SF bike-safety effort literally ‘going green’

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Workers with A.A.C. Construction from Santa Fe work to stabilize and put a better surface on the Rail Trail through part of Eldorado, on April 28, 2015. This is phase two of the project and cost $1.1 million dollar to covers five miles of the trail. The phase should be completed in May. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“The City Different” has come a long way in a short time toward becoming a “City Friendly” for bicyclists.

“When I first moved here, I was scared to death to get on the streets of Santa Fe,” said Patti Bushee, who came to Santa Fe nearly 30 years ago and, as a city councilor since 1994, has been instrumental in developing the city’s bicycling infrastructure. “There were just these small, narrow streets or wide boulevards with no bike lanes or sharrows. Over the years, we’ve done a lot to change that and we continue to work on trying to keep up with the latest trends across the nation.”

One of those latest trends may hit the streets of Santa Fe this summer.

Bushee and Mayor Javier Gonzales have introduced a proposal for a pilot project to create green-colored bicycle lanes at high-risk intersections, which could be up for City Council approval before the end of the month.

Santa Fe already earned a silver designation as a bicycle-friendly city from the League of American Bicyclists. The painted lanes and a bicycle/pedestrian underpass at the city’s busiest intersection could help bump it up to gold, Bushee said.

Such bike lanes can be found all over Europe, but are new to the United States and relatively scarce here. The city of Portland, Ore., claims to have been the first to have them.

“We installed our first one in 2008,” said Peter Koonce, signals and street lighting manager with Portland’s Bureau of Transportation. “We had two fatalities that could have been prevented by a bicycle box … . Now we have them at over 25 intersections.”

Bicycle boxes are areas of green pavement that are actually in front of the stop bar for motor vehicles at many intersections.

“The primary benefit is that the bicycle boxes increase the visibility of bikes. It puts them out in front where they can be more easily seen,” Koonce said.

The city has imbedded induction loops in the pavement that detect when a bicyclist is in the box and trips the traffic light so they aren’t waiting all day for the light to turn green.

John Romero, traffic impacts/development review supervisor for Santa Fe, said bicycle boxes won’t be considered as part of the pilot project. He said the 23 American cities that are using them now are doing so on an experimental basis granted by the Federal Highway Administration.

The resolution calls for city staff to work with the Santa Fe Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Bicycle Trails Advisory Committee to study the costs and benefits of a pilot project for “green-colored pavement markings in bicycle lanes” at high-risk intersections and report back to the governing body in 60 days.

Mayor Gonzales touts the green lanes as an environmental issue, saying that part of reaching the city’s goal of being “carbon neutral” by 2040 depends “on getting Santa Feans to hop on a bike or bus before they reach for their car keys.”

The wheels are already in motion within city government. A conceptual plan was presented to the bike trails committee in March. The committee approved the plan two weeks ago.

“Right now, we’re working with vendors to get a final cost estimate,” Romero said. “Once we get quotes and figure the costs to implement it, then we’ll take it to Public Works, Finance and the City Council.” The resolution could reach the council for a vote in late May.

Romero said the preliminary allocation for the pilot project is $80,000, including money for a traffic signal detection system. Some intersections have already been identified as potential spots for the pilot project. They include those along Camino Carlos Rey from Zia to Cerrillos Road, and the Richards-Governor Miles and Don Gaspar-Paseo de Peralta intersections.

The city’s busiest and most risky intersection for bicycles, St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road, with train tracks going through its center, will not be included. That’s because the city plans a bicycle/pedestrian underpass in that area.

“We’re hoping to get something down on the pavement by this summer,” Romero said. “That way, we’ll have time to see the effect it has on bicyclists and drivers.”

Other cities report good results

Portland reports positive results so far.

“It’s gone very well,” said Koonce. “The safety record has been very good.”

Koonce said the green pavement has helped to increase driver awareness of bicyclists. The city has seen an uptick in the number of people riding bikes, too.

“There’s a general safety in numbers and the more people there are riding bikes, the more people are seen on bikes. That helps to create an awareness,” he said.

Durango, Colo., has experienced similar results since it put in green bike lanes and bicycle boxes at a half-dozen intersections last summer. “It’s been working great. We haven’t seen any incidents so far, knock on wood,” said Amber Blake, Durango’s director of transportation services and sustainability.

Blake said people on bicycles used to avoid those intersections, but now feel safer traveling those roads. “The usage is up. Cyclists and motorists are respecting the designated areas,” she said.

Durango is using microwave sensors mounted on traffic lights that are aimed at the bicycle boxes. They recognize when there’s a bicyclist waiting to cross the intersection and trigger the traffic light to turn green.

The potential for more

The Santa Fe bicycling community seems to be enthusiastic about the proposed pilot project.

The idea to try out the green bicycle lanes and certain intersections came at the suggestion of David Bell, owner of Mellow Velo bike shop on Marcy Street. He had seen them while vacationing in Santa Monica, Calif.

“I was really impressed with the logical green lane system that they had in town,” he said. “They’re helpful in determining where bikes go and where cars go.”

Bell said he made the suggestion to Mayor Gonzales during the Glow-n-Slow bike cruise last October.

“We were riding out of the Railyard and coming around the corner on Guadalupe, and he says, ‘So where exactly are we supposed to be riding?’ The purpose of these lanes are to create a distinction of where bicycles go and where cars go. So it’s a benefit to both cyclists and motorists,” Bell said.

Stephen Newhall, manager of Rob and Charlie’s bike shop on St. Michael’s Drive, first saw painted bike lanes in Tucson. “The idea is to show inexperienced cyclists the optimum route through an intersection,” said Newhall, a certified instructor with the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).

Like Bushee, Newhall said the city has come a long way in terms of being a bicycle-friendly city since he moved to town.

“Since I got here about 24 years ago, Santa Fe has made amazing advances,” he said. “It was not a good commuting or road cycling city before then.”

Due largely to the work of the Santa Fe Metropolitan Planning Organization, which developed the bicycle trail system; city and county officials who have advocated for safe bicycle routes; and advocates and volunteers from the bicycling community, Santa Fe last year earned a silver designation as a “bicycle-friendly” community from the LAB. That’s the highest rating for any city in New Mexico.

“Since the late 1990s, with every major road re-do, a shoulder or bike lanes have been put in,” Newhall said. “We’re still a long way behind Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Germany, but we’re so much better than we used to be.”

Newhall said Santa Fe is an even better mountain biking community. The city has a silver designation in that regard, too, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it earned gold after the next evaluation.

USA Today recently listed Santa Fe as one of America’s top mountain biking towns, singletracks.com named it one of the top 10 mountain biking destinations in North America and, last year, the International Mountain Biking Association held its World Summit here.

“We’ve been put on the map and we need to continue to foster that,” said Bushee, who sees mountain and road biking as an opportunity for economic development. “Combined, they’re turning out to be a new part of our economy.”

Bushee noted how National Bike to Work Day has become a weeklong event in Santa Fe, punctuated by Outside magazine’s Second Annual Bike & Brew Festival from May 13-17.

She also pointed to the decision by Bicycle Technologies International, a major distributor of bicycle components and accessories, to relocate its headquarters in Santa Fe in 2012. “They chose Santa Fe because they saw the potential here,” she said.

Bushee said there’s still a lot of potential left untapped. She said she’d like to see a shuttle run up to the ski basin where excellent mountain biking trails can be found. She’s excited about the development of the La Tierra trail system on the north side of town where a “flow trail,” requiring little pedaling or braking, is being installed. She complimented Santa Fe County for the work it’s doing to improve the Rail Trail that follows the Santa Fe Southern Railroad tracks from Santa Fe to Eldorado and beyond.

Bushee, longtime chair of the Bicycle Trails Advisory Committee, also has visions of a professional road race to be held around Santa Fe and northern New Mexico, much like the Tour of the Gila around Silver City, or perhaps a permanent high-altitude training center.

Bushee is especially interested in making Santa Fe’s streets safer for bicyclists due to an incident from her childhood. On the eve of her 16th birthday, she was struck by a drunken driver.

“It crushed my bike and crushed my left leg, so it’s been somewhat of a passion for me to educate both motorists and bicyclists,” she said.

Education, enforcement are key

Chandler Rhinehart, who operates Spin Doc bike shop in Eldorado with her husband Kirk, is thrilled that Santa Fe is considering the green bicycle lanes, but hopes people understand what they’re for.

“The biggest problem here is the lack of education for drivers, and the lack of enforcement of the law for both motorists and cyclists,” she said. “Bicyclists need to learn to respect the cars, and cars need to learn to respect bicyclists.”

Rhinehart has witnessed and heard too many stories about bicyclists getting blown off the road by motor vehicles. She’s quick to point out that bicyclists aren’t always angels either, sometimes riding the wrong way down a road or cutting in front of cars.

Both bicyclists and motorists need to follow traffic laws and she teaches mutual respect when she’s out leading group rides. And when laws are being broken, people should be ticketed. “It can’t be just a slap on a wrist,” she said.

Durango’s Blake said that city launched a promotional campaign to educate the public about the green lanes. The city held numerous public forums, ran public service announcements on TV and radio, and posted information on its website.

Asked what advice she’d give to Santa Fe if it follows through with its pilot project, she said, “They should make sure they engage the public.”

While two bicyclists died last year after being struck by Rail Runner trains at spots where bicycle trails or sidewalks cross tracks in Santa Fe, there hasn’t been a bicyclist killed on city streets since Judith Scasserra-Cinciripini was struck head on by a drunk driver on Old Santa Fe Trail nearly 10 years ago.

City officials would like to keep that streak going and feel the green bicycle lanes can help.

“Safety is our No. 1 priority and we’ve tried to follow what are considered best practices for safety concerns,” Bushee said. “We’ve only got enough money to do a pilot project, so this is a bit of an experiment. But we’re hoping that this will help alleviate some of the issues and make it safer for bicyclists at dangerous intersections.”

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With one end at Vista Grande in Eldorado, a five-mile stretch of the Rail Trail is closed while workers stabilize it and give it a better surface. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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Andy Winnegar walks two Brittany spaniels along a trail in Eldorado between Tasa Place and the Eldorado Community Center on April 28, 2015. This section has been resurfaced from asphalt to gravel. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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Tim Gaffney, from Angel Fire, bikes the La Tierra Trails in Santa Fe County. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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Two completed sections of the Rail Trail are divided by an unfinished section along Pen Road where the sidewalk ends into broken pavement and ruts. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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Manny Roybal, of Santa Fe, crosses the Siringo Road intersection as he rides along Camino Carlos Rey in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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