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Columbia's PedNet wants to be the model for a new way to get around town

With a multi-million-dollar price tage, the project hopes to get Columbians out of their cars — and onto the city's sidewalks and trails.
Saturday, May 5, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Corri Flaker, left, and Fred Schmidt look at a map of Ash Street before they measure its width. Ash Street was measured as part of the initial surveying for the PedNet project, a federally funded program to encourage non motorized transportation through trails, sidewalks and bike lanes.

Beginning this summer, and for at least the next three years, Columbians will see changes designed to make bicycling and walking a more attractive alternative to driving.

With the help of a federal grant awarded to Columbia, the city wants to make biking and walking easier by connecting a series of trails, lanes, routes and paths that are easy to find, easy to use and safe.

In Portland, Ore.

In 1991, Portland had 78 miles of bikeways and an estimated 2,850 daily bike trips made by residents. By 2006, the city’s bicycle network was used for 11,956 daily trips, an increase of about 320 percent. And the numbers keep rising. Mia Birk, program manager for Portland’s bike plan from 1993 to 1999, said even without any major changes or construction, bike traffic in Portland went up 18 percent last year. “One of the things I like about projects like ours is that it creates tremendous changes with low cost,” Birk said. “Building an interchange can cost hundreds of millions of dollars; building a $20 million bike plan can affect a tremendous amount of change. It’s very cost-effective.

Keeping tabs on PedNet

The PedNet Project holds committee meetings and sets up public input meetings. A list of the meetings can be found at the city’s Web site at gocolumbiamo.com/PedNet_Project. The site also includes a link asking people to submit comments and ideas.

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People use Columbia’s trails for a variety of reasons.

Dan Mittelberg, of Hannibal, often comes to Columbia for business and recreation. Whatever the reason, he usually brings his bicycle.

“When I’m down here on business, I always bring my bike down and ride the trails,” he said.

He enjoys riding for a few reasons: It’s good for his health; it’s good for the environment; and with the rising price of gas, it’s cheaper than driving a car.

The importance of bicycling is something he wants his 12-year-old twin boys to understand.

“I like to ride the trails, and I’m getting (the twins) started on it,” Mittelberg said.

He is also pleased to see that Columbia is starting to pay more attention to bicyclists.

“Widening roads and putting in bike lanes helps,” he said. “I’m starting to see that here in the (road) planning.”

Mittelberg uses his bike only on Columbia’s trails, but he said better road planning and connectivity are an important consideration for him and his family as they are weighing a move to Columbia. If the family moves to Columbia, Mittelberg said he intends to use his bike to get around.

That is exactly what the city wants.

Columbia is planning to make changes and improvements to its trails, roads and sidewalks with the help of the federally funded nonmotorized transport pilot program, known here as the PedNet project.

Congress selected Columbia and three other pilot communities for the program: Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; Marin County, Calif.; and Sheboygan County, Wis.

By 2010, people will see the striped bike lanes and routes, the creation of trails, the redesign of eight major intersections, a new pedestrian overpass and a host of other projects. Initiatives and concepts include bike boulevards, new striping techniques, more comprehensive signs and maps and a downtown bike center.

The goal is two-fold: To get people out of their cars and onto their bicycles and to act as a model for other communities around the nation.

Chip Cooper is the president and a long-time member of the local PedNet Coalition, a not-for-profit advocacy group for bicycling and walking that helped Columbia land the federal grant. (The PedNet project and PedNet Coalition are separate entities.)

“The eyes of the nation are on us now,” Cooper said. “Hopefully, we can create a record for other cities around the country as evidence.”

The city is drawing on several resources for the PedNet project, including the example Portland, Ore., has set for cities expanding their trails.

Portland started its trail network in 1990, making it one of the first U.S. cities to do so. Seventeen years later, it is more connected than ever with 263 miles of bikeways.

Mia Birk, who was program manager for Portland’s bike plan from 1993 to 1999, now travels the nation to advise cities on their trail systems. She has been talking with PedNet manager Ted Curtis about Portland’s successes and failures and Columbia’s options.

“Columbia has the benefit of not having to start from scratch,” she said. “You have to think of it as a puzzle.”

Piecing it together

The PedNet project is working to make Columbia an interconnected city with 125 miles of new trails and paths — more than double the current 53 miles.

The project carries a $32 million budget.

Since projects of this size often change, there’s an expectation that some spending will drop off the list. Because of this, the city plans to spend $28 million.

A breakdown of the spending plan shows 83 percent for construction, 8 percent for promotion and education, 5 percent for staffing and the remaining 4 percent for a pooled fund for the four selected communities that will pay for reports and surveys they must produce for Congress.

The federal grant accounts for $22 million, while the other $6 million will come from capital funds for projects the city was already going to undertake that have now been rolled over into the PedNet project.

For example, PedNet has absorbed parts of the 2025 Columbia Area Transportation Survey Organization plan that the PedNet Coalition helped create. The bicycle-pedestrian portion of the organization’s plan includes what the city’s streets, trails and paths would look like by 2025. The plan resembles a wheel with spokes, showing a loop of paths and trails around the city, with arterial and collector streets feeding in and out of the loop.

The PedNet project is speeding up parts of that plan, said Cooper, PedNet Coalition’s president.

Cooper said streets will be built according to new standards that promote alternative travel, such as having pedways and striped lanes for cyclists.

It is an idealized goal, he said.

“We viewed this as a generational gift. We were on our way to creating a comprehensive network, which helped us become a candidate for the pilot program,” Cooper said. “The (PedNet) project dramatically accelerated that goal. For a time I thought it would take 30 to 40 years. I’m excited I will get to see this in my lifetime. Before, I didn’t think that was the case.”

Construction plans

Of the 125 new miles of network, half would be bike lanes and a quarter would be shared-use paths or trails for nonmotorized travel. The remaining 31 miles would be bike routes and bike boulevards.

Bike boulevards are one of the concepts in Portland, Ore., and will be something new for Columbia’s streets. These boulevards are typically on side streets, often located in residential neighborhoods.

“Bike boulevards work very well for people who are timid to ride alongside car traffic even in bike lanes,” Birk said.

Boulevards are meant to break up the flow of car traffic and make bike travel more friendly by using methods such as closing a street to cars or converting two-way streets to a one-way street for cars and dedicating more space to cyclists.

A boulevard is being considered for the stretch of William Street between University Avenue and Broadway.

Bike routes would be shared by cars and bikes and would be marked with signs or symbols of arrows or bicycles. Two possible routes are being considered on Ash and Worley streets.

Bike lanes 4 to 6 feet wide on streets or shoulders would make up a majority of the new network. Planners are considering new techniques and color markings that have proved successful in Portland and other cities, such as painting the entire width of the bike lane where bicycles merge with cars. These lanes are planned for major streets such as Providence Road and Stadium Boulevard.

To determine where striping is needed in Columbia, a temporary crew has been measuring streets, taking stock of street gratings and drainage systems and identifying streets scheduled for resurfacing in the next few years.

Curtis, the PedNet project’s manager, said water-based paint will be used for striping in case changes need to be made, and the project is using a striping guidebook the city of Chicago compiled.

Once the field work is complete, striping will begin. Curtis plans on having between 10 and 20 miles of roads striped by this summer, with 80 percent of the total miles complete by next year.

Other construction is planned to make these paths and trails connect to create an integrated network.

PedNet has decided to redesign eight major intersections and make them more pedestrian-friendly by using countdown timers, medians, traffic islands, striping and major construction to better align them.

Three of the intersections are scheduled to be completed this year, and the remaining five are scheduled for completion in 2008. The intersection changes are budgeted at $2.6 million.

Two pedestrian overpasses are also on the project list.

A $2 million overpass across Interstate 70 at Clinkscales Road would connect to Cosmo Park, with a new trail in the park connecting with the Bear Creek Trail.

“Have you tried getting from Columbia Mall to Cosmo Park?” Cooper asked. “Kids have to be driven to their soccer there. We could have the potential of kids biking to their games.”

Another potential project is repairing or replacing the existing overpass on Providence Road near Douglass High School.

“People don’t use that overpass because it’s unsafe, poorly designed and unattractive,” Curtis said. “It’s ugly and it doesn’t work.”

Plans include building an extended ramp, removing the covered stairwells and having open railings for visibility as people cross Providence Road.

This overpass, Curtis said, would connect to the network via a planned bike lane on Park Avenue.

“That area has a lot of pedestrian needs,” Curtis said.

The idea, he said, is to turn that overpass, which would cost $1 million, into a “signature entrance” for the city.

“I want to see if we can change that ugly duckling into a swan,” Curtis said.

He sees the overpass as having “huge potential for marketing and public relations, but people don’t see it yet.”

Sidewalks and pedways, sidewalks that are 8 feet wide, are the final piece of the planned construction.

Sidewalks along major streets and other roads that will form the network of trails will be repaired, rebuilt and, in some cases, created.

PedNet’s budget for sidewalk and pedway projects is $6 million. Planners have prioritized five pedways and 17 sidewalks — some of which are carried over from the 1997 Columbia Sidewalk Plan — for construction. The list was culled down from 40 potential sidewalk and pedway projects that would cost as much as $19 million to complete.

There are also plans for installing bike racks downtown and talk about building a bike center, possibly connected to the Wabash Station. This center would be similar to the one in Chicago’s Millennium Park and would provide a place to store bikes, take showers and change clothes.

Having a center like the one in Chicago might be too ambitious for a city the size of Columbia, Curtis said, but the idea of having a downtown hub for people to store their items and get prepared for their day appeals to him.

Getting out the word

Just a simple change in infrastructure might not be enough to cause people to change their habits, so much of the PedNet project is about changing behavior.

Some of the promotion and education that have proved successful in other cities are fitness challenges, having businesses make “errand bikes” available to employees and the expansion of PedNet Coalition programs such as the “walking” school bus and Bike, Walk and Wheel Week.

The more experimental and conceptual ideas take many forms.

One of these projects is a buddy system for inexperienced cyclists to ride with experienced ones. Another is to set up a neighborhood “pooling” network so that drivers can give rides to bicycling neighbors when bad weather or emergencies arise.

Promotion is seen as a key to success.

Portland, Ore., did a tremendous amount of outreach, said Birk, Portland’s previous program manager. “Getting people started is the hardest part,” she said.

Columbia is considering a variety of ways to get the word out, including setting up a Web site, publishing a newsletter, having booths at city events, starting commercial marketing and creating a visible, accessible PedNet office downtown. The search for office space has been started.

The PedNet project outlines plans to publish color-coded maps, building kiosk-style maps on the routes, marking distance and time estimates on signs and possibly setting up an Internet-based route-finder program.

Paving the way

Curtis, PedNet’s manager, hit a snag late last year when he proposed to pave part of the MKT Trail. The city shelved the idea after a backlash from walkers and joggers who prefer soft surfaces and voiced concerns about how paving would affect the ambiance of the trail corridor.

“We’re trying to serve more and more, not less and less,” Curtis said. “Wheels like hard surfaces, heels like soft.”

Many of the new trails will have soft surfaces, but they also will have to be partially paved because federal money is being used. The new trails will need to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, Curtis said, and anything with wheels needs a hard surface, not gravel.

In an effort to make the paved parts of trails better match their surroundings, Curtis said, the concrete will be stained a “brownish” color.

There are two categories of new trails.

The first is for major connecting trails more than half a mile long, like the one proposed for the County House Trail, and would be wide enough to have a paved surface 12 feet wide and a soft surface with a width of at least 5 feet.

The second is for neighborhood connecting trails less than half a mile long, like the one proposed for South Garth Avenue, and would either have a sidewalk or pedway depending on the terrain and traffic from bicyclists and walkers.

“There will always be an opposition to change,” said Birk, of Portland. “At the beginning, we had many highly contentious programs, and some were scrapped. Our project was an experiment, and it continues to be an experiment.”

Connecting the pieces

Much of PedNet’s focus will be on projects that can be completed by 2010.

“We have to choose the projects that give people the best use and the best connection to create the network,” Curtis said.

The federal money for the PedNet plan comes with an expectation that more people will bicycle and walk rather than rely on their cars and that those who already bicycle and walk will do so more often.

Finishing the entire project may take five years or more, and it could take up to 10 years for Columbia to see significant changes, Curtis said.

“It takes time to put the puzzle together. Things aren’t going to change overnight,” Birk said. “But hopefully, what we’re doing now, our grandchildren will think of as normal.”

Columbia and the three other pilot communities are expected to submit two combined reports to Congress showing their progress: an interim report due at the end of this year and a final report in 2010, which is also the year that the Highway Transportation Bill comes up for renewal.

Based on the success of these four pilot programs, Curtis said, the next transportation bill could include additional federal money for the pilot communities as well as other communities.

Lobbyists that include the not-for-profit Rails to Trails Conservancy are planning to ask Congress to add 46 new communities to the program in 2010, Curtis said, as well as continued funding for Columbia and the other pilot communities.

“If you think about it, we’re trying to change the whole outlook of the country, by example,” Curtis said.

The PedNet project will evaluate the plan’s effectiveness by using surveys that would gauge how many people have changed the way they travel and doing counts at major intersections and other points along the network.

The University of Minnesota recently conducted a survey in all four communities to determine a baseline and is in the process of compiling the data so that before-and-after comparisons will be possible.

“Everyone sees this in bits and pieces,” Curtis said. “It’s not just what you build. It’s what you get people to do differently.”


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