All across the country, cities are rolling out protected bike lanes in unprecedented numbers. Early adopters like New York City and Chicago have been joined by a bevy of contenders as metropolises race to provide a better riding environment for all users from 8 to 88. These facilities have been hugely popular and have resulted in phenomenal gains in ridership numbers and often have increased safety of their respective corridors.
However, the benefits of safer bikeways continue to largely elude the residents of the Inland Empire. After years of being the most sprawled region in the nation and having the worst street environment for vulnerable road users in the state of California, leaving that legacy behind has been a long, drawn-out process. Thus far, the response has been what are largely meaningless token efforts in the grand scheme of things.
Both SANBAG and WRCOG maintain non-motorized transportation plans, though they’re slightly different. The SANBAG document is mostly a snapshot at the city level and includes information on what each city and town has done and will be doing, but doesn’t include a lot of regional connectivity. Meanwhile, the WRCOG document [PDF] is primarily focused on establishing non-motorized corridors, many of them located along flood control channels, but doesn’t really give much information on what is occurring at the local levels. Those county-level documents are augmented by Bike and Trails Master Plans that have been completed by various cities.
But when it comes down to it, much of that planning has turned out to be useless. Hardly any of the Riverside trails have been completed and while several cities have been working on the stuff that is contained in their local Bike/Trails Master Plans, a lot of it is also just fluff. Most of those documents take the easy way out and put bikeways where it would be convenient and they usually disappear completely at intersections and other conflict points. Much of the stuff that might be better either doesn’t connect anywhere or is waiting for funding.
The result is a bunch of Class II ‘BIK LANs’* next to four- and six-lane arterials, hardly an 8-88 environment. That is standard even in new developments, while older ones are left with sharrows if anything at all.
Furthermore, compromises in design to meet LOS (level of service) requirements was often at the detriment of planned bikeways. Does an intersection “need” a dedicated turn lane? No problem, just end the bike lane sooner!
Change is Afoot
All of that is about to change. The passage of SB 743 in 2013 ripped out measuring traffic impacts using LOS from an environmental review done under CEQA. In its stead, a new metric of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) has been proposed. While LOS measures how fast cars can move through a segment of road or an intersection, VMT measures how many more miles a development would add to the average for the region.
As an area with few high-paying/skilled jobs, the Inland Empire would be particularly impacted as many of the residents working in such industries make daily treks to LA/OC/SD counties for employment. Until more skilled jobs start coming this direction, it will be exceedingly hard for a developer looking to build anything but “affordable” housing to show that the residents are likely to not drive 40 miles each way each day for work. Which is fine. Trips to work of that magnitude will likely not be mitigated effectively for years to come.
But SB 743 is a powerful tool for local bikeway and livable streets advocates. While local residents may continue to drive to surrounding counties for work, that’s not all the driving they do. It is estimated that as high as 40% of all driving is done to destinations that are two or fewer miles away. That is a distance that can be biked easily by the vast majority of people, but they aren’t going to do it in the presence of lots of motorized traffic that is traveling anywhere from five to ten times as fast as they are.
That’s where protected bike lanes and other next generation bikeways become crucial. Under the LOS-based CEQA, traffic was accommodated, not mitigated. That resulted in wide, fast roads and vast wastelands where they meet. Under the new rules being finalized, developers would be required to provide actual mitigation measures that would make sure that VMT is not raised. Protected bikeways allow them to still build while lowering local VMT to counter the added VMT of residents driving to the surrounding counties for work. That offers incredible opportunities for great bikeway connections within cities and the region.
New Standards of Excellence
There has been some progress on toward getting better bikeways in that AB 1358, California’s Complete Streets Act, does require all users, including bicyclists, to be considered in General Plan Circulation Elements as an integral part of the transport network. Unfortunately, many of those standards coming out of those plans are still not adequate for providing a network of protected bikeways usable by all aged 8-88.
Last year’s passage of AB 1193 changes all of that. With Caltrans being required to finish standards for protected bike lanes within the next year, agencies in the region and indeed the entire state will soon have the life-saving option of protected bikeways at their disposal. Hopefully, Caltrans goes a step beyond the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide and includes separation criteria in the standards. A Class II bike lane might be a decent choice for somewhere like a neighborhood street, but it really shouldn’t even enter consideration for arterials showing traffic counts of 35000 pce and a speed limit of 50 MPH.
Those two changes are the foundation to getting the best bikeways included from the very beginning without having to beg for it. Planning is certainly good, but bikeways shouldn’t be limited to only those included in a plan and certainly not be seen as “extras” contingent on all the stars aligning. Fortunately, it is now easy for agencies to make sure that protected bikeways are automatically included. Building an road where traffic counts will warrant multiple lanes? There should be no question that a Class II bike lane is no longer a viable option. Likewise, it should be obvious that if there is a protected bikeway on the street, then it needs to continue as a protected intersection whenever the parallel road has signals too.
A Future of Better Biking
Bicycles should play a crucial role in the future of the Inland Empire and it is hoped that the updating of standards plays a pivotal role in that endeavor. However, it is still important that IE residents stay vigilant and make sure that the public officials are fulfilling their duties. Active involvement is needed to ensure that the standards truly provide the best biking environment. Several cities have master plans for bikeways/trails as well as various goals and policies seeking to support biking. It’s time to make sure that those promises become action.
*A ‘BIK LAN’ is a bike lane that is so narrow that the words “bike” and “lane” can’t even fit without some parts, generally the letter “e”, ending up in the gutter pan.