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Why Boise's On Its Way To Being A Bike-Friendly City

Frankie Barnhill
Boise State Public Radio

You may see more people riding their bikes to work today. It’s Bike to Work Day, and here in the Boise area, it caps off a week of festivities all focused on cycling.

The Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance (TVCA) is behind Boise Bike Week. Rick Overton sits on the Alliance's board. He says Boise’s cycling culture has become more active in the past ten years and that, he says is part of a national trend.

“There’s a bit of a generational surge from people in their 20’s who think about cycling completely differently than older folks do and they’re a lot more likely to use a bike as a vehicle,” says Overton.

“And as more and more of those people have come into the community or graduated from Boise State, they’ve really changed the numbers a lot. At the same time, part of the attraction of living in Boise for a lot of people is it’s access to the outdoors. So we’ve experienced a certain amount of migration of people who are out more. They’re skiing. They’re hiking. They’re biking. They’re in the foothills. It’s kind of the new Boisean – they tend to be more active. Those combinations have really helped to drive it [cycling numbers ] up.”

Q: Do you have a sense for how many people are actually commuting and using their bikes to get around?

A: A sense, it’s hard to get specific. And I say that as someone who works really hard to get specific. We get out twice a year and measure bike traffic as best we can using sampling techniques during twice annual valley-wide bike counts. And sometimes numbers get thrown around like 4,000-6,000 bike commuters, but it’s almost impossible to verify a number like that. I can tell you this: last September I stood at the 8th Street Bridge where the Greenbelt meets it and in a two-hour period counted more than 500 cyclists who went by at that point. That does allow us to make comparisons to car traffic, and in that case, there’s more bikes on that part of 8th street than there are cars.

Q: And five years ago was that the case?

A: Over the last five years, there’s been roughly a 40 percent increase in cycling. And this is not out of step with what’s happening nationally. If you look at the busiest bike cities in the country where there’s the most enthusiastic cyclists, the growth over the last 10 years has been about 75 percent. So we’re very much in keeping with cities like Portland, Boulder, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., New York that have really lead the charge for larger cities. We’re about where they are.

Q: So you’d put Boise’s bike commuting culture right up there with Portland?

A: It’s hard to make direct comparisons. Portland – they’re just bigger. And one thing Portland’s done is, they’ve spent money on the right kinds of facilities. We haven’t spent as much. There’s good progress – [Ada County Highway District] is on the right track. They’ve got good plans in place, but we don’t have nearly the infrastructure they’ve got.

Q: Let’s talk about the plans that the Ada County Highway District has to expand bike lanes, for starters. How do you think they’re dealing with this increase in cyclists?

A: They’re dealing with it pretty well, actually. Bruce Wong, the director of the ACHD has been very supportive. There’s a plan that’s been in place for the last five years to try to build out the system a little better. And sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting for road project to come along, like widening Five Mile or Cloverdale or re-paving Ustick. Often those projects come with new bike lanes or some different accommodations on them that weren’t there before. In the meantime, you may have noticed all over town that there are “sharrow” lanes where before there didn’t used to be sharrow lanes.

Q: And sharrow lanes are when bicyclists can actually take the road and share it with cars at the same time.

A: Yeah, it’s a painted white bicycle with a couple of chevrons on top of it or sergeant stripes if you will. And what it’s really meant to denote is to send a message to drivers that they should expect to see cyclists on those pathways, and share the road with them. Be ready, don’t be surprised, give them space.

Q: So Rick if you were to make a prediction as to what Boise’s bike culture is going to be in the next decade, what do you envision? What do you want to see?

A: I hope that the elements that are in it now are still there. And that is: it’s an incredibly diverse set of people. Wednesday night, the Ride of Silence took place which is another national observation that happens during bike week to observe fallen riders. And when we got done with the ride, we noticed two things: one, there were sharrows where there weren’t the year before. We rode more or less the same route, only now we were almost entirely on sharrow lanes.

But the other thing we noticed is that almost every kind of rider was represented. We had spandex and racing bikes. We had somebody in flip-flops on a cruiser. We had somebody pulling a kid. We had every imaginable type of cyclist.

So I hope that 10 years from now there’s still that same diversity – so many different kinds of riders that love to have fun, love to organize themselves into parades and events. I really hope that inventiveness is still there. But that safety is not as much a part of the discussion as it is now. Here’s one way of putting it: I don’t think there’s ever going to come a day where we just say, 'Cycling is safe.' There are going to be accidents. We can try to reduce the number of accidents and we can try to make those accidents a little less impactful. But hopefully the conversation shifts to other aspects of the cycling community and we’re not paranoid about whether we’re going to get hit by a car anymore.

We’d like to hear your bike commuting story. Go to our Facebook page to share a photo of your bike and more.

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