Skip to Content

Bike Planning Gets Mixed Support from Local Officials

Bike planning gets mixed support from local officials
by Paul Simpson

Faced with rising gas prices and conclusive evidence that physical activity improves health, more local commuters appear to be leaving their cars at home.

"Traffic levels in the borough have fallen in the past year. People are driving less," said State College Borough Public Works Director Mark Whitfield.

But if commuters are now hopping on bikes, they’re quickly learning how hard it is to get around.

Studies compiled by the National Center for Bicycling and Walking show that:

· We now walk eight miles less per day than in 1950.

· A community that is easy to bike and walk in is a healthier community.

· People who live in bikeable, walkable neighborhoods weigh, on average, six pounds less and walk 50 percent more than those in typical sprawling suburban neighborhoods.

· Families can save up to $10,000 annually by giving up one car.

· Regular bicycling in place of some car trips can halve the risk of a heart attack.

A 2006 study by Transportation Alternatives, a New York–based advocacy group founded in 1973, showed that compared to quieter neighborhoods, those who live on streets with heavy traffic have more negative perceptions of their block; have fewer relationships with their neighbors; are more frequently interrupted during sleep, meals and conversations; and spend less time walking, shopping and playing with their children

Local and county transportation plans include bicycle facilities in the effort to reverse the ill effects of heavy reliance cars, but not all officials support this effort. The vast majority of trips in the Centre Region continue to be made by car. Over half of all car trips are less than two miles in length, a distance easily biked or walked, according to local traffic studies.

Yet one Bush administration official essentially blamed bike paths for bridge collapses.

"There's about probably some 10 percent to 20 percent of the current spending that is going to projects that really are not transportation … Some of that money is being spent on things, as I said earlier, like bike paths or trails," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said on PBS Newshour in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. She declared that wasteful non-transportation uses of federal transportation funding are the main reason the gas tax should not be raised to fix failing infrastructure.

In a letter to Peters, the Centre Region Bicycle Coalition joined the national outcry against the apparent redefinition of "transportation" to exclude all but motor vehicles.

"In so doing, you and your administration have become part of the problem that is driving the rapid worsening of the obesity epidemic, sprawl development, community fragmentation, environmental degradation, traffic congestion, and the attitude of disdain and outright hostility many drivers increasingly exhibit toward bicyclists and pedestrians," the letter said. CRBC implored her to consider the harm done by failing to promote a shift from cars to biking and walking, and by ignoring evidence that building more and larger roads only leads to more traffic and more congestion. Peters responded to the letter but never retracted her statements.

At the local level, support for biking and walking from at least one township is equally disconcerting.

"This is an actual official map that details future township transportation needs," College Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh declared after the council removed all proposed bike and pedestrian paths from its official transportation map, producing a 25-year plan consisting only of roads. Responding to opposition to the removal, Councilman Forrest Remick said the move was intended to expedite the planning process and that a separate bike and pedestrian map would be moved expeditiously through council. That map still has not been produced.

"Until a separate bike-pedestrian plan is approved, the township will continue to require and or encourage bike-pedestrian connections to all proposed parks and residential developments and will continue to seek intermunicipal connections," Brumbaugh said.

Despite questions about the federal government’s current level of support for bicycling, most Centre Region governments continue to express strong support and are moving forward with programs to increase bike use.

Bikeway network

In the past two years, Centre Region’s extensive bikeway network has been expanded with new multiuse paths, on-street bike lanes and signed bike routes. State College Borough has led the effort with new bike lanes on Garner Street, directional route signage and the recently installed Foster Avenue East-West Bikeway.

Part of the borough’s plan for greenhouse gas reduction includes more bicycle infrastructure and increased efforts to encourage use of bicycles for trips within the borough. The borough has sought the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly City designation. New paths have also been completed in the surrounding townships, including the Puddintown Road extension of the College Township bikeway, the Science Park bike path and a new path along Whitehall Road from Atherton Street to Waupelani Drive.

The concern expressed most frequently about the bikeway network is its failure to access the downtown core and campus.

"Downtown is the hardest piece of the network to put in place because of the narrow streets, demand for on-street parking and traffic volume," said cyclist and Borough Design Review Board member Kevin Gombotz. "The bike lanes and paths all stop short of downtown, dumping you out on busy streets." He cited the bike lane on Garner Street, which ends south of Beaver Avenue, as an example. "All but the most confident cyclist can be intimidated by the lack of bike facilities in the downtown core."

Although the Foster bikeway was criticized by some cyclists because it seemed to bypass rather than connect to downtown, Borough Transportation Commissioner Rick Hirsch had a broader view.

"The Foster Avenue East-West bikeway was a big victory for bicyclists in town. I see this as a necessary step towards improving things in the Central Business District on the Beaver-College corridors," Hirsch said.

CRBC is putting forward a bike plan to access the business district. The plan calls for a bike-bus lane on College Avenue to be created by removing parking on the campus side of the street. The Downtown Improvement District sees heavy usage of these spaces by students going to class, combined with a surplus of parking in borough garages, as factors that have reduced their importance to downtown businesses in recent years, according to Jordyn Drayton, co-owner of Freeze Thaw Cycles on Calder Alley and member of the Borough Transportation Commission who has met with DID officials.

The lane would connect to the proposed bikeway coming west from Lemont. Eastbound bike traffic would be accommodated with a bike lane on Beaver Avenue, in addition to an eastbound bike lane on Calder, so bikes, but not cars, could go both directions. Such contraflow bicycle traffic on one-way streets is in successful use in several cities in the United States and Canada.

Completion of the Garner bike lanes to College Avenue and development of lanes on Burrowes Street will connect to the Penn State campus bike lanes planned for Shortlidge Road and Burrowes.

"CRBC’s plan for downtown bike facilities joins the pieces to create a real transportation network," Drayton said. "It will dramatically improve bike access to downtown and campus, and will make State College truly bike-friendly."

Winter Maintenance

Although the borough clears snow from its paths, lack of winter maintenance by the surrounding townships limits year-round bikeway use. Many northern U.S. cities plow paths and have seen steadily increasing winter use. Minneapolis currently maintains more than 50 miles of path in winter. About 4,000 of the city’s 15,000 bike commuters are using the paths all winter, according to Minneapolis bicycle coordinator Don Pflaum.

In 2001, CRBC submitted proposals for winter maintenance to all Centre Region municipalities. The proposal was taken up by the Centre Region Council of Governments but failed because of opposition from Ferguson and College townships.

"We spent a lot of money on a bike path that nobody uses," said former College Township Council President Chris Exarchos. "We will not spend more money plowing it for people not to use it in winter."

After the measure failed, State College Borough decided to begin winter maintenance, hoping the townships would follow suit.

"The only complaints we’ve had are from people who want to know why snow removal on the Orchard Park path ends at Blue Course Drive," Whitfield said. "I have to explain to them that the borough only plows to the Ferguson Township line.

Whitfield said there haven’t been any problems with the snow removal and he has received a number of thank-you notes from people who use the trail for exercise and to reach downtown and campus.

"Winter maintenance is vital on bikeways," said CRBC President and year-round bike commuter Chuck Anderson. "Everyone who agrees should contact their township manager and council members to ask that they begin clearing paths."

Greenway network

The Centre County Greenway plan, adopted in 2007, is seen by many bike advocates and planners as a template on which the bicycle transportation network can be further developed. Centre County planner Beth Rider has worked on the plan since its inception.

"By helping guide projects that will connect Centre County's rich recreation, historic and cultural resources, and connect into the neighboring six counties, this Recreation and Greenway Plan has great potential for expanding our bikeway network," Rider said.

"The trail was once thought to be a pipe dream," said Rick Gilmore, president of Centre Rails to Trails Association, who was the driving force behind development of the Bellefonte Central Rail Trail, a 17-mile corridor that will eventually connect State College and Bellefonte. Gilmore pointed to the improvements in traffic congestion, tourism, property values, health and air quality the trail is expected to bring as reasons why a broad coalition of people supports the trail’s completion.

"The first 1.3-mile segment connecting State College with Toftrees via the Penn State Arboretum has already given us a glimpse of what the future can bring," he said.

Paul Simpson is a local physician and vice president of the Centre Region Bike Coalition.


Secretary Peters' response

I'm surprised to see the inclusion of Secretary Peters' on-air statement but not an acknowledgement of the response she sent to the CRBC regarding their concerns.

Here it is, copied from the CRBC web site:

Thank you for your e-mail about the importance of bicycling and walking as a form of
transportation. I share your interest in a safe, efficient mullimodal transportation system.

Your e-mail discussed comments I made during a recent interview regarding the importance of effectively prioritizing major transportation spending decisions. These comments were in no way intended as an indictment of bicycle and pedestrian investments broadly. Rather, they were part of a much larger critique of the processes by which investment decisions are increasingly being made at the Federal level. Too often, political influence and power arc guiding transportation spending priorities, instead of merit, competition, data, and analysis.

The U.S. Department of Transportation believes that bicyclists and pedestrians are legitimate and welcome users of our Nation's transportation system. They are a healthy part of the solution to congestion in our urban areas. We also believe that States, metropolitan planning organizations, and transit agencies are in the best position to understand the unique needs of their own communities, which is why we have continued to strongly support broad eligibility under the Federal-aid program for a diverse mix of transportation investments, including bicycle and pedestrian transportation facilities.

Programs that improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians arc also eligible for Federal safety dollars. Although the number of bicyclist and pedestrian injuries and fatalities has dropped by 10 percent since 1994, fatalities have increased in the last 2 years, and this is not acceptable.

Thank you again for voicing your opinion. I hope to continue to work with bicycling and
pedestrian advocates as we face the challenges of meeting our country's changing transportation needs.

That's what makes a website especally useful...

Thanks for your comment, TravisP.

The nice thing about our starting to publish these web articles is that perople can now add to and respond to and correct and simply comment on the material in the print articles.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Dr. Radut | page