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Saturday October 25th 2014

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Bike Curious

Pensacola Pedals Toward a Two-Wheel Takeover
By Sarah McCartan

They say there is no happier cyclist than a Dutch cyclist, which for many may come as no surprise. If you’ve ever stepped foot in Holland and failed to look before you cross, you’ve most likely been nearly run down—not by car, but by bicycle. With more than 25,000 miles of high quality, traffic-free cycle routes in the modest-sized country, on many occasions, cyclists take priority over motorized traffic.

Although for some cyclists it’s a joy ride, for the majority it’s a way of everyday life—from dawn until well after dusk. Fietsersbond, the Dutch Cyclists’ Union, throws out some pretty startling numbers when it comes to an hour-by-hour breakdown of the Dutch and their daily cycling. Prior to the 9 a.m. hour, between the number of adults going to work, and children heading to school, 2.5 million trips have been made. And by the end of the day, after adding up everything from lunch outings and rush hour commutes, to shopping and after work fun, numbers total at 5 million cyclists, making more than 14 million bicycle journeys.

That’s a lot of bicycles.

As cycling culture has spread around the world, it’s not only the Dutch, nor is cycling limited to athletes or even individuals who own, operate and maintain their own bicycles, thanks to bicycle sharing programs that have been popping up in larger cities. In the United States (U.S.), sharing programs have being springing up from Washington D.C. all the way to Portland, and trickling outward. Most recently, N.Y.C. has gotten on board. These programs present cycling opportunities for area residents, bike commuters and tourists alike—making cycling that much more visible and accessible to the masses.

And then there’s Pensacola. Back home on the local front, if you look outside of your office window and attempt to count the number of cyclists, you will find this is certainly not a daunting task—because there aren’t many. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that as a city, we’ve remained a bit behind the curve with our lack of cycling culture. Yes, there are some dedicated cyclists and we’ve had our fair share of mass rides over the years, but on the whole, underground efforts have yet to stand strong enough to get an entire community to hop on board and place emphasis or value on cycling, at least, until now.

Just up ahead it seems we have reached a clearing—an alignment of stars if you will—between the enthusiasm of active city council members, planning committees, volunteer groups, local movers and shakers, longtime commuters and cycling advocates, who are coming together, taking visible strides and making valiant pushes to foster a community that is more cyclist, as well as pedestrian, centered.

Sometimes it takes waving your arms, screaming and shouting to take a stand and make a push for something. But most of the time, it simply takes thinking beyond. It’s about time that the city of Pensacola thinks beyond—and gets “Bike Curious.”

Thinking Beyond

The newly launched “Bikes at Work” initiative is the first project facilitated by the sustainability-minded group of local innovators known as Think Beyond.

“Think Beyond puts ideas out there and people gravitate toward them,” said Chair of Think Beyond Mona Amodeo.

The “Bikes at Work” project grew out of a discussion surrounding crafting a bike sharing program, modeled after larger cities. These sharing programs allow you to readily swipe your credit card, hop on a bike for the duration of your trek, and then drop off the bike at another designated location and head on your merry way. It’s a concept that while despite certain limitations, generally proves to be workable, and as a result, is getting more cheeks on seats, more butts on bikes. Still, it takes infrastructure, and of course, like most things, dollar bills.

Christian Wagley, Think Beyond board member and longtime commuting cyclist, coaxed that Pensacola wasn’t quite ready for a full-fledged bike sharing program—at least not just yet.

“Let’s figure out a way that we can get more people bicycling in a way that works for Pensacola,” suggested Wagley.

Wagley pointed out that in many ways downtown Pensacola is set up to be friendly to bicycling since it was laid out before the automobile, with narrow streets that keep traffic slow. Things downtown are close together. Distances are short. It has the skin and bones. All it needs are the cyclists and the visible support for it.

“You have all these businesses down here. And people are literally driving three and four blocks to get to things when they could be walking or bicycling,” said Wagley.

Wagley and fellow Think Beyond board members Jessica Bell and Kelly Wieczorek saw an opportunity to act as project facilitators, encouraging downtown businesses to purchase bikes for the workplace for their employees to use during the day to go to lunch, meetings, the post office, or simply to get out for a breath of fresh air.

“Wouldn’t you rather have a chance to ride a bicycle down to the park, or to go pick up lunch or run an errand, than drive your car?” Wagley asked.

And so “Bikes at Work” was born, in an effort to add quality of life to the workplace experience, offer up more parking spots for tourists, and forge a feasible start—the grassroots beginnings—of a bike sharing program.

“We’re all committed to sustainability. No one should get in their car to go two to three blocks, period,” said Vice Chair of Think Beyond Teresa Dos Santos. “This is our grassroots way of getting a bike share program.”

Right away the “Bikes at Work” project was met with a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement. The group quickly picked up early adopters—businesses willing to purchase bikes to have onsite for use by their employees.

“It was like there was this latent demand out there—people wanted an opportunity to do something like this but it just wasn’t happening,” said Wagley.

“Bikes at Work” identified models of bikes that would work well downtown, and priced them at local bike shops. They communicated the need for functionality—citing a basket or other storage compartment as a must have.

“We want people to be able to bring back lunch to the office or take packages to the post office to mail. We really want to defer those car trips,” said Wagley.

Functionality is part of the culture shift that goes along with the project, and with thinking beyond—viewing bikes as true modes of transportation.

“This is an incremental path on the way to creating a more cycling friendly city—a city with bike culture. Seeing people on bicycles having an enjoyable experience makes more people want to do it. It will help create more of the culture we need here,” said Wagley. “Success follows success.”

The “Bikes at Work” project presents a piece to the puzzle that is making our city increasingly cycle aware, cycle cultured. It’s not a culture shift that can happen overnight, but the “Bikes at Work” project shows that it can happen over time with support and increased visibility.

Early Adoption

Think Beyond members, early project adopters and community supporters were on bike and in attendance at the “Bikes at Work” kickoff event, earlier this month.

So who is on board, or on bikes rather?

Amodeo rode up to the event on her bright purple cruiser, one of two bikes that her firm, idgroup, has purchased. This bike was purchased locally, recycled if you will, from an idgroup employee.

“Sustainability is a mindset,” said Amodeo. “Riding a bike starts to raise awareness of alternative means of moving from point A to point B. You see the world differently and notice things you’ve never noticed before. Plus, it’s fun and it’s healthy.”

Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) has five sleek cruisers that have already been receiving a great deal of use between downtown locations by employees, purchased from local bike shop Truly Spokin’.

Meanwhile, lawyer Joe Zarzaur and his staff members are sporting snazzy orange cruisers that are proving to double as a community outreach tool, becoming quite the conversation piece.

“The firm tries to promote health. Health and fitness are important to me. This is a natural extension of what’s important,” said Zarzaur. “[Plus] if you are on a bike you have a better chance of communicating with the public.”

While the “Bikes at Work” team has and continues to identify businesses to target, it’s also proving to work the other way around.

“Quint Studer reached out to us which was exciting,” said Bell. “We are hoping more people will come to us.”

“Most people want to feel the vibrancy of the area they live, learn, work and play in. ‘Bikes at Work’ is another action to create such vibrancy, and even creates better health,” said Quint Studer.

The Studers have designated a bike onsite at the Rhodes building, available to all building employees. Down the street at the Bodacious locations—Bodacious Brew and Bodacious Olive—an olive green bike is currently in use. Rishy Studer confirms that a second bike, a smaller women’s frame, is also on its way. As they increase the number of bikes available, the Studers plan to make these onsite bikes accessible to customers—fostering their own idea of a sharing program.

“More will come as the Artisan Building is completed and the Maritime Place Office Building,” said Quint Studer. “We are all in.”

Equally as important as having bikes at work, is having a safe, secure, and of course, city approved, place to house them. Next up on the agenda for “Bikes at Work,” on top of scheduling a group ride to a Wahoo’s game, is the purchase of bike racks.

Wagley worked with the Downtown Improvement Board (DIB) to arrive at a map outlining where racks are most needed. From there the plan is to get businesses to team up and go in together on a bulk purchase to lower the price. The city has agreed to install and maintain the racks.

Although “Bikes at Work” is a new initiative, the concept of biking at, or to, work for downtown business owners like Eric Jones of Revolver Records, is far from a novelty, nor is it a new idea.

Jones has been commuting by bike since the 1980s and cites the biggest issue he continues to face, to be the area’s motor vehicle traffic.

“While I do see more people riding bikes as more attractions and businesses come to the downtown area and the parking crunch worsens, I think the long ingrained car culture in both the U.S. and fairly conservative Southern towns such as ours is not going to get the boot anytime soon. Cars will be king here for generations to come, despite rising fuel prices and global temperatures, but I try not to lose sleep over things out of my control,” said Jones.

Completing the Streets

“It’s becoming clearer every day that the communities that are investing in walkability and bike-ability are the communities that are getting ahead economically and are attracting and maintaining young people and entrepreneurial businesses,” said Wagley.

“Hopefully the city and county will see more and more people wanting it and they’ll put the infrastructure in place to have it,” said Kelly Wieczorek.

Wieczorek is a member of the City’s Complete Streets Committee, an ad-hoc group chaired by City Council Member Megan Pratt.

While “Bikes at Work” is currently promoting the increase of cycling downtown, the Complete Streets Committee is looking at the bigger picture of interconnectedness of the city, not only keeping the cyclist in mind, but also pedestrians.

“Complete Streets is going to help create the safe streets for cycling and ‘Bikes at Work’ is going to help put the bikes out on the street that aren’t there now,” said Wieczorek. “These efforts are complementary.”

“My feeling is that we have to start in an area [like downtown] where people are already biking so we can train traffic,” said Committee Member Jehan Clark.

Last fall the committee posed the question “Where do we want to see ourselves in ten years?” They also asked things like, “How do you get to Roger Scott on a bike from East Hill, and how can we make that something safe and visible to drivers?”

In an attempt to answer these questions, and others, the committee implemented a survey inviting community feedback. According to Pratt, the open ended question survey itself indicated safety concerns and an overall desire for increased connectivity, although some requests extended to issues that span beyond the city’s purview, such as greater bike connectivity from Pensacola to Navarre.

Along with the survey, the committee spoke with planners in areas that have implemented successful projects to improve bike-and walkability, including out of state areas as close in proximity as Orange Beach, Ala. From here, the committee worked with the City’s Public Works staff to establish a map outlining current and prospective bike paths, as well as preliminary costs for additional lanes and other projects.

While certain ideas and items are less time consuming and financially demanding than others, items on the table include “sharrows,” shared lanes between bicycles and cars. They are also exploring the options of implementing “shareways,” roads that are redesigned for cyclists.

“It is successful when people recognize it’s a multi-year project that requires people being educated. You have to increase incrementally and have the funding to change the street infrastructure,” said Brian Spencer, fellow city council member.

Pratt encourages that there are various means as far as funding goes—between available grants, as well as the repositioning of transportation priorities and dollars. She encourages that where there is a will, there is a way.

“Initially there were outside forces that conspired against us,” she said. “We have a clear plan of how to attack this. It’s about regrouping, clarifying where we need to go, and moving forward. If we have a plan in place each year we can do a couple of things—the idea is to make sure it’s targeted.”

Still, change takes education and like everything else, is a process.

“A bike friendly community has more than a path designated with white stripes. It must recognize cycling as a form of transportation that merits separation of vehicles with curbing and cycling lanes,” said Spencer.

Pratt notes that the Complete Streets initiatives are both supplementary and complimentary to several state improvements that are currently underway, as well as planning by the West Florida Regional Planning Council. Community member of the Planning Council’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), Mike Kilmer, has raised an active voice in the matter.

Kilmer has vested interest in the idea of shareways, or “Bicycle Boulevards.”

“I began thinking of roads in Pensacola that run parallel to other roads that can hold a good bit of traffic,” Kilmer explained.

One road in particular that caught his mind was his own stomping ground of W. Jackson Street, as it runs parallel to Cervantes, a road that the traffic from Jackson Street could readily be shifted to, allowing Jackson to be dedicated almost solely to cyclists. Kilmer has presented to the Council’s Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) as well as the Complete Streets Committee.

Having seen the success of shareways in other locations, Kilmer affirms that although your standard bike lane can serve as a welcomed addition on the road and allow breathing room for those already cycling, it takes separation of traffic and offering something that looks fun, as well as safe, to encourage new riders.

“When you’ve got a comfortable bike path separated by several feet of median, that’s something attractive that gets people on bikes. People say, ‘Hey that looks like fun,’” he said.

Spelling it Out

But fancy lanes, bells, whistles, funding needs, timelines and incremental steps aside, is there a simpler, quick fix, or bottom line? If you ask the professionals, the answer is all in how you spell it out.

“Pensacola is set up for cycling. It’s a grid. You can’t get lost. It’s super scenic. There’s no reason Pensacola is not a cycling mecca,” said Stephen Hyde.

This area native and professional cyclist who returns home yearly from the Northeast for base training shared that the one thing that makes him scared for his life when he comes home, like no other place that he rides, is the traffic. That is, the drivers in the community that remain uneducated and uninformed, an issue that he notes as being widespread, especially across the South, but particularly in Pensacola.

“Rather than put a bike lane on a busy road—why not encourage bikes to use roads where traffic is slower,” said Hyde. “The point is to get people on roads that are 25-35 MPH.”

Hyde warned that communities spend so much time getting caught up “hemming and hawing” over lanes, when signage can create a much-needed symbiotic relationship between traffic and cyclists.

“All the most beautiful roads have no bike lanes. They have signs that say ‘Bikes on Roadway,’” he said. “People in cars do whatever they want—until there’s a sign that says they can’t. You are forced into communication with signage.”

He also noted awareness of state cycling and pedestrian laws to be key to this communication between cyclists, cars and pedestrians, while shaking his head at cities and states who haven’t educated people on things seemingly as simple as right of way.

For example, we live in a state that gives pedestrians the right of way in crosswalks—yet cars don’t stop. Anyone who steps out in front of Ever’man on Garden Street at rush hour, despite the “protection” of a cross walk with painted lines, can certainly attest to the potential horror.

Lanes, signs and laws aside, there still remains an evident need for a shift in recognizing cyclists (and pedestrians) for who they actually are, eliminating barriers between those doing it for sport and for leisure, erasing the imaginary line that exists between perception and reality.

From a car window you still have people yelling at commuting cyclists, “Get a Job.” It’s happened to Hyde several times while he was riding his bike—to work.

And Hyde isn’t the only one. Likewise, Wagley notes that in the years he has cycled, he has countlessly been misidentified as homeless.

“Lanes are trivial but can be an empowering thing for the city, encouraging people to say, “This is my street, I have the right to be here,” said Hyde. “I have never been to a city that was built for a cycling community more than Pensacola. Pensacola doesn’t take advantage of its own city.”

Taking Over

So, what does it take for the city to take advantage of itself, its streets and encourage a two-wheel takeover? Perhaps this can be answered in just a few words—concern, commitment and above all, conversation.

It takes concern for the future of our city, recognizing this as another piece of completing the puzzle to make the city more sustainable; commitment to implementing a plan that is feasible without getting caught up in manmade fears and politics; and conversations between stakeholders, coordinating committees and city officials.

And of course, the community, people like you and me—getting out there on bikes.

Thanks to “Bikes at Work” and committees such as Complete Streets, as well as state and regional planning groups, the conversations are getting louder and more frequent. Still, as they say, actions speak louder than words.

It’s time to see if Pensacola can figure out how to spell it out, so that there can truly be, all for one and once for all—a two-wheel takeover.

It’s time to stop backpedaling.

For more information on Think Beyond and the “Bikes at Work” project, visit thinkbeyond.org or facebook.com/BikesAtWork.

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