Green-lighting the green lane downtown

Stephen Mally/The Gazette

Marko Vojcanin (from left), regional sales director for Ennis-Flint, spreads around the green paint as Dan Bailey, paint supervisor for LL Pelling, pours it out as they work on a demonstration   bike lane on the corner of Third Avenue SE and Third Street SE in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday.
Stephen Mally/The Gazette Marko Vojcanin (from left), regional sales director for Ennis-Flint, spreads around the green paint as Dan Bailey, paint supervisor for LL Pelling, pours it out as they work on a demonstration bike lane on the corner of Third Avenue SE and Third Street SE in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday.

So the city of Cedar Rapids painted a green square on Third Avenue SE.

Some looked upon it and saw the future. Some looked upon it and saw red. And still others saw nothing, because it’s pretty small.

I gather it was a historic spot, too, for a few hours Wednesday. The first and only green bike lane in Iowa, until they painted another one in Waterloo the same day.

This is a paint test, and only a test, of the notion that making a bike lane bright green might make it more visible to the motoring public. The special skid-resistant paint was rolled upon a wafer-small portion of the famous/infamous Third Avenue downtown bike lane, which has sparked some local debate since its creation.

Why is it there? Nobody uses it! Cars drive in it! It goes nowhere!

The painted green square shifted that debate back into high gear. On The Gazette’s Facebook page (Visit! Like!) Rick Smith’s story on the paint test drew dozens of comments and more than 150 “likes.” Some folks swiftly dubbed the painted lane idea as a stupid waste of money, although it’s being paid for with a grant, not with local property taxes.

Speaking of taxes, those darn cyclists don’t even pay gas taxes to maintain the roads and fancy bike lanes, a few commenters charged. Not so, bike backers countered. Most cyclists own vehicles and pay all sorts of taxes. I’d add that they pay sales tax on bikes and assorted accessories, and local sales taxes now pay for local streets.

Speaking of cyclists, the commentariat argued, they don’t follow traffic laws, so motorists have to deal with their recklessness. Speaking of motorists, they bully, berate and crowd cyclists, so bike riders have to fear for their lives.

Cyclists have a right to be on roads. Cyclists should stay on trails. You get the idea.

Reading this stuff, my high school’s production of “Oklahoma” popped into my head. How would Rogers and Hammerstein handle this?

“The cyclist and the motorist should be friends.

“Oh, the cyclist and the motorist should be friends.

“One likes to pump those pedals, the other drives two tons of metal

“But there’s no reason why they cain’t be friends.”

OK. That’s the last production number, I swear.

I think that green lane is a swell idea, assuming the paint passes its test. If we’re going to have bike lanes like the one on Third, in the midst of the traffic flow, it’s probably a good idea to make them clearly visible. A lot of the complaints I’ve heard stem from confusion about that lane. That green paint is anything but confusing.

Truth is, bike lanes of varying designs are now a transportation necessity. More and more people want to ride to work and all of the other places most of us drive. Maybe they’re trying to save money, or get in shape or just enjoy being outdoors. And just like drivers take roads for granted, eventually, bike lanes also will be a given.

There are all sorts of reasons why a city would want to encourage cycling. For starters, more bikes means less vehicle traffic and less demand for scarce parking. From a public safety standpoint, giving cyclists their own piece of the road is a good idea both for pedal-pumpers and for drivers. There always will be irresponsible people on bikes and behind the wheel, but bike lanes, at least, help defuse the battle for space.

Plans to connect local trails could have an even larger effect on the pedalling masses than expanded bike lanes. Heck, I might even get my cruiser down off the garage wall when Marion and Cedar Rapids are fully linked by trail. It’s been a while since I was a regular rider. Do they still put baseball cards in the spokes?

I suspect some of the backlash against lanes and trails here is rooted in the persistent notion that some shady elites are trying to make Cedar Rapids into something it’s not. Seattle on the Cedar, or something like that. I hear this often. Parklets, planters and bike lanes. What’s next, vegan free-range roundabouts?

But lots of American cities, both trendy and traditional, are wrestling with this issue. Some towns are trying “buffered” or “protected” bike lanes, with a barrier — curbing, dividers, parking spaces — between bikes and motorists. In some places, protected lanes are working. In others, they’ve caused problems with traffic flow and congestion. Boise, Idaho, for example, just last week voted to dismantle its downtown bike lanes and start over.

But Des Moines has successfully gone all in on bike friendliness, even offering bikes for rent in its downtown core. Bicycling.com ranked Des Moines the nation’s 44th most bike-friendly city in 2012. Omaha came in at 35th, tied with Pittsburgh. That’s a former cow town and the Rust Belt.

One challenge is figuring out which roads should have bike lanes, because gathering data on bicycle traffic can be difficult. The online magazine Wired reported this week that Oregon transportation officials and others are using data collected by the popular app Strava, which runners and bikers use to track their runs and rides.

With more information on where bikers ride, planners can make better decisions on where cyclists’ use would justify the creation of bike lanes. But better-informed decisions can help cities avoid what happened in San Antonio, where the city spent $1 million to add a bike lane only to turn around and spend $700,000 to remove it after residents’ complaints.

So the bike lanes are here to stay, both green and non-green, and more are likely on the way. So long as the city makes thoughtful decisions on where they should go, and listens to good public input, there’s really no reason they cain’t be a success.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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