• A big step toward pedalling
    November 18,2012
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    Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo

    Cyclists race up Cliff Street in Montpelier during the annual Cliffhanger race last summer.
    There’s more to cycling than the now infamous Tour de France. Mountain bike riders charge through the woods, over obstacles and around turns so tight you wonder how their bikes move that way. Road cyclists speed along on paved surfaces for miles while hybrids and those with a bit wider tires and beefier geometry handle a combination of paved and dirt roads. Racing events are flourishing in the state and, along with cities across the nation, commuter bikes are on the rise in popularity and use. Even unicycles and adult tricycles have their enthusiasts.

    Cycling to and from work, cycling for recreation and cycling for fitness and health may be driving the industry today. On the East Coast, Boston, Washington, D.C. and New York City, among others, promote commuting for economic and environmental reasons and support a growing network of Bikeshare stations offering tourists, students, shoppers and business people the opportunity to ride from place to place on shared bikes.

    The League of American Bicyclists identifies criteria for cities, states, businesses and universities to be rated as Bike Friendly. The standards are neatly designated as the 5Es: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation. Burlington, for example, recently earned the silver status and is currently going for the gold. It is the only Vermont city so labeled. Vermont as a state is ranked 18th. A Bike Friendly Community welcomes cyclists for transportation and recreation. In addition to creating a safe environment for cyclists on their daily commute, a Bike Friendly Community takes a chunk out of heavy traffic, encourages an active, fit lifestyle, and attracts visitors to come and spend their tourist dollars.

    On Wednesday, Nov. 7, the first Montpelier Bike Summit convened in the Vermont College of Fine Arts where over 70 interested individuals gathered to identify the benefits and challenges of building a better cycling community.

    “Montpelier Mayor John Hollar deserves kudos for showing the kind of leadership that will improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians in Vermont,” wrote Nancy Schulz, Executive Director, VT Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition, in an e-mail the next day. The cast of attendees was as varied as the types of bicycles on the market. Appropriately, friends and members of the general cycling public, athletes and fitness enthusiasts were joined by representatives of business, Community Connections, the Board of Public Works, law enforcement and, of course, the Mayor whose goal is to “make Montpelier nationally recognized as bike friendly.”

    Initial individual introductions raised concerns and identified issues to be considered. There were many reasons to attend this first summit. “I often feel threatened or unsafe,” said one. “We need more mountain bike trails with a connecting network,” suggested another. A surprising number of attendees ride year-’round. To “make cycling a more accessible option for more people and to make the world a better place for cyclists,” were unarguable sentiments.

    For road cyclists and commuters, safety is a blatant concern. New laws give teeth to delineating and enforcing the rights and responsibilities shared by cyclists and drivers. Better education is suggested. Should it be mandated? The Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, for example, has an educational program in place and is available to present to schools or organizations.

    Street paving, bike lanes, markings, shoulders, even street sweeping are components of a better place for riding.

    In 2005, the National Complete Streets Coalition was formed to act in an advocacy role to help cities and communities make their streets, roads and sidewalks safer and more user friendly. In 2011 Complete Streets came to Vermont by way of the Legislature and includes “planning, development, construction, or maintenance, it is the policy of this state for municipalities to consider ‘complete streets’ principles, which are principles of safety and accommodation of all transportation system users, regardless of age, ability, or modal preference.” (19 V.S.A. Section 309d. Policy for Municipally Managed Transportation)

    There is little argument that miles of scenic dirt roads provide unparalleled recreational opportunity for many levels of riders. Trail systems are increasingly more available with a clear need to integrate them into a usable network available to many. Perhaps localities can learn from the success of the Kingdom Trails in the Northeast Kingdom. Well-designed trails are being developed across the state. An area does not need to reinvent the wheel. Vermont’s terrain challenges as it welcomes mountain bike riders. The organization and tireless efforts to engage and value landowners as demonstrated by VAST’s snowmobile trails should encourage similar efforts on behalf of mountain bike trails and use.

    Youth programs, festivals, events, races, organized rides – oh, the possibilities are limited only by time, energy and budget.

    Gwen Hallsmith, Director, Department of Planning and Community Development, said: “Cities all over the country have discovered that bringing bicyclists into town is good for everyone. Local residents are healthier with safe bike routes, and the bicycle tourists bring real value into the community. I completely support the mayor’s initiative to make Montpelier a nationally recognized bicycle and pedestrian friendly community.”

    The first step has been taken by Montpelier. Based on the collective energy demonstrated at this first summit, more will follow. Perhaps it is fitting that the Capital City is leading the way. Can others be far behind? Will the bicycle friendly network extend beyond these city limits to other Vermont towns and communities?

    At a time when words like economy, environment, health and fitness make headlines, pursuing alternative transportation and recreational options is prudent.
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