Tuesday, August 23, 2011
By Elizabeth Troutman
Bike wheels reel and softly click under the Fifth Third Pavilion as a pack of riders glide toward Main Street.
They snap the chin straps of their helmets and secure their water bottles as they spin across sun-scorched pavement. Some are wearing simple khakis and tank tops, others are suited in skin-tight bike shorts. With the help of police cruiser escorts, they prepare to ride in a cluster down Broadway en route to heavy construction on Harrodsburg Road.
Before take-off, Caren Watts balances on her hybrid bicycle on her toes while adjusting her pink-trimmed gloves. She and husband Michael Watts picked up cycling about a year ago to be more healthy, active and aware of the scenery around town. As evident by her yellow pullover and Michael’s neon vest, this couple takes road safety seriously.
“I don’t want to be road kill,” she said before her ride, halfway joking.
Watts, who used to ride horses for pleasure, said cycling is a more economical hobby. As a new cyclist, she thinks the city of Lexington has become more accessible to bike riders of all levels, with the recent development of downtown bike lanes, several local bike shops, the Legacy Trail and a supportive local cycling community through Bike Lexington.
For many of those same reasons, Lexington has received national recognition for making strides toward becoming a more bike-friendly city in the past few years. In 2010, Lexington was ranked by Bicycling magazine as a top-50 bike-friendly city in America, trailing the top-25 ranked city of Louisville. In addition, Lexington joined a list of “bike-friendly communities” ranked by the League of American Cyclists.
Momentum toward making Lexington a friendlier cycling community started about four years ago when the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council introduced its Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan. Kenzie Gleason, the bike and pedestrian coordinator for the LFUCG division of planning, said gradual infrastructure improvements and educational programs have led to significant improvements in the safety and accessibility for Lexington cyclists. Although adding bike lanes with road construction projects has been an intermittent process, the big-picture plan is to eventually connect new bike lanes so cyclists can seamlessly glide through the city.
“We’ve added a lot of bike lane mileage and we are working from a plan,” Gleason said. “We have a grand vision for the way our on-road bike facilities and trails will connect together.”
Gleason said that an application to the American League of Cyclist’s to promote Lexington from its current “bronze” status to “silver” for bike-friendly cities was denied in the past six months. But the league provided feedback that will help the city get closer to the elevated designation. Suggested improvements include educating the driving public about sharing the road, building a strong relationship with local law enforcement and measuring levels of cyclists in the community.
Since 2004, the Downtown Lexington Corporation has supported cycling through community events in collaboration with Bike Lexington. Second Sunday rides during the warm weather months bring together a cohesive and diverse bike community. And every May, Bike Lexington hosts more than 60 bike-related activities, including ride-in movies, bike polo and bike scavenger hunts. The Bluegrass Cycling Club, the Bike Pedestrian Advocacy Group and the Issac Murphy Memorial Bike Club are among other entities facilitating education and camaraderie in Lexington’s bike community.
Future developments for Lexington include 8 miles of new bike trails, which have already received funding, and the construction of an additional 16 miles of bike lanes. Another goal for the community is the implementation of a bike route signage system. In 2010, LFUCG received about $20 million in grants to develop bike and trail projects, and $10 million of related projects are currently under way.
Gleason considers the community to be largely bike-friendly and still making progress. In August, LFUCG will release its revised Complete Streets Manual, a transportation design plan for the city to create streets that are safe, attractive and convenient for travelers of all modes of transportation. She said the bike lane accessibility to the university, the local topography, the scenic landscape of the Legacy Trail and Lexington’s mild weather are all incentives to get out and ride.
The University of Kentucky holds a “silver” ranking from the American League of Cyclists as a bicycle-friendly business. For the past three years, UK has committed $100,000 to fund bicycle facilities and infrastructure. Three new sections of bike lanes adjacent to campus are scheduled for completion this year and the university is adding 200 more on-campus parking spaces for bikes.
According to a 2008 study conducted by UK’s Department of Civil Engineering, bike commuters on campus increased by 37 percent over a period of 10 years. UK’s Department of Parking and Transportation determined that 2 percent of the campus population is bike commuters. Lance Broeking, director of Parking and Transportation, thinks that number will grow. With the current economy, increase in environmental consciousness and rising gas prices, Broeking said commuting to campus will become a more attractive alternative. As an added bonus, bikers also help eliminate the need for added vehicle parking structures and spaces.
“My sense that it’s the energy and momentum behind the bicycling initiative in this community are impressive and encouraging,” Broeking said.
UK Parking and Transportation has partnered the LFUCG on city-wide initiatives, including the “Share the Road” campaign, an on-going public awareness effort to spread awareness of road regulations to keep drivers and cyclists safe. With new students beginning their college experience every fall, there’s a continuous need to educate students and the public about bike safety on campus. Shane Tedder, sustainability coordinator for UK, said education is a fundamental step in making roads around campus safe for cyclists.
“Treating the bike as a faster way of walking and not as a slower way of driving is a good way to put it,” Tedder said. “One of the biggest challenges is encouraging cyclists to be predictable and ‘drive’ their bikes.”
The Wildcat Wheels program prepares new student cyclists for the roads by providing educational opportunities and maintenance, and the university provides bus bike racks for cyclists. UK also plans to initiate a mentorship to help new cyclists acclimate to campus riding.
Omar Mandeel, a 22-year-old cyclist who moved from Lexington to Shelbyville two years ago, still occasionally visits Lexington with his bike. He thinks cycling is a trend that is on the rise everywhere. He was encouraged to see subtle improvements on roadways of Lexington, including noticeable new bike lanes, but he says the attitudes of drivers must change for the city to become truly “bike-friendly.”
“Driving in Lexington is bad enough,” Mandeel said. “Tack on cyclists, and it’s a mess.”
Broke Spoke, a recently opened community bike cooperative located on North Limestone Street, is encouraging cycling safety in the Lexington community by helping individuals maintain road-ready bikes. Used parts such as spokes, wheels, gears and pedals are available for a lower price than offered by mainstream bike shops. And volunteers who work at the shop can build up credit to purchase items and services at the shop.
Evelyn Palmer has never owned a car in her life – she’s relied on her feet to get around. Now she owns a pair of wheels, which she plans to use for traveling to Bluegrass Community and Technical College where she is taking classes to earn her GED.
Palmer doesn’t know much about bike maintenance yet, but she pays her dues to the co-op by helping keep Broke Spoke’s parking lot clean. When she brought her bike into the co-op, a volunteer mounted her bike on a stand and worked on her gears. He showed her how to change her tires and tighten the spokes. As a Lexington resident who will solely depend on her bike for transportation, she says she’s glad there’s a local community resource to help her get started with her bike adventures.
“I am going to rely on it a lot,” Palmer said of her bike. “It’s going to transport me, my dog and my school books.”
For a map of current and developing bike paths and lanes in Lexington, visit here. And for more resources on cycling in Lexington, visit www.bikelexington.org.