By Chris Glasser
Over the past month, almost out of nowhere, there has been article after blog post about all the progress Louisville is making with its bike infrastructure. Broken Sidewalk, WAVE 3, the Courier-Journal. All are producing stories on the progress (whether you like it or you hate it) with bike lanes around town.
“Progress” doesn’t normally jibe with “falling behind.” The two ideas seem contradictory, but of course they’re not. Think of marathons or foreign languages or math class. “Progress” is one thing; “keeping pace” is another.
This is what comes to mind when I hear about how much “progress” we’re making on our bike infrastructure in Louisville.
Yes, it is true that in the last two years Louisville has invested more in its on-street bike infrastructure than ever before. But it is also true that while we are painting bike lanes and sharrows, other cities are doing much more.
This summer and fall, for example, Cincinnati installed a 2-mile protected cycletrack along a main arterial corridor, while Pittsburgh built three two-way cycletracks in its downtown. In that same time, Louisville has put in a half-mile bike lane near UofL and a one-block (roughly 450-foot) bike lane on Fourth Street between Main and Market streets.
The point is this: Our “progress” hardly stacks up. Other cities are blasting ahead, investing more money and installing safer, more convenient infrastructure. In a national ranking of bike-friendly cities that came out earlier this year, Louisville fell more than 20 spots from its 2012 ranking.
So, how do we catch up? The simple answer, of course, is money. And while that’s true, it’s also not totally the right answer.
The 2015 city budget allocated $300,000 for on-street bike improvements. That’s hardly anything, in the grand scheme of a city budget. In fact, it represents less than 0.1 percent of Metro Public Works’ entire annual budget, which is less than 8 percent of the city’s overall budget. A single multi-use pathway (like what has gone in recently at Seneca Park) costs much more money.
All of which is to say, bike infrastructure is not expensive, so it’s not difficult (budgetarily) to set aside money that will make a meaningful impact. What’s difficult is finding the political drive to push for infrastructure that will.
(An example: I admire Mayor Greg Fischer much more for his press conference and interviews in support of the controversial bike lanes on Kentucky and Breckinridge streets than I do for the $40,000 or so that went into building them. He invested much more political capital than city capital on that venture.)
So, what’s the diagnosis? I’ll offer two suggestions:
1) We need to stop thinking simply in terms of bike lane miles and start building infrastructure that vastly improves safety and convenience. We should be implementing cycletracks like those in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (and lots of other places), providing fully-separated, on-street pathways for bikers. And we should be investing in traffic-calming measures like they have in Seattle and Portland — speed humps, traffic diverters, or simply just more four-way stop signs on residential streets.
2) Since it’s not really about money, we need local political leaders (from neighborhood associations to Metro Council members to Mayor Fischer) to really go to bat for this idea. Mayor Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh has done it for his city, while Seattle neighborhood associations have spearheaded massive change there. There will always be bikelash, but the argument for biking is sound and easy to make: it’s good for the health of citizens, good for their pocketbooks, good for the local economy, and good for urban revitalization. Louisville needs a voice that will simply say this as many times as it needs to be said.
When those two things come together — when we a) build for safety as much as we do for mileage and b) have leaders who recognize this is as a cause that needs their voice as much as their dollars — then I’ll believe in our “progress.” Until then, I’m afraid we’ll just be reading more celebratory articles about our great “bike-tastic” city … and having to visit other ones to see what that really looks like.
Chris Glasser is a web developer and the president of Bicycling for Lousville, Louisville’s bike advocacy nonprofit