Bike lanes would build on strengths
Allentown Morning Call
Monday, March 19, 2012
By Thomas Hylton
Allentown has high hopes for its $158 million hockey arena, which will anchor a hotel, restaurant, office complex, and parking. The city anticipates millions of dollars in spin-off development for new offices, retail, upscale residential, and more parking.
Like Allentown, scores of cities have pinned revitalization hopes on expensive glamour projects like convention centers, aquariums, and enclosed malls, with mixed results. Let’s hope Allentown’s effort is a resounding success.
Meanwhile, there are far less costly ways the city can build on its strengths to enhance its quality of life and attract middle class families. That’s why I favor the proposed bike lanes on Linden and Turner streets, which take maximum advantage of existing assets: high density housing; an efficient street network; and one of the finest park systems in Pennsylvania.
In the world of cars, center city Allentown is severely disadvantaged. Unlike the suburbs, there’s no easy place to park. In the world of pedestrians and bicyclists, however, the situation is reversed. Everything in downtown Allentown is within easy walking and biking distance – something that’s hard if not impossible in most suburbs.
Bicycles can travel three times faster than walkers, and saddlebags provide space for belongings. Bikes can be conveniently stored on most sidewalks. Every destination in downtown Allentown is a short bike ride from everywhere else, and the city’s park system, with its ample greenery and biking trails, is easily accessible. For example, it’s just two miles from Seventh Street to Cedar Creek Park via Linden Street – less than 15 minutes by bike.
During the last century, cars have become so fundamental to our lives it’s hard to imagine any alternatives, ever. But as oil prices continue to rise along with obesity rates, there’s a growing appreciation for places like Allentown, which have become known as “heart-healthy communities" because exercise can be integrated into daily life.
But we need to install bike lanes. While audacious bicyclists like mixing with auto traffic, the vast majority of potential bicyclists will never ride on a busy street without bike lanes. In countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, where bicycles are a serious form of transportation, bike lanes are found on virtually all city streets, rural roads, and plenty of places where cars can’t go.
Replacing one lane of car traffic on Linden and Turner streets with bicycle lanes isn’t as unusual as it might seem. In the last 15 years, transportation planners from Seattle to Toronto to New York have imposed “road diets” on dozens of streets, reducing travel lanes to slow traffic and create space for bicycle lanes, parking, and landscaping.
Eight years ago, my town of Pottstown narrowed our main street from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction, providing room for back-in angle parking on one side of the street and 5-foot bicycle lanes on both sides. For the cost of painting new lines and adjusting traffic light arms, we increased on-street parking by 25 per cent, slowed down traffic, and made our downtown safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
One outgrowth has been a bike share program, sponsored by our local health and wellness foundation, that allows anyone to register for a free bicycle to use in the daytime. It’s our modest version of a system increasingly employed worldwide from Washington to Paris to Melbourne.
Concerns that “road diets” like those proposed for Linden and Turner streets will back up traffic are overblown. There is no better framework for dispersing traffic than Allentown’s grid system of streets. If Linden Street is congested, for example, there are plenty of alternative routes, such as Chew, Liberty, Allen, and Tilghman streets.
Besides, slower traffic reduces the number and severity of accidents and makes streets safer and more pleasant for the people who live there. Linden and Turner Street residents don’t want raceways or feeder routes outside their front door.
The city has invested tens of millions into the arena project with no guarantee of success. Bike lanes, on the other hand, are inexpensive to install and easily reversible. Let’s give them a try.