Bicycling in the city gets two big pushes

A protected bike lane in New York City. Photo: Mary Newsom

Two new, high-visibility bicycling campaigns rolled out this week, each an attempt to get more Charlotteans riding—and with more support from the city.

The most noticeable will be an Open Streets event on May 1, in which a city street, I this instance North Davidson Street, will be closed to motor vehicle traffic but open for bicycling and walking (and dancing, playing and meeting neighbors, add the organizers.) The initial group organizing the event have dubbed it Open Streets 704.  More than 100 other North American cities have held them, as well as cities around the globe, and most cities see turnout in the thousands.

The event will be 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and stretch from the NoDa neighborhood down North Davidson Street to Memorial Stadium at Seventh and Kings Drive. It’s tied to the opening of the 14th annual BIKE Charlotte!, a multiday event whose activities aim to encourage more people to ride.  Open Street 704 is a partnership among Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, Charlotte Department of Transportation and the nonprofit Partners for Parks. A grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will fund four Open Streets events over two years.

But if you look at most Charlotte streets, you may notice hardly any cyclists along most of them during most times of the week.  Although the city has made plenty of improvements in recent years, Charlotte still can be daunting for bicyclists with so many disconnected streets, high-volume roads with few bicycle lanes, and speeding vehicles that make even a four-foot painted bike lane feel unsafe to many riders.

For example, plenty of people ride bicycles on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway flanking uptown to the east. People also ride along the Irwin Creek greenway through Frazier Park, a route flanking uptown to the west. There’s even a north-south sidewalk-rail trail beside the Lynx Blue Line tracks in the middle of uptown.

But there’s no on-street way through uptown to get from one greenway to the rail trail to the other greenway—other than sharing the street with traffic.  Yes, some hardy souls bike on the streets and others dodge pedestrians and cars in driveways while riding on the sidewalk. But those numbers are small compared to what you'll see on the greenways.  An east-west connection is needed.

The local nonprofit group Sustain Charlotte on Thursday announced a campaign asking residents to urge the City of Charlotte to build a protected bike lane through uptown by the end of 2016, to connect east to west.

So … what’s a protected bike lane? It’s an on-street bike lane separated from auto traffic by curbs, planters, parked cars or posts —in other words, by something more than just a stripe of paint on pavement. New York City began installing such lanes in 2007. On streets with on-street parking, for example, pavement was re-painted to place the bike lanes next to the sidewalk with the parking lane next to traffic, using the parked cars as a buffer between cyclists and moving motor vehicles. 

“There are protected bike lanes are being built all over the country, and we don’t have any yet in Charlotte,” Sustain Charlotte executive director Shannon Binns said in an interview. “And we think it’s time that we have them too.” 

Sustain Charlotte isn’t the only local group pushing for such a connection. Charlotte Center City Partners would also like to see one, CCCP President Michael Smith said.

One key difficulty is the technical complexity, according to interim Planning Director Ed McKinney. How best to find the right route though uptown, and then how best to design the protected lane?

Should the connecter route be on Third and/or Fourth streets, a high-volume pair of one-way streets? Should it be on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which carries less traffic? What about Stonewall Street, which also carries less traffic, or maybe Seventh Street? Anyone familiar with uptown streets knows each possibility has something to be said for it, but also distinct issues. There’s that freeway interchange at Stonewall and Kenilworth, for instance. Seventh Street has a bridge over Interstate 277 that can't be easily widened, and Seventh necks down to a narrow two-lane street when it gets to the Fourth Ward neighborhood. And so on.

Of course, in a city where the automobile reigns supreme, any move that may give even just an appearance of shrinking traffic lanes can inspire loud protests. The city's Department of Transportation has a bicycle program manager and has added miles of painted bicycle lanes on city streets, and has made several quieter, less trumpeted bicycling improvements in a few isolated spots, such as a buffered bike lane—separated from traffic by a painted area on the street—on Remount Road and reverse-angle parking on Commonwealth Avenue in Plaza Midwood. But it has not adopted in a comprehensive way many of the newer bicycle-safety and traffic tools found in other cities.

And while Mayor Jennifer Roberts made an appearance at Sustain Charlotte’s Thursday night announcement/pep rally at Sugar Creek Brewing, she stopped short of endorsing the idea of a protected bike lane. 

 Sustain Charlotte is launching a drive to win support online (click here to see it) and has set up a web page to explain the effort. Its leaders hope that citizen enthusiasm and pressure can make a difference.

“By 2017, let’s make Charlotte known as the most forward-moving city in America for active transportation,” Sustain Charlotte’s bicycle program director Jordan Moore said in a prepared statement. “We won’t be the world leader, but let’s be the city working fastest towards that goal.”