreed with the consultants’ decision not to put bike lanes on major roads like Friendly Avenue and Market Street and said the meetings were a public relations move, not an attempt to collaborate.

‘“I understand the frustration,’” Flink said.

The city of Greensboro has considered improving bike facilities several times since the 1970s, but little action has been taken to develop options for those who must or would like to commute to work by bicycle. This plan represents the most complete attempt to unify bicycle and pedestrian facilities and comes during a crucial cultural shift, planners said.

‘“All of a sudden, people who wouldn’t be caught dead on bikes now view it as a cultural enhancement,’” said Dale Brown, owner of Cycles D’Oro.

Bike sales also spiked during the gas crisis of the 1970s, but many consumers let them gather dust in the garage, Brown said. Recently, he’s seen increased sales of saddlebags, fenders, rear carrier racks and other commuting accessories, but said that they account for a small portion of profits.

‘“It’s about 15 percent,’” Brown said. ‘“Not enough to rock you back on your heels.’”

Road and mountain bike sales have been healthy, he said. Greensboro has 70 miles of completed trails, but most recreational users have to get in their cars and drive to them. Instead people are increasingly recreating on slim racing bikes, he said.

‘“People are turning to road bike recreation because they don’t have to go anywhere in their cars,’” he said.

Les McCaskill of Friendly Bike said that he has noticed increased sales of hybrid and fast hybrid bikes, which are a popular choice among commuters. A few of those customers also seek information about safe paths to work.

AAA released a study in early April that estimated the cost of owning a car in America at $150 a week. Many of the communities the bicycle-pedestrian plan is concerned with are Greensboro’s less wealthy neighborhoods, where bicycle commuting is less a choice than a necessity. Among the roadblocks to increasing Greensboro’s bike friendliness is the widespread conception of bicycling and walking as recreational activities.

‘“People in the rest of the world treat bikes as transportation,’” said Merritt White, the owner of Recycles. ‘“America is the only place people treat it like a hobby.’”

But he has noticed that more people in the College Hill neighborhood where he has his shop are using bikes for commuting.

‘“A lot of people don’t have more than one car per household,’” White said, ‘“because you don’t need one.’”

When more people ride bikes pollution is decreased, physical fitness is increased and traffic to local businesses improves, White said.

‘“When you are on a bike you have a lot more time to notice and stop at local shops,’” he said.

Despite such improvements an effort to change the sidewalk ordinance several years ago ran up against considerable political opposition, said former Greensboro department of transportation planner Jeffrey Sovich. This time around the department of transportation hasn’t heard anything from the real estate groups that opposed the sidewalk ordinance, Sovich said.

‘“This plan will not have a significant direct impact on developers,’” Sovich said.

Most of the funding for improving facilities will come from a combination of federal and state funds with the potential for a bond referendum. So far, neither Sovich nor Flink has had the opportunity to discuss the issue with city council members.

‘“Local politicians are very important to the process,’” Flink said. ‘“But they are also very driven by constituents.’”

Greenways Inc. developed a plan for Winston-Salem that passed the city council nine to one.

‘“Most people don’t see a downside to this,’” he said. ‘“We’re interested in helping minority populations, health and wellness and giving everyone a quality choice.’”

Right now, he said, Greensboro residents have little choice but to drive. Bicycle trail facilities are concentrated in Northwest Greensboro and bike lanes for commuters simply don’t exist. During the presentation Flink and his staff said studies have shown improving facilities increases bicycle riding.

‘“I am not so concerned about the politicians,’” Flink said. ‘“I’m more concerned about the corporate community and the soccer moms. The politicians will respond if their voice is loud enough.’”

He attributed the frustration in the audience to Greensboro’s reluctance to undertake this kind of action years ago.

‘“Greensboro is playing significant catch-up considering bicycling,’” Flink said. ‘“But what they’re lacking in timeliness, they’re making up for in comprehensiveness.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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