Bellingham wins planning award, but there’s still much to do

A line of bicycles at Trek Bike on Tuesday, Oct. 15. // Photo by Garrett Rahn

By Garrett Rahn

Despite the city of Bellingham being recognized Thursday, Oct. 17, for the “Rapid Implementation of the Bicycle Master Plan,” some cyclists in the city would prefer more work be done before congratulations are in order.

The Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association (APAWA) and the Planning Association of Washington (PAW) presented the award at the annual Planning Conference in Tacoma. According to Chris Comeau, public works transportation planner for the city of Bellingham, The Bicycle Master Plan (BMP) was established in 2014 and today has completed about 52% of what it set out to accomplish.

The vision of the BMP was that “Bicyclists of all ages and abilities have access to a safe, well-connected network linking all areas of Bellingham,” as laid out in its introduction. 

However, some bikers of Bellingham are not satisfied with the implementation of the BMP. 

Though what the city has done is appreciated, there is still much to be done in terms of  connecting the city’s bikeable areas, providing clear signage for those inexperienced in the area and, more broadly, educating the average driver on how to treat cyclists, cyclist Jesse Williams said.

Williams has been biking in Bellingham since 1993. Over the last half decade, he has noticed some improvements in the city’s biking fixtures, but mostly just an increased amount of bike lanes.

“I think bike lanes are generally a good thing but can give a false sense of security to some people,” Williams said. “A lot of people think the solution for bikes is more bike lanes, and I don’t think that’s true.”

Williams is not alone in his thinking. Harrison Winkel, a cyclist in the area for two years now, said the main issue he’s noticed is the disconnect between these newer bike lanes, which are dangerous and create a barrier for less comfortable cyclists. 

“It’s those sections when you’re in the high traffic, that is super intimidating,” Winkel said. “If I were someone looking to start commuting by bike or a family with kids riding to school, I’d feel more confident if there was a curb separating traffic, especially if I wasn’t super experienced at riding.”

He and his coworkers at Trek Bicycle Bellingham agree that the best thing a cyclist can do is be predictable to the cars around them. Going from sections with bike lanes to sections without them can create safety issues, driving people away from wanting to commute on their bikes.

Chris Elder from the Whatcom County Planning Department said he admires the biking infrastructure of Skagit County more than that of Whatcom. 

“The rails to trails infrastructure … in Skagit provides an East-West mainline that provides an off-road option for walkers, runners and bikers that is far superior to anything Whatcom County has,” Elder said.

According to Elder, it is significantly easier and more cost effective for the city to give cyclists space on existing roads through bike lanes than to create new off-road paths and trails. Those require additional government staff to maintain and monitor, while roadways with or without bike lanes are all already managed by Public Works.

This is disconcerting news to the bikers like Winkel and Williams who would ideally like to see connection for all bikeways, streetside or otherwise. 

“Connectivity is key to promoting any kind of bike culture,” Winkel said.

The BMP hopes to provide just that for the city. In the very first chapter, the document states that through public outreach the city has determined all the biggest problem spots, and they are “calling for over 134 miles of on-street facilities over the next 20 years … the plan recommends over 50 miles of new bike boulevards and 45 miles of new bike lanes.”

However, Williams and Winkel agree that not enough of that groundwork has been laid out to show Bellingham’s cyclists anything to be proud of.

In lieu of having connected infrastructure, the biggest change that these bikers want is in the community mindset. 

“Bellingham has done good to make biking possible, but they haven’t done well to make biking as advantageous as it could be,” Williams said.

Long term goals for the bike plan include educating the public on the benefits of biking and encouraging the switch to non-motorized transportation for commutes. The plan mentions how switching to biking as the primary mode of transport will benefit overall health, environmental impact and economic development throughout the city.

However, none of that can be accomplished without first making non-motorized transportation enticing to the general public.

“If we want to get people biking en masse for transportation and recreational purposes, we need dedicated bike/hike roads/trails” Elder said.

One comment

  • Per recommendations by parking guru Donald Shoup, Bellingham should reduce or eliminate development requirements for off-street parking, charge market rates for on street metered parking, and use that money to offset the cost of developing safe biking infrastructure that is suitable for all riders.

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