Bike Trials 

Disjointed bike paths raise tempers, while ACHD looks for solutions.

Good news: When it comes to bicycling in Boise, more people are doing it, cutting back on traffic and pollution.

Bad news: The pathways and bike routes throughout Ada County are disjointed and are occasional points of contention among residents and users.

For decades, Boise has touted the Greenbelt as one of the greatest amenities of the city. But leave that solitary path, and safe bike routes get spotty at best.

While some streets have marked bike lanes, they don't always connect to others, leaving bikers to either wind their way through back streets or to risk getting smacked by a car along busy roads.

It's an issue the Ada County Highway District is keenly aware of after years of complaints. While the city has repeatedly been named a bike-friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists, Don Kostelec, planning and program manager at ACHD, knows it's a bronze award­—the lowest given by the organization.

"We're going in the right direction," Kostelec said. "But we're also at the bronze level. There's a couple of levels higher to go."

To step up to that next level, ACHD began the first part of a new bike planning effort in April. This public phase began by going straight to those who use Boise's pathways and roads for bikes, to find out where and how often people ride their bikes. The online survey was a first step in identifying where limited funds could be spent to get the best result.

As part of the study, ACHD teams counted daily bike trips at 33 different locations at peak hours. "We wanted to know how the system is being used out there today," he said. "Then we can look out at two, five, 10 years after improvements are made and look at how the usage has changed."

During the survey period, 1,200 bikers were counted across the county. While Kostelec said he expected areas like the intersection of the Greenbelt and Eighth Street to be busy, it was popularity of other areas that caught him off guard. Among those was the intersection of Veterans Memorial Parkway and Chinden Boulevard.

In just a two-hour period, 63 bikers came through the busy intersection. "We picked some pretty gritty locations," Kostelec said of the intersection, where all five lanes are packed with traffic throughout the day.

So what does this mean? "There's a lot of interest from cyclists even when it's not the most conducive," he said.

Boise bikers seemed more than ready to share their opinions on the issue. Between May and June, 2,162 surveys were completed online, one of the highest totals ACHD's bike path designer, Alta Design and Construction of Portland, Ore., had ever seen.

The surveys revealed that the majority of bikers said they take to the roads for exercise (88 percent), and recreation (83 percent), although 62 percent of respondents said they commute to work. The average distance of a trip was 5 miles or less.

"This tells us we're not going to see long-distance commutes," Kostelec said. "The average household has 10 vehicle trips per day of the same distance. If we can put those facilities in place to encourage bike trips, it helps to alleviate congestion and air quality."

So why aren't people riding bikes more? Kostelec said 75 percent of respondents said it was because of the lack of bike paths, lanes or routes.

Lately, one section of pathway, or rather lack of access to a pathway, has been at the top of the list of contention.

The trail runs behind the Riverside Village development in Garden City, a high-end subdivision home to some of the most expensive real estate in the county. When it was built roughly 30 years ago, the 6-foot-wide path on the north side of the Boise River was under the control of the homeowners association. The city has since taken over ownership.

The trail, which is roughly half the width of the paved Greenbelt, was listed as a pedestrian-only trail in Garden City's Greenbelt Master Plan, published in 1997. But it wasn't until earlier this year that the ban was enforceable.

Some bikers in the area have taken exception to this, saying that it's their only route to connect to the Greenbelt without being forced to ride on busy State Street.

Leading the charge against the ban is Gary Segers, who launched a campaign against the closure, saying that the city, and particularly Mayor John Evans, is pandering to the Riverside Village homeowners association.

"I've been raising issues with the city," Segers said. "'What are you going to be doing about this?' I keep hearing the same thing, 'We're concerned about it. We're working on it.'"

Segers said the city has known about the issue for years, but hasn't done anything about it, and questions officials' short-term plans of creating a bypass that would allow bikers to access Riverside Drive, which would allow them to cross the Glenwood Avenue bridge, and then connect to the Greenbelt.

Evans said he agrees that there is a need for a bike connection, but he said Riverside isn't the place for it. He said the city is working out a deal for a bypass, but is also looking at a long-term solution that would allow Eagle to link its pathway system to the Greenbelt. Garden City and Eagle are in early discussions to build a bridge across the Boise River near the eastern tip of Eagle Island.

While discussions are ongoing, Evans said no final decisions can be made until after the November elections, when Eagle will have a new mayor. The project would also need to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The issues of river crossing is one that is foremost for ACHD planners as well. "Getting across the river is important for any travelers here," Kostelec said.

ACHD also has to consider retrofitting older roads. Many of the roads built within the last 15 to 20 years were constructed wider than necessary, giving road crews some wiggle-room to create marked bike lanes whenever resurfacing or construction projects allow, Kostelec said.

Narrow bridges and overpasses can be problems, though. The cost of adding extra width to any of these structure is cost prohibitive, so ACHD is looking at new shared lane markings used in some larger cities and throughout California.

These markings give greater attention to areas where bikes are forced to share lanes with vehicles, but they have not been adopted as a national standard yet, Kostelec said.

Boise does have some advantages over larger cities though. "Cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., have road systems built 100 years ago and are very narrow and it's hard to go back," Kostelec said. "We're in good condition. The road system is still developing, and even older roads are wider."

The next step in the bike planning process is to put together a draft document, which Kostelec said will be presented for public comment beginning in November.

While the results of the survey are still being tabulated, he said it's clear what bicyclists want: cleaner bike routes, better connections and fewer goatheads.

Kostelec said cleaner routes is an easy matter of maintenance, and more bike lanes and connections are the point of the new plan. But goatheads—that's another issue.

"Luckily, they make some good kevlar tires today," he said.

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