Where the Rubber (Barely) Meets the Road: How Bike-Friendly is Idaho?

Amid rising bike/pedestrian injuries, Idaho huddles for first-ever walk/bike summit.


People will have plenty to talk about during the first-of-its kind Idaho Walk Bike Summit, slated for Thursday, May 12-Friday, May 13:

• In the eastern Idaho community of Aberdeen, children can't participate in Walk to School Day because it's too unsafe to cross State Highway 39, which essentially cuts the town in half.

• A four-lane highway runs through the rural Latah County community of Troy, population 862 (the four lanes are designed to accommodate up to 22,000 vehicles).

• In Boise, a section of a bike lane on Americana Boulevard isn't much wider than a coffee cup (see image above).

"Seriously, I'm not joking. My coffee cup," said Chris Danley, principal of Boise-based Vitruvian Planning, city and transportation planning consultant. "There's an unwillingness to adjust the vehicle lane to accommodate a bike lane. But of course, the absolute opposite is true."

The biggest topic of conversation will undoubtedly be safety—or the lack thereof on Idaho roads. At the exact time that Boise Weekly was interviewing Danley for this story, an 8-year-old boy riding his bicycle in a Post Falls neighborhood had been struck and killed by a vehicle. Several days later, two more crashes, both in Boise sent two cyclists to the hospital. Two days later, still another Boise cyclist, traveling in a bike lane, was struck from behind by a truck. Boise police said the driver of the truck sped from the scene. All of these recent incidents came in the wake of a particularly dangerous April, in which vehicle collisions in Boise and Garden City resulted in two pedestrian deaths and three pedestrian and cyclist crashes—one a 5-year-old who was riding his bike in his Boise neighborhood.

Danley gets visibly upset when he talks of the greater frequency of such tragedies.

"Think of this: In Idaho, we have a $90 fine for a motorist who has failed to yield," he said. "You can hit somebody with your car and it's a $90 fine. You can get fined more for not picking up after your dog than hitting a human being with a car."

Cynthia Gibson, executive director of the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance, has been working on putting together a summit for more than a year. The event couldn't have been timelier.

"It's long overdue," said Gibson. "Everywhere we go, we're hearing from communities who want safer streets for kids to walk to school, greater access and better facilities. Idaho is a big state with a lot of space between communities. We decided it was time to pull everybody together."

The list of summit attendees includes elected officials from every corner of the state in addition to officials from the Idaho Transportation Department and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The two-day agenda features nearly two dozen sessions. And when scheduling a rally for Thursday, May 12 on the steps of the Idaho Statehouse, Gibson said there was only one choice for a call-to-action speaker: "One Arm" Willie.

"Yes, that's what people call me," said Willie Stewart, who lost his left arm at the age of 18 in a Washington, D.C. industrial accident, and went on to become a Paralympic Games 2002 silver medalist. He has since served as an advocate for men, women and children with disabilities.

"When you're a one-arm guy with little education, there's not a lot to do," said Stewart. "I applied to be a bike messenger and the owner said, 'Sure, go kill yourself.' Six years later, I was the highest paid messenger in D.C."

Though he's still an accomplished athlete, Stewart is best known these days as a motivational speaker and activist.

"I'm a big advocate for people who usually don't have a voice," he said. "Honestly, sometimes I think a little frying pan on the side of the head can help," he added, grinning. "I've had the opportunity to tie different groups together into a bigger community. If we add the voices of the disabled to the community of pedestrians and bicyclists, that's a force to be reckoned with."

Stewart is fearless on his own but, as the father of a 6- and 8-year-old, he's more cautious when cycling through some of Boise's streets.

"Front and Myrtle streets? Come on. That's eight lanes busting through downtown. It's dangerous, really dangerous to get across those streets," he said.

Danley couldn't agree more.

"Our streets in Idaho are disproportionate," Danley said. "Front and Myrtle are just two examples. There are roads all over Idaho that are disproportionate: four or even five lanes in a single direction. They're highways. We've got to consider a 'road diet:' taking a three- or four-lane road down to two or three lanes. But sometimes, when you tell someone you're thinking about taking a lane away, [motorists] feel threatened."

Gibson said it's usually easier to find support for something like a "road diet" among younger or older people. Middle aged? Not so much.

"Thirty percent of the population doesn't drive a car. That's quite a lot of people right there," Gibson said. "Teenagers aren't overly anxious to get a driver's license anymore. Young adults want to live in urban settings and walk or bike to work and possibly share a car when they need one but then, there's the aging population who don't want to be shipped off to an assisted living facility on the outside of town."

Danley isn't completely critical of the status quo of how Idaho plans its transportation infrastructure.

"Yes, there are some good things," he said, citing the new dog bone-shaped roundabout that replaced traffic signals on 36th Street, Hill Road and Catalpa Drive, near Hillside Junior High School. "That never would have been done 10 years ago. We didn't have any roundabouts in Ada County for years, but now we're finally coming around and, believe it or not, it's fiscally conservative, too. It saves thousands of dollars in electricity without a traffic signal. Most importantly, it provides a lot more access."

In the meantime, there are a number of things that Danley said could, and should, change overnight. That Americana bike lane, for example.

"Seriously?" he asked again. "You have to see it to believe it."