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Bill encourages safe bicycling

Grant would make it easier for cities to start bike programs

Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

If only the Legislature could do something about the weather.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Two lawmakers have introduced a bill this session aimed at encouraging more people to ride bicycles.

House Bill 132, from Reps. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, creates a grant program that would help cities and nonprofits start bike repair, loaner or safety programs and pay for bicycle-related road improvements. The bill will be heard in the House Transportation committee at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Despite the winter, Alaska ranks sixth in the nation in the proportion of people biking to work, according to Bob Laurie, Alaska Department of Transportation's bicycle advocate. (The state ranks first in the percentage who walk to work.) Yet the American League of Bicyclists ranked the state 43rd in overall bike-friendliness, and Sitka is the state's only officially bike-friendly community.

Laurie listed some of the biggest challenges facing Alaska communities in making themselves cycle-commute-friendly: Shoulders on the road, secure parking, places to shower, and education and enforcement of riders and motorists. All of those things take money, which the proposed grant program could help fund.

Seaton said he wanted the bill to promote alternative energy use and make Alaskans healthier.

"This isn't a recreational bill," he said. "It's a mode-of-transportation bill."

The bill creates the program but doesn't fund it, Seaton said. That requires a separate action by lawmakers, and he doesn't expect it this year.

Locally, a consultant for the city of Juneau is working on a Nonmotorized Transportation Plan that covers all such improvements. It includes a list of priorities for making Juneau's road system nicer for cyclists and walkers.

Local cyclists tend to have their own informal wish lists, from behavior to bike lanes.

"Lemon Creek is by far the most miserable place to ride a bike in Juneau," said Kevin Maier, a writing professor at the University of Alaska Southeast. "A lot of people ride bikes there not out of choice but necessity."

"I know that we can use a lot more awareness for both the bikers and the auto users," said Dennis Travis, who owns Glacier Cycles in Juneau. "A lot of them don't know the rules, and the people driving the cars expect us to ride on the sidewalks."

He was even-handed, also mentioning cyclists who ride on the wrong side of the street.

Barb Kelly, an organizer of Bike to Work Week in May, said her dream - unlikely to be funded, she admitted -was a single, intersection-free bike path along Gastineau Channel from downtown Juneau to the Mendenhall Valley.

Education professor Chip McMillan, of the University of Alaska Southeast, said he'd favor helmet programs, bike path improvements that make sure to leave plenty of space for motorists and pedestrians, and plenty of accountability for cyclists, too.

But to some extent, biking in places like Juneau - on the rough days, at least - requires a fortitude, or at least a positive attitude toward slush. That can't be bought with grant money.

"It just gives me so much pleasure to get from A to B under my own power. And my motivation is as much from how much I despise myself when I drive this 2,000-pound chunk of metal around," said McMillan, who commutes each day to the university from the Valley.

"The last month or two it's been quite a struggle," he said.

The challenges are many. Fresh snow is great until those pesky pedestrians walk all over it and make it unpredictable. A path may be plowed, but then it hardens into a sheet of ice. Street plows hurl snow and ice from the road onto the path. Some motorists are aggressive or inattentive. On some sections, he can't even push the bike; he once carried his steed from the Valley to Fred Meyer.

"I don't think there would ever be enough money to turn Brotherhood Bridge into a friendly thing," McMillan said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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