Saturday, May 07, 2011

Streetcars vs. bicycles: Some Central Avenue neighborhoods lose out (opinion)

Comments on an environmental assessment of Charlotte streetcar plans are due to planners on May 9.

The full environmental assessment, available at a city of Charlotte planning site, is 58 megabytes in a PDF and rather dense. Karen Sullivan of The Charlotte Observer has written a summary of the streetcar environmental findings.

The assessment concludes there are no significant negative effects on residents or surrounding neighborhoods.

But the fine print deserves a closer look, particularly for some neighborhoods along Central Avenue like Merry Oaks. The negative effect of the streetcar on bicycling cannot be denied.

For the Central Avenue Subarea, the report notes that bicyclists will face increased safety risks because of streetcar tracks in the roadway and because they would share a lane with streetcars along Central Avenue.

And while the report generally supports the increased use of bicycles, it includes a small clause that could affect plans for extending bike lanes along Central Avenue from Merry Oaks Road to Elizabeth Avenue. The Central Avenue bike lane now stops abruptly at Merry Oaks Road. (It's the red line in the bike route map at the top.)

Says the report:

“The LPA will maintain existing bicycle lanes through Central Avenue and adopt recommendations under the No-Build Alternative to the extent that the improvements do not present a conflict with Project operations.”

In other words, existing bike lanes would be supported as long as bicyclists dodge streetcars, but plans for extending bike lanes along the corridor could be in jeopardy.

Admittedly, many bicyclists and area residents think biking Central Avenue now is akin to suicide. One Merry Oaks bicyclist is lucky to be alive after being hit by a drunk driver on Central awhile back.

Still, bike traffic along Central Avenue continues to increase as gasoline prices rise and as area residents look for alternatives to fossil fuels. And bicyclists also often use parallel routes through quieter nearby neighborhoods like Merry Oaks, Plaza Midwood and Commonwealth. (Some of those routes are on the bike map.)

The report is designed to look at environmental conditions in the future and determine the costs of the streetcar. One cost clearly is the lost opportunity for increased bicycling along Central Avenue if extended bike lanes are abandoned and if street riding becomes even more dangerous.

Some people doubt whether these streetcar plans have any immediate effect on their lives since long-term funding remains unclear. But that one clause in a 58-megabyte document could add weight against a planning commitment for extending bike lanes along parts of Central Avenue.

If the streetcar would hinder the future bike lane from Merry Oaks Road to Elizabeth Avenue, then a deep commitment to enabling and connecting the alternative parallel routes seems in order. Certainly other factors affect future bike routes, but the streetcar plan piles on to existing hurdles.

Granted, other Charlotte city departments are working on bicycle route planning. The negative effects of streetcar planning on Central Avenue routes should influence their work.

Our transportation and energy consumption plans shouldn’t just switch us from oil to electricity. Enabling and encouraging other methods like bicycles shouldn’t fall victim “to the extent that the improvements do not present a conflict with Project operations.”

Bikes and streetcars don't have to be an either/or choice. Other cities like Portland have been through this and have lessons to share. Let's learn from them.

Thoughts? You can email the streetcar senior project manager, John Mrzygod, by May 9.

Images: Top image shows existing bike routes around Central Avenue. Bottom image shows planned streetcar stops.

Further reading:
Bikes & Streetcars: let's be Best Friends!
Streetcars and Bicycles, a Learning Experience
Bikes and streetcars should be friends