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Rough Road: The Trials and Tribulations of Biking in Boise

Biking in the Treasure Valley sometimes requires bravery and imagination


Crammed into a narrow bike lane, fabric and a few inches of empty space separate you and the thousands of cars whizzing by. Each passing vehicle emits an absurd "whoosh," in sudden contrast to what feels like imminent collision.

Traffic belches exhaust smoke, signs are geared toward motorists and, suddenly, riding a bike comes with the feeling that your alternative form of transportation is a bit too alternative for the car-choked roadways.

Pedaling down Boise's tree-lined Greenbelt, it's easy to think the ribbon of wide, car-free pathways stretch out for miles across the Treasure Valley. But as any hardened cyclist will tell you, venture outside the 22 miles of Greenbelt and conditions deteriorate quickly.

That feeling of alienation has caused cyclists to grumble about better routes, but the number of bikers--and thus advocates--is on the rise across the valley, and not just anecdotally. Rick Overton of the Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance helps organize regular bike counts at specific sites on Boise's Greenbelt and has seen a roughly 40 percent increase in bike usage in the last five years.

While the volunteer counters keep adding bikers to the total, the valley's infrastructure isn't making it any easier to get around, thanks to a patchwork of bike lanes, road shoulders, sidewalks and even gutters.

Overton said the numbers have yet to reveal a full picture of how missing components of the network affect ridership.

"I would love to have a clearer picture of that," said Overton.

What is clear is that there's a disconnect between Boise's reputation as a "bike-friendly city" and the reality of some of its infrastructure. To see just how friendly to cyclists the City of Trees can be, Boise Weekly sent a team of reporters on bikes to trek a 30-mile route crisscrossing Ada County. See the results of the trek with a PDF map.)

Much of the county's 220 miles of bike lanes are along busy arteries like Overland and Ustick roads. Ada County Highway District plans to install more bike lanes along those routes, piece by piece, as the agency widens existing roads, according to Matt Edmond, the agency's senior transportation planner.

He said ACHD strives for 5 feet of clearance on the shoulders of roads--achieving 8 to 9 feet on Boise's Hill Road--but added that isn't always possible.

"Sometimes people see a stripe on the side of the road, it's not necessarily a bike lane. It may just be a fog line with either a foot or even six inches of asphalt to either side, certainly not a bike lane. And some of our bike lanes are a little bit narrow," Edmond said.

In the case of widening Franklin Road, ACHD officials opted not to install bike lanes because lanes already exist along Emerald Street to the north. There are other challenges, too. One of the most popular routes for cyclists, the Boise River Greenbelt, isn't managed by road planners at all.

"There are more cyclists on the Greenbelt than there are on the bike lanes, and the Greenbelt is the responsibility of Boise Parks and Rec, and they really think of themselves not as a transit agency, but curators of a parks system," Overton said. "Sometimes there are communication gaps."

Margaret Havey, vice president of the Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance, worked with Overton on the bicycle counts. She also works for the Idaho Transportation Department, measuring vehicle traffic. She said having data on ridership affects which roads receive bike lanes.

"You definitely need evidence in the form of counts, something that's methodical and reliable collection. Otherwise, it's anecdotal, and when it comes to allocating any kind of public money, it's going to be hard to make that case for any kind of changes," she said.

The prevalence of cyclists--indicated largely by the bicycle counts--has local planners scrambling to create a more complete network to help riders get where they're going. Cyclists regularly cite inconsistencies--the varying width of bike lanes, a lack of connectivity, busy roadways and conflicts with drivers--as black marks against biking more.

Edmond envisions more "bikeways," roads with a higher level of comfort for riders.

"Some use the term 'bike boulevard.' Portland, Ore., uses the term 'neighborhood greenway'. I just like the term 'bikeway,'" said Edmond.

Comfort correlates with the amount of vehicle traffic and traffic speeds, according to Edmond. Bikeways are placed along routes with a higher level of comfort, meaning fewer cars and reduced speeds.

"It's a route on which the vast majority of people who ride a bike would be comfortable," he said.

To illustrate the varying nature of Ada County's roads, BW selected Eagle Road as a route north from the southwestern part of the county. Eagle Road, also known as Highway 55, features 55-mph speed limits and parts of the road carry more than 30,000 cars each day.

Since Eagle Road is a state highway, it is managed by the ITD. It has neither bike lanes nor sidewalks, but the state has a standard for four-foot shoulders, according to Ted Vanegas, ITD bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

"Instead of bike lanes, we're looking at shoulder width, so that biking and walking along that area is a little safer, anyway," he said.

Vanegas said community planners have not yet had a chance to discuss bikes lanes on Eagle Road. But despite striping along the road's shoulder, Vanegas said Eagle Road isn't very comfortable to ride on.

"Even the section with stripes; I've ridden that section myself. You have trucks going 55 mph and it's not comfortable at all," he said.

Edmond describes roads like Eagle Road as routes usually taken by experienced cyclists.

"Highway 55 has a big nice shoulder, but not everybody's comfortable riding a 55-mph facility," said Edmond.

A more comfortable north-south route--meaning one with lower speeds and less traffic--could take shape in the form of ACHD's proposed Shamrock Bikeway, a plan unlike other bike routes in town. Shamrock would consist of a bike-friendly corridor along existing roadways and newly paved pathways, extending through residential neighborhoods from DeMeyer Park to President Drive. Plans call for completion in 2015 or 2016, at a cost of approximately $500,000.

"The city of Boise requested this a few years ago. A bolder cyclist is going to take Five Mile or Cloverdale--somebody who's not so much would take Shamrock," said Edmond.

As for connectivity, Boise Weekly first ran into an issue where Emerald Street-Executive Drive meets Cloverdale Road. At the intersection, sidewalks and bike lanes suddenly vanished, pushing riders into the road.

According to ACHD officials, bike lanes are slated for installation when crews widen Cloverdale Road.

"This project is programmed in 2016, to widen Cloverdale Road to five lanes from Franklin [Road] to Fairview Avenue," Edmond told Boise Weekly.

Connectivity issues like this are common--paths end with little warning in both the eastern and western parts of the county. To give cyclists more direction to appropriate routes--and to avoid connectivity issues--ACHD began a project to install wayfinding markers on busy streets. Along the more common cycling routes crossing the valley, crews are installing green and white signs to help cyclists find destinations. Signs are already in place along Emerald Road, parts of Parkcenter Boulevard and Hill Road.

"We're trying to focus them, one: on where people ride, two: to better routes to ride on," said Edmond.

The signs advertise destinations like Hyde Park and the Greenbelt, the best routes to get there and distances to the location--whether it be "two minutes to City Hall" or "eight minutes to downtown."

"Those are based on speeds of 12 mph, so five-minute miles in most cases," said Edmond.

In addition, Edmond plans to compile an updated map depicting the difference between high-speed streets like Meridian Road and better alternatives for cyclists.

"We're actually looking at coming up with a better, more user-friendly map on what you can expect from a given route. Whether it's high traffic, or low traffic, or speeds, where there are choke points in the system," he said.

For all the criticism of ACHD, Overton believes the highway district has clear goals for better bike infrastructure.

"By comparison to a lot of communities in this country, what the Ada County Highway District is doing for bicyclists is really pretty good," said Overton. "They have a great plan for adding all sorts of facilities, and they're really putting a lot of money into it."

Edmond also expressed confidence.

"We will complete those gaps of bike lanes," Edmond said.