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Thursday, June 3, 2010 01:30 pm

Bike to the future

Springfield gets serious about cycling


A cyclist enjoys the Lost Bridge Trail connecting Springfield and Rochester.

It’s a good time to be in the bike business, says Rich Moscardelli, manager of Ace Bike Shop on MacArthur Boulevard in Springfield. Among the hip trends this season are saving money, getting in shape and green living – all factors that push people to ride bikes.

“It’s getting to be more popular, and especially fitness and performance bikes are becoming more popular than they used to be,” Moscardelli says. “If you’ve got a good quality bike, it doesn’t take much effort to keep it moving. It doesn’t take anything but what you eat, and the only emissions are what you flush.”

But cycling in Springfield has long suffered from flaws in infrastructure that discourage large numbers of potential bike riders from taking to the streets.

“We’re basically in the Stone Age,” Moscardelli observes, noting the irony that the bicycle shop he manages has operated there for five or six years, yet there are no sidewalks or bike lanes on much of busy MacArthur Boulevard, and thus no easy bike access.

The city does have eight bike trails that account for about 21 miles of bikeway, while the city’s five streets with bike lanes and two with wide shoulders together cover about 14 miles. Thirty-five miles of bikeway may seem adequate, until you consider that Springfield and Sangamon County together contain more than 2,400 miles of roads. Additionally, most of Springfield’s trails are disconnected from one another and only serve the southern part of the city. Some of the busiest streets have no bike accommodations at all.

The Springfield Bicycle Advisory Council (SBAC), created by the city to help make Springfield more bike friendly, and the Springfield Bicycle Initiative, part of Leadership Springfield, conducted a survey in 2009 to gauge bike usage and perceptions of cycling in Springfield. Out of 490 survey respondents, 75 percent said they were discouraged from cycling more because of a lack of bikeways, while 59 percent cited safety concerns – no doubt connected to the lack of bikeways. In much of the city, and in Sangamon County as well, there are simply not enough bike lanes, paths and trails to make cycling safe and convenient. But don’t go packing up your spandex shorts just yet; Springfield is on the path to becoming a whole lot friendlier for bikes.

In May, the Springfield Area Transportation Study (SATS) released its 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan, and it holds a lot of promise for cyclists, including new and improved bike trails, bikeways on newly-constructed roads and more. SATS was started by the city and county in 1964 as a way to plan for future transportation needs, but until now, the focus has mostly been on motorized transport.

“This is the first time that planning for bikes has taken more of a front seat in the long-range plan,” says Linda Wheeland, senior transportation planner for the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, which helps support SATS. “Part of the development of the long-range plan this time was the opportunity for the community to have more input, and I think from all the public input, it was obvious that the citizens were interested in having more attention paid to the modes of biking and walking.”

And pay attention they did. The plan calls for specific improvements to bike infrastructure in Springfield and Sangamon County, and road projects that haven’t even been conceived of yet will likely include considerations for bikes because of the plan.

“There is a strong link between planning and public health,” the SATS report notes. “The design of a community has a direct impact on how much exercise people get, the connection they have with others in the community, and the quality of the environment. Providing safe, accessible, complete, and interconnected options for non-motorized travel and public transportation encourages people to leave their cars at home, leading to greater health of our citizens, our communities and our environment.”

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What’s so great about bikes?
In Wheeland’s office sits her gun-metal grey bike and helmet; she rides her bike to work whenever possible.

“Ever since I was a kid and had the independence a bicycle provided, I’ve always continually rode, both for commuting and recreational purposes,” Wheeland says. “I find that it puts me more in touch with other people. When you’re in your car, you just go down the street and you don’t interact with anybody at all. When you’re on your bicycle, you say hello to people, and sometimes you meet people in your neighborhood that you didn’t know before. All the way from home to work, there’s a possibility of interacting with other human beings.”

Communion with your fellow man is just one biking benefit, says Dick Westfall, manager of greenways and trails for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Alternative transportation – essentially any non-motorized way of getting around – can have a major impact on a city’s economy, environment and health.

“The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico right now is showing that, if we can shift our routine, short trips from cars to bicycles and walking, it won’t solve all of our problems, but it can lessen our dependence on oil significantly and the environmental concerns that come with it,” Westfall says. “In addition, people are starting to understand they need to get more active. Ten or 20 years ago, people said, “I need to join a gym,” but now they’re looking at trails and seeing that it’s very easy to build that type of activity into their everyday lives.”

Promoting bike friendliness also helps develop tourism, says Amy Madigan, DNR greenways and trails coordinator. DNR is collecting economic data regarding bikes with the help of the national Rails to Trails Conservancy, and the data so far seem to show strong economic development in areas with well-planned trail systems.

“It’s made a pretty big impact on small businesses that are located near trails – ice cream shops, bicycle shops and such,” Madigan says. “People are finding businesses and things to do that they wouldn’t have normally seen, all because they’re using bike trails.”

Westfall says Springfield is already a prime spot for tourism because of the Abraham Lincoln historical sites here, and developing a better bikeway system “provides a reason (for tourists) to stay in Springfield an extra day, to shift from a passive museum experience to an active bicycling experience.

“I think trails can become people places,” Westfall says. “Trails can go through business districts, and they draw people. It becomes the place to go, and businesses take advantage of the density of people. It also helps to market our community to prospective businesses and workers by saying we have this set of amenities.”

There are even arguments for bikes as tools to bridge social and economic divides. Dave Sykuta, chairman of the Springfield Bicycle Advisory Council, says bikes may not be a panacea for all of society’s ills, but they are certainly much cheaper to own and operate than cars.

“I think the great common denominator is that you can enjoy bicycling on a lot of different levels,” Sykuta says. “There is an ‘everyman’ component to it. You can go out and get a good used bike for fifty bucks and you’re in business. It’s available to a lot of people who may not be able to afford a car.”

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