Boise & Garden City

Is Boise a bicycle-friendly city? A one-block $91k bike lane could be a model for the future

A trip through Downtown Boise's old bike lanes

In 2014, Ada County Highway District installed experimental bike lanes in Downtown Boise. Before the district removed the lanes five weeks later, Idaho Statesman reporter Sven Berg rode along the lanes with a video camera strapped to his head.
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In 2014, Ada County Highway District installed experimental bike lanes in Downtown Boise. Before the district removed the lanes five weeks later, Idaho Statesman reporter Sven Berg rode along the lanes with a video camera strapped to his head.

The city of Boise hopes a bike lane it plans to install in front of City Hall will serve as a model for the rest of Downtown.

The lane would extend only one block, on Capitol Boulevard from Main Street to Idaho Street. It would give cyclists more protection from car traffic than any existing bike lane in Boise. A row for parking cars and a 3-foot-wide raised concrete “island” would separate traffic from the 5-foot-wide bike lane, said Zach Piepmeyer, a city transportation planner. Parking meters would occupy the concrete island.

The parking row would be located where the existing bike lane is, Piepmeyer said. Space for the 3-foot island will come from narrowing the existing traffic lanes to a minimum of 11 feet and using less space for the row of parking, he said.

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Jason Lantz jlantz@idahostatesman.com

The entire project, which includes improvements to the sidewalk in front of City Hall and an eastward expansion of the sidewalk on the northwest corner of Main Street and Capitol Boulevard, is expected to cost $91,000, Piepmeyer said. Capital City Development Corporation, Boise’s urban renewal agency, has pledged to contribute $80,000 to the project, he said. The city will cover the rest of the cost.

COST VS. BENEFIT

The bike lane isn’t a response specifically to a demonstration that bicycling advocates staged July 19 by forming a human barrier between car traffic and the bike lane on 8th Street between Main and Idaho streets, Piepmeyer said. But the layout in front of City Hall will address similar safety concerns arising from cycling next to traffic.

Ultimately, city leaders hope the protected lane will be successful enough to encourage Ada County Highway District to install something similar on other Downtown streets, especially the Downtown corridors of Main and Idaho. The highway district controls public roads throughout the county.

Doing so would sacrifice one lane of car traffic on both one-way streets, as well as an estimated 37 parking spaces between Broadway and 16th Street, city spokesman Mike Journee said. The city predicts the average commute through Downtown on Main or Idaho would increase by 60 to 66 seconds during rush hour, Journee said.

A lot of drivers wouldn’t like that, but city planners believe it’s the right thing to do. They believe businesses along the Main-Idaho corridor would benefit from slower-moving traffic. Also, Journee said, the new bike lanes should get cyclists off the sidewalks, where they come into conflict with pedestrians.

NETWORK DREAMS

The highway district’s commission tabled discussion of bike lanes on Main and Idaho last year, largely due to unknown traffic impacts of several large construction projects. The commission plans to resume discussion this fall, commission President Paul Woods said.

Woods said he’s in favor of putting bike lanes on Main and Idaho that offer cyclists protection similar to what they’ll soon find in front of City Hall.

“It’s a new concept, but I do think that if we’re going to promote cycling on Main and Idaho, it would be best to provide that kind of protection,” he said.

Woods said traffic congestion is the main concern for people he’s talked to who are skeptical or outright opposed to the city’s proposal.

Protected bike lanes are the right idea, said Jimmy Hallyburton, executive director of Boise Bicycle Project, a pro-cycling nonprofit. Boise needs bike lanes that make even novice cyclists feel safe if city leaders are to achieve their oft-stated goal of convincing more people to bike instead of drive to work and other destinations, Hallyburton said. That means putting barriers between cars and bikes, he said.

Cycling advocates’ main goal for Downtown is a well-connected commuting network. The Boise River Greenbelt already provides a nearly ideal east-west corridor on Downtown’s southern edge. Bike lanes on Main and Idaho streets like the one planned in front of City Hall would be another big step toward realizing the network, Hallyburton said.

“If you can actually connect those types of protected ways, where people feel safe, to the Greenbelt, I think that’s where you really start seeing a lot more people being able to get on their bicycle,” he said.

Business leaders are key potential allies for cyclists in the bike-lane discussion, Hallyburton said. The challenge is convincing them that promoting biking might be good for them, because people can ride right up to their stores instead of having to park a few blocks away and walk, he said.

“The reality is that nobody’s parking in front of your business in Downtown Boise and walking straight into it,” Hallyburton said.

THE DIVIDING LINE

Politics might be the biggest obstacle to the kind of network Hallyburton is talking about. Not just politics of government, but of the broader culture in Boise — the clash between urban progressives and rural — or suburban — traditionalists.

The traditionalists don’t mind bike lanes as long as they don’t interfere with car traffic or parking, as the city’s recommended bike lanes on Main and Idaho would do. The progressives think road design should put cyclists and pedestrians on something closer to equal footing with motorists, especially Downtown.

For years, City Hall and the highway district have butted heads over just about every topic relating to transportation — none more publicly than bike lanes. In general, the city has represented the progressives, pushing for more bike lanes and other non-car travel infrastructure.

The district often resisted those calls if it meant eliminating car lanes or parking spaces Downtown.

“But I think they are also starting to recognize that we can’t just continue to put more cars in the middle of Downtown Boise,” Hallyburton said. “And so you really have to start thinking about how we can reduce the amount of cars that actually need to be on the road, and this type of infrastructure (the bike lane in front of City Hall) is definitely the way to go.”

In 2014, the highway district, at the request of Boise’s leaders, installed buffered bike lanes on Capitol Boulevard between the Boise River and Jefferson Street, and on Main and Idaho streets between Broadway Avenue and 16th Street.

But the bike lanes were meant as an experiment, and the highway district’s governing panel voted to remove them a little more than a month after they were installed. The commissioners who voted against them said they were worried about traffic congestion, unsafe design and inconvenience for motorists.

That decision bitterly disappointed Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and members of the City Council.

“That was a hard thing for Boise’s bike community to go through,” Hallyburton said. “Because the whole country knew about it. … We were talking to newspapers from San Francisco to all over the place about the fact that we had protected bike lanes and they actually got pulled out of our streets.”

BIKE-FRIENDLY?

Time will tell if Hallyburton is right about the highway district’s changing culture.

In November 2014, Paul Woods and Kent Goldthorpe won seats on the district’s commission. Bieter endorsed Woods and preferred Goldthorpe over Mitch Jaurena, who five months before voted to remove Downtown’s experimental bike lanes.

The election tipped control of the district’s five-member governing board in the progressives’ favor.

The 2016 elections tempered that shift, however. Rebecca Arnold, one of Bieter’s chief antagonists, beat former city councilman and Bieter ally David Eberle. Sara Baker, another frequent critic of today’s City Hall, defeated two challengers.

In May 2015, after months of stakeholder meetings and discussions, the district installed a bike lane on Capitol Boulevard between River and Jefferson streets. It wasn’t the protected lane cyclists had dreamed of, but it was something.

Nevertheless, Hallyburton said, the damage to Boise’s reputation as a bicycle-friendly city was done.

News of the experimental bike lanes’ removal had weakened local grant applications to organizations like Colorado-based PeopleForBikes, which awards cities across the country money for bike lanes and other bicycle-friendly infrastructure, he said.

“They said that Boise’s always on their maps, but the reason that we didn’t get picked to be one of these selected cities, is because we pulled out this infrastructure,” Hallyburton said. “And they don’t want to invest money into a city that’s going to use the money that they’ve given us for these great projects only for them to be pulled out.”

The bike lane construction will occur at the same time as a renovation of the plaza in front of City Hall. The project is scheduled for completion in late August or early September.

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