Pie in the sky vs. road safety now

Four years ago, to meet comprehensive planning requirements of the state Growth Management Act, the city of Bainbridge Island adopted the Island-Wide Transportation Plan (IWTP). The plan identified the large risk to cyclists and pedestrians of traveling on most island roads, and said growth is making this worse. The plan set out 40 miles of road improvements to make roads safer.

Two years ago, the city put the IWTP in a round file and began a new planning process, called Sustainable Transportation, with the primary objective of reducing gas emissions. In their third year, the planners have no firm proposal, but they are focusing heavily on cycling as a way to reduce auto travel. They believe new infrastructure off the roads, including new paved trails across parks and private property, would make cycling more comfortable and attract many people who don’t cycle today.

As a longtime cyclist, I enjoy this vision. But the way it is being pursued presents three major problems. First, the delay in action caused by the new planning process gives cycling less impact on gas emissions, not more. Second, the cost and environmental impacts of this new infrastructure would be an order of magnitude greater than simple road improvements, which are not cheap. This makes the vision remote at best. Third, the new city planning process is preventing progress on road safety.

The last need not be the case. Long range planning and road safety now are not mutually exclusive. We could make the road improvements called for by the IWTP and at the same time look for ways to attract more cyclists and pedestrians with trails and other off-road infrastructure. This, however, is not the city’s approach, as evidenced by its budget. The city’s capital improvement plan for the next four years includes almost nothing for road safety for cyclists and pedestrians together.

Four years is a long time in reducing gas emissions. The benchmark for the city is a 90% reduction by 2045, but the feds and the United Nations are both telling us that we need massive progress by 2030 – that is, in nine years, not 24.

Fortunately, the auto industry is moving fast. More electric cars are produced every day, and they are becoming less expensive than gas cars. The average age of vehicles owned by households is about 10 years, and very few households have vehicles older than 25 years. With islanders’ concern for the environment and their prosperity, half of the gas autos on the island may easily be replaced by electric autos in 10 years, and three-quarters or more in 25 years. Over the same time, gas emissions from electricity generation will also decline. PSE says it will move from heavy dependence on coal and natural gas to carbon free generation by 2045.

This will be great for reducing gas emissions. It will also dramatically reduce the impact of cycling on gas emissions, because the auto travel that cycling replaces will be emitting very little gas in 2045. Road safety now can reduce gas emissions now. Despite our dangerous roads, one commuter out of eight is cycling today, and ebikes will multiply this. Each cyclist added now by increased road safety will reduce gas emissions as much as two new cyclists in 10, years and five or more new cyclists in

24 years.

Can the city’s new vision be accelerated? An expert consultant brought into the planning reminded us that a new transportation network must be complete to be effective. The island’s low density means that the per capita cost and tax rates for paved trails and other off-road infrastructure

throughout the island would be very high. Trails would also cut more trees and cross wildlife habitats. A functional network would require cooperation from 100% of the people whose property must be crossed. If all this can be solved, it certainly can’t be quick.

The same expert told us that rural roads are twice as likely as urban roads to give cyclists serious or fatal injuries. Cyclists must be in the auto lanes because there are no shoulders, and autos go fast. Pedestrians on most island roads face the same risk. There are more cyclists and pedestrians than four years ago, and more autos, too, with little control of their speed.

Simple road improvements are within reach, would start reducing gas emissions now, and would increase safety now. The question is whether the city can see this.

Peter Harris, Bainbridge Island