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Hindman, MU work to improve bike safety

Collisions among cyclists, pedestrians and drivers put safety in the spotlight.
Friday, November 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:30 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

In his pedaling dreams, Mayor Darwin Hindman sees a network of bike paths safely connecting all of Columbia to downtown and MU. Hindman, who rides to and from work almost every day, thinks bikes should at least equal cars in importance in road planning and construction.

“A complete street must provide for automobiles, cyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

The reality is that while Columbia has 12 miles of bike lanes and 14 miles of bike trails, their connections to MU are anything but dreamlike. Access around the perimeter of campus can be pretty dicey for both bicyclists and pedestrians.

Once on campus, getting around becomes a free-for-all. Cyclists often must weave through hordes of students walking on sidewalks while listening to iPods and parades of drivers talking on cell phones while negotiating crowded streets. Pedestrians, on the other hand, must constantly watch for distracted cyclists and motorists.

There’s no doubting the climate is dangerous, and campus and MU officials are trying to do something about it. The MU Police Department has received an average of almost 10 reports of bikes or cars hitting pedestrians each of the past four years, according to the MU police Web site.

Some of those accidents are serious. In August, MU student Krysten Chambrot was struck by a car and a city truck as she rode her bicycle in a crosswalk across College Avenue at Rollins Street. Witnesses said she crossed against the light, but the student has since sued the city, the Missouri Department of Transportation and the drivers of both the car and the truck. She blames a possibly faulty light and a lack of driver caution. Chambrot lost a leg as a result of the crash.

Two years earlier, avid cyclist Ellen Thomas, the daughter of Hindman and the wife of PedNet executive director Ian Thomas, was injured at Providence and Stewart roads after she crossed campus on her way home from Boone Hospital Center. She was waiting on her bike at the light when a speeding van ran a red light and slammed a small car into her. The collision flipped her off her bike and onto the car’s hood. She said she was lucky to have spent only one night in the hospital. Her helmet saved her from head injuries.

The intersection’s six injury accidents ranked as the fourth most in Columbia in 2004. The city recently began preliminary work on a tunnel under the intersection that will connect the MKT Trail to downtown and the north side of MU. It should be complete by early summer.

The Thomases said the best way to boost bike safety for MU commuters would be to add bike lanes and easier crossings on Providence Road and College Avenue, the two narrow, high-speed roads that border campus on the west and east, respectively. Both roads lack shoulders, so there is no room to let cars pass.

Ellen Thomas puts it bluntly: “Campus is surrounded by poor roads for bikers.”

Columbia recently became one of four U.S. cities to receive a $25 million grant to create what the mayor describes as an “interconnected, non-motorized, transportation system.” MU will be integral to the project, Hindman said. That means adding good student routes to campus, including a bike trail from apartment complexes on Old 63.

Hindman said he is working with MU Chancellor Brady Deaton and Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services Jackie Jones.

“The university and the city needs to do more, and they are going to,” Hindman said. Deaton was unavailable for an interview.

Still, creating a more bike-friendly campus might be an uphill battle. MU has issued more than 30,000 parking permits and has more than 23,000 parking spaces. Together, they brought more than $6.7 million to parking operations for this academic year. And the number of freshmen bringing cars to campus rises each year.

BIKES ON CAMPUS

More than 27,000 students and about 12,000 full-time employees share MU’s streets and sidewalks. Most have their own opinion about whether the car, the bike or the pedestrian should be king.

“A professor wants to park his or her car outside the front door, and a bicyclist wants to take it into the building,” said Jim Joy, director of MU’s Parking and Transportation Department. Joy has worked since 1979 for the parking department, which runs entirely on parking revenue. He has seen the percentage of freshmen bringing cars to campus rise steadily, passing the 50 percent mark in 2000 and reaching 65 percent this academic year.

MU police ask students and faculty to register their bikes in accordance with a city ordinance; more than 200 new bikes have been registered in each of the past two years. MU has nearly 300 bike racks on campus, and racks and bike accessibility are now a standard inclusion in new building plans, according to Parking and Transportation.

There are no exclusive bike lanes at MU, but MU officials tried at least once to change that. In 2001, MU considered removing parking meters on the east side of Maryland Avenue to create bike lanes, but it later abandoned the plan. Joy said the city, which owns the street, would have required MU to reimburse the lost meter revenue.

So, bike paths at MU essentially are the sidewalks, or wherever there’s space on the streets. A 2005 report on pedestrian safety activities at MU includes no discussion of cyclists, even though pedestrians are forced to share the sidewalk with them.

That can create some confusion, because city ordinances prohibit people from riding bikes on sidewalks downtown. That doesn’t apply at MU, however. Joy said cyclists need to be aware of and courteous to pedestrians. Problems arise when cyclists come up too fast from behind, he said.

MU junior Robert Bailey, who waited in line last week for a free helmet at an MU Bike Rodeo to promote safety, said he alternates between riding on sidewalks and streets. He doesn’t know where he’s supposed to ride and said that he has grazed two pedestrians on campus this year.

“Bike lanes are not needed, but they would help ease the congestion,” he said.

MU sophomore Alisa Reckinger lives on campus and uses her bike about twice a week. She said she has come close to hitting pedestrians on campus sidewalks several times.

“When biking to class I find myself constantly trying to avoid people,“ she said.

Reckinger would like to see MU add bike lanes because “bikers need their own space,” but she feels most insecure on the outskirts of campus where traffic moves faster.

HOW PEDESTRIAN FRIENDLY IS MU?

In 1967, MU closed portions of Conley Avenue, Hitt Street and Ninth Street to accommodate the growing numbers of students at MU. It chose not to close Sixth Street near the Engineering Building and Hitt Street south of Rollins, but continues to examine those options, Joy said.

The department has talked in recent years about closing Rollins, but Joy said that would make campus transportation less efficient.

“There isn’t another good east-west street on campus to carry the extra load,” he said, adding that closing Rollins would push traffic onto Hospital Drive, which is already at capacity.

“When you close a street, you don’t eliminate the need for that traffic to get through,” Joy said. “They will just take another route.”

Closed streets boost safety, but Joy said they give pedestrians and cyclists a false sense that they always have the right of way. That’s not true, because campus vehicles are allowed to drive on closed streets.

“I’m old,” Joy said. “I still look both ways before crossing on closed campus streets.”

While the average of 10 reported accidents per year might seem low at a campus of more than 27,000 students, Capt. Brian Weimer of MU police said some accidents go unreported when there is neither an injury or significant damage. He said the department tickets pedestrians and cyclists who violate traffic laws, but it’s impossible to catch them all. Deaton and UM System President Elson Floyd have approved higher fines for speeding on campus and approved giving tickets for breaking crosswalk rules that prohibit cyclists from riding through them.

An MU police ordinance allows pedestrians to cross streets at 90-degree angles outside designated crosswalks, but vehicles have the right of way in these cases. Other types of jaywalking, especially across College Avenue, have been another source of concern, but both Joy and Weimer agree the College Avenue walking bridge added in 2004 has reduced the number of pedestrians crossing south of Rollins.

CURRENT INITIATIVES

Hindman said promoting safe bike use is a priority in his work with the city and MU. Several efforts are either under way or in the works.

MU and the city, for example, have agreed to install more conspicuous brick crosswalks on University Avenue this winter to see whether they help. Campus Facilities, meanwhile, is designing new barriers to close off Ninth and Hitt streets and Conley Avenue. And then there’s Hindman’s plan to improve bike routes from student housing areas.

PedNet, a group dedicated to promoting alternative and active forms of transportation, has been working with the city to promote the creation of multi-purpose sidewalks, or “pedways,” all over the city for cyclists and pedestrians. The $25 million federal grant will certainly will help with that, and the city has made wider sidewalks and pedways a requirement for any new major streets that are built.

The $150,000 Stewart-Providence tunnel project, however, is perhaps the most visible initiative. Funded by the city and a federal trails grant, Columbia Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said the tunnel was a city priority because the intersection is consistently dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians.

Hindman said the tunnel will help people commuting to downtown, but it probably won’t have a large impact on student transportation because the underpass connects to Elm Street, farther north on campus than desired. So he’s also pushing for ground level improvements for students who won’t use the tunnel. The mayor said the whole intersection desperately needs work.

“The whole thing was done without any consideration for bikers and little for pedestrians,” he said.

All of Providence Road needs more attention, the mayor said. He has directed the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission to explore how to improve the thoroughfare’s accessibility to cyclists. He doubts bike lanes are possible because portions of Providence have lanes only nine feet wide. He said safety islands, crosswalk count-down timers and curb improvements would help. The city, he said, should focus especially on the street’s intersections with Stewart and Stadium Boulevard.

Ellen Thomas said she can’t wait for the Stewart tunnel to be finished. Despite apprehension after her accident, she still uses the route to get to campus and downtown several times each week. She hopes the underpass will be lit to make it more inviting.

One sign that the city is gaining ground is participation in the annual Mayor’s Challenge: Bike, Walk and Wheel,” which encourages residents each May to ride their bikes to work. The weeklong event drew 150 participants in its first year. That number grew to 1,700 in its fourth year.

The mayor is looking to expand his bike challenge to MU. He hopes MU will dedicate a week to promoting student and faculty bike use as their primary commuting method.

“We are on our way to becoming a bike-friendly city,” Hindman said. “We have made a lot of progress over the years, and it’s becoming more rapid. People are going to like what they see.”

A portion of this report first aired Wednesday during the “ABC 17 News at 10.”


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