Focus on Year-round Cycling in Burlington Walk/Bike Plan

The City of Burlington has made it clear to their constituency that transportation is an essential part of the City’s plan to be both prepared and resilient in a response to a 21st century climate. A shift in transportation modal share, mainly a reduction in car use and an increase in real alternatives such as walking and biking, is one of the strongest mitigative strategies a city can engage in because of its minimal impact on the environment relative to single occupancy automobile trips and other less-sustainable forms of travel. Slowing growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or, ideally, reducing VMT will be necessary for reducing transportation greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, even with the emergence of new vehicle technologies and low-carbon fuels such as biodiesel and propane. The City of Burlington has ambitious plans to shift the modal share that they’ve mapped out in Plan BTV: Walk Bike Master Plan.

In order to successfully and effectively shift modal share, there needs to be tremendous incentive from both the built infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, bike signals, and bike corridors, and an economic standpoint, making it affordable and accessible to all. The lack of proper pedestrian and bicycling facilities makes walking and cycling not only unsafe but also inconvenient, slow, unpleasant, and unfeasible in most places. One major strategy in the master plan, is the obvious seasonality of cycling and walking, especially for commuters.

With the winter months, which in Vermont could be a full-third of a year, come frigid temperatures and significant snowfall. The other two-thirds of the year can also bring excruciatingly hot days or significant rainfall. All of these are important deterrents for active commuting. In a 24-question survey as part of the master plan, survey respondents suggested that winter infrastructure could have a big impact in Burlington’s mode share. Sixty percent of the 540 respondents biked to work, but 62 percent only bike seasonally. For this master plan to be successful, this issue of seasonality needs to be addressed by finding incentives to help combat seasonality, achieving a better understand the role of built infrastructure in active transport, and to look to other cities with large modal shares of active transport for guidance.

According to Harriet Tregoning, the Director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, bicycling can help families and individuals become a car-light household, or even a car-free household. Transportation is the second-largest expense for a household, just behind housing. Depending on income, it can actually be as much or more than housing, if you live a long distance from your job and are spending a lot using and maintaining and paying off automobiles. The potential for households, especially those of low-income, to reduce their transportation cost with active transportation is attractive, to say the least. However, for economic incentives to work for people, the right type of planning needs to happen. Tregoning believes the category with regards to transportation that people neglect the most is land use. If there is no destination within biking distance or walking distance, there is no reason for people to use it, especially during winter months.

It makes logical sense that when the weather turns on a city, its people would rather get around in a way that doesn’t ruin their outfits or put them at danger. Cities across the U.S. have reduced cycling usage during the winter months. Even Portland, Oregon, which is known for having one of the highest bike commute shares of major cities in the country sees its share drop from well over 6% to below 4% during the winter months, according to research done by CityLab. In a research paper for The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, Yang et al. concluded that strategies that make active transportation less dependent on seasonal variations is an important need and could be an important strategy to improve active transportation in the US generally. This is especially important in Burlington because their support (in the forms of infrastructure and economic incentives) for active transportation is young and looking to improve. Finding ways to be inclusive to all-season travel will allow for long-term success of transportation planning in the city and make the city more resilient to a changing climate.

It’s important to note that seasonality changes depending where you happen to be in the country. For instance, in the Northeast, there is active transportation that peaks during the summer because of the frequency of warm, sunny days, but in the South, the summer has hot, humid weather, so it sees peaks in the spring and autumn. Knowing that each region and each city are vastly unique is important and while solutions may borrow strategy and insight from others, should be largely individualized. Burlington and its neighboring Chittenden County municipalities are especially susceptible to flooding, infrastructure damage, and other adverse results from major storms. Applying this knowledge to the development of Burlington transportation systems is key to being prepared and resilient towards these storms while also developing a diversity of ways for people to get around the city.

Education needs to be a vitally important part of this plan and may have been overlooked somewhat. Local Burlington businesses will be key to education because of the role in commuting in active transportation. However, there will be need to be a paradigm shift and completely new models of transportation that incorporate adaptability and transformability in order to fully welcome a social change that allows for active transportation to flourish. Transcending paradigms is the point of intervention with highest effectiveness with regards to systems thinking.

While bringing about these paradigm shifts, Burlington needs to be thinking about the impact of the materials they use. Infrastructure systems often disregard the materials used. Conventional pavement and blacktop are impervious surfaces and result in poor stormwater management and runoff of chemicals and toxics into major water sources. Simply the construction of new infrastructure, even if favorable for active transportation, could have serious impacts on our environment.

Looking to North-European cities for guidance may be appropriate for Burlington. Active transportation is far more common in European countries than in the United States; the shares of active trips in some European countries are 3 to 5 times as high as the shares in any U.S. state. The neglect of pedestrian and bicycling safety has made walking and cycling dangerous ways of getting around American cities. However, adopting methods and technology that has decades of successful experience in Europe could make walking and cycling quite safe. For pedestrians, well-lit sidewalks on both sides of the street, pedestrian refuge islands for crossing wide streets, and pedestrian-activated crossing signals will make it safer for Burlingtonians, regardless of season. For cyclists, building a connected and coordinated network of bike paths, lanes, and streets, to replace the existing sparse and fragmented facilities will make it safer and more attractive for residents. From 1978 to 1996, the Dutch more than doubled the extent of their already massive network of bike paths and lanes (from 9282 km to 18948 km). From 1976 to 1995, the Germans almost tripled the extent of their bikeway network. They also ensured that their bikeways were designed for everyday travel, not just recreational purposes. However, even with a handsomely connected system of sidewalks and bikways, the issue of seasonality remains.

It is suggested by Timo Perälä, organizer of the Winter Cycling Congress, in an interview with Eric Jaffe from CityLab, that the two most important factors that influence winter cycling rates are not the cold, contrarily to common belief, but the strength of a city’s bike network and how well it maintains this network during the cold and snowy months. Perälä recognizes Linköping, Sweden as excellent with their winter cycling maintenance. The city has 60 miles of prioritized bike routes and if there is just one centimeter of snow on any of the routes, the route will get plowed. To put it in perspective, Burlington has zero miles of prioritized bike routes, which generally means a road with a protected bike lane. There are, however, plans to make two existing separated bike lanes into protected bike lanes during the 2017 construction season.

The concern that cycling is more dangerous during the winter months becomes obsolete with the right infrastructure. If a bike lane is painted on the road, it doesn’t help anyone when there’s snow on the ground. This is where protected bike lanes flourish. Protected bike lanes and off-street trails and paths are needed to make bicycling safe enough to be an accessible mode of transportation for people of all ages and abilities in all seasons. A bicycling network made up of safe facilities such as protected bike lanes is the backbone upon which winter cycling can grow. In New York City, there has actually been a direct correlation between the miles of bicycle lanes and the number of all-year cyclists. Their winter cycling numbers rose 86 percent from 2008 to 2012. To better the argument for winter cycling, Anders Swanson, in an article for The Guardian, describes that vehicle speeds drop significantly during winter months, and thus, with steady conditions, cycling in the winter months is actually relatively safe compared to cycling in June.

In Oulu, Finland, the city sometimes sees more snow than they could possibly plow in time for people to get to work, a circumstance that’s certainly seen plenty of times a year in Burlington. Instead of trying to plow, however, they simply pack down the snow and layer it with gravel to give riders extra traction. Even though many year-round bikers in Oulu use studded tires, the packed-down snow with gravel is good enough for tires even without the studs. Similarly, in autumn, when freezing temperatures approach, machines that spit gritty materials of carefully chosen diameters head out early to lay the groundwork for a sandpaper-like surface in time for the morning rush. Traction in the snow improves safety and makes it easier overall to navigate through the snow. That is why, in Oulu, nearly 50 percent of 13-17 year-olds bicycle year-round.

Copenhagen, Denmark is well-known for having one of the most bike-friendly cities on the planet. To address winter cycling they salt bike lanes before it even snows and makes clearing them afterward a priority, even ahead of clearing the general roadways for car traffic. There was even one time in Copenhagen when they almost ran out of salt, and the city chose to announce to their residents that only the bike lanes would be salted and not the streets. Prioritizing active transportation is instrumental in shifting modal share. Policies implemented in European countries include not only the provision of safe, convenient and attractive infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, but also restrictions on car use, such as car-free zones, traffic calming facilities and limited parking. Church Street in the downtown core is an excellent example of prioritizing pedestrian traffic. In 1981, the city prohibited auto traffic on the four-block stretch of Church Street, and has been tremendously successful both socially and economically since. Expensive parking meters in the core have also disincentivized car travel, encouraging people to walk or bike within Burlington. These steps were rudimentary in the process of making Burlington livable and walkable, but also exhibits how successful active transport can be.

A number of incentivization measures need to accompany the infrastructural upgrades. City maintenance, such as timely bikeway and sidewalk plowing and salting and sanding the roads prior to big storms, is an impactful one. However, programs that increase walking and biking to school in the winter could also contribute to greater active transport during winter months. This would help to engrain these habits into children and adolescents and normalize the practice of getting around in an active manner. Furthermore, businesses and employers can do their part by providing showers, changing room, and secure bicycling storages areas to their customers or employees. These same businesses can play host or sponsor an event like ‘Winter Bike to Work Day’ where people across Burlington bike to work. This kind of event can demonstrate the large support for something, that might otherwise go unnoticed, and could catch someone’s eye who hadn’t even considered it.

What’s encouraging about this Burlington planning document, especially the need for protected bike lanes, is that its adaptive for soon-to-be climate shifts. “It’s well documented that our climate is heating up; of the 21 hottest years on record, 20 of them have taken place in the last 25 years.” While this article has dwelled on winter maintenance and other winter-specific incentives, many of these are merely a reallocation of time and effort, and are not extremely costly. The benefit of protected bike lanes, which do cost a considerable sum, is not only do they make winter cycling easier for less-inclined cyclists, but they also make cycling year-round astronomically safer. When winters are shortened, and days are hotter, protected bike lanes will still provide people a safe way to utilize active transportation. The showers and bicycle storage facilities that employers invested in for their employees will still be beneficial.

This past February 2017 we saw outrageously high temperatures, including four days over sixty degrees. These unprecedented temperatures are clear signs of a shifting climate. If Vermont’s microclimate is indeed shifting towards something more reflective of present-day Georgia, Burlington planners need to meet it with general resilience, or a combination of diversity, modularity and tight feedbacks. Multimodal transportation systems is another way of saying: a diversity of ways to get around. Complete streets and road designs that are inclusive to all modes with a range of types of people and institutions involved in decision-making will strengthen the overall system. These different decision makers allow for a diversity of options for both planning and response to system collapse. Overconnected systems tend to be more susceptible to shock, so it is advisable to build systems that have the ability to disconnect and survive on their own. Active transport has high modularity, because of its decreased reliance on foreign oil and large-scale consumerism. With the exception of rare metals found in some bicycles, active transportation is largely protected from global catastrophe. For instance, say climate conditions in the Middle East worsen, and drought and famine plague the region, a Burlington transportation system that is largely independent of foreign oil will be resilient to fluctuations in price and availability of that oil.

The City of Burlington is in a unique and favorable position to redevelop and redesign their infrastructure to be more inclusive to all forms of transport. The Plan BTV Walk Bike Master Plan is a well thought-out step in the right direction.  Of their survey pool of cyclists, 62 percent only bike seasonally. Redesigning the city to include bike paths and bikeways is the right step, but it must be met with appropriate safety measures, bike path maintenance, and snow clearance, and these measures should be present in the planning document. It also has to be planned to observe potential changes in annual climate and precipitation. Nonetheless, bike travel has to have the priority over automobile traffic, or at least an equal share of roadways and maintenance work. That is not the case as the city stands now. It’s these incentives for non-cyclists to switch their mode of travel, or ditch one of their family cars, that will strengthen this walk and bike plan and ensure its long-term success.

 

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