Because of its relatively small size, Bainbridge Island could easily become a walking and biking community.
“In Bainbridge you can do anything you want. All basic services are within fifteen minutes,” said worldwide transportation expert Gil Penalosa, who spoke to city, parks, land trust and task force leaders and the public at a Zoom meeting Tuesday.
City consultant Jennifer Wieland said if BI really wants to reduce its carbon footprint and improve health of all Islanders it needs to follow Penalosa’s advice. She is helping the city create a vision and implementation for a Sustainable Transportation Plan that will live up to the city’s Climate Action Plan. That can only be done through integrated networks and partners working together, she said.
Penalosa said transportation networks need to work for everyone from ages 8 to 80. “Then they will be good for everybody.”
Penalosa recommends having separate paths as bikers go 12 mph while walkers travel 3 mph. “That’s not a good mix,” he said, adding trails should be for recreation and transportation and interwoven into the city. Penalosa said every city should lower the speed limit to 20 miles per hour to encourage more walkers and bikers. “People who are scared don’t want to walk,” he said, adding with slower speeds many traffic accidents could be avoided.
He said communities need to stop building cities for people age 30 who are athletic, and make them so everyone can walk and bike as much as possible. They need to make them safe so children can walk to school and grandparents can bike. He said sidewalks are the most important structures in cities. “They give a sense of belonging. Sidewalks are really the life of a city,” he said, adding separating pathways from roads also make people feel safer.
He said the system needs to be for all ages and abilities, not just for “expert riders in spandex.” He said being outside is exhilarating. “We use our senses when we walk. We hear nature. We smell,” he said.
Penalosa said BI could be just as good as Copenhagen, Denmark, where bikes have become more popular than cars since the oil crisis of the 1970s. Since BI has a goal of using more non-motorized transportation, it will take a structured campaign and a network of protected bikeways so people will ride “no matter what the weather.”
He said during COVID-19 people actually learned a lot – with fewer cars on the road the air was cleaner. “Do we want to go back to where we were or move forward differently?” he asked, adding that even though more people became homeless, hotels were ironically 80% empty.
During his presentations, Penalosa showed slides from all over the world with active walking and biking communities. In one town, he explained how streets are open to people and closed to cars on Sundays. One in four people use it, he said, and it’s great for “social integration.”
People interacting is healthy, and another way to do that is to have schools open on evenings and weekends so people in the community can play cards and other activities. “Schools should be community hubs,” he said. Playgrounds also are great for interaction. He talked about a community where half the playground was made for children and half for adults. “A park is only great if people visit, stay and return,” he said, adding parks should have activities to “engage the community.” He also talked about another area where golf courses become public parks for a 24-hour period each week.
He said adults should be doing 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week. To do that easily, biking and walking need to become a “normal part of everyday life.” He said when people are active it decreases illnesses. “The cost of doing nothing is very high,” he said. “You need to act as if you are in a crisis.”
Penalosa said the U.S. is focused on health care but it should focus more on health promotion. “God was very generous” to the people of BI, he said. “God provided 90%, you need to do the other 10%.”
He said societies need to work toward equity, not equality. Provide “everybody what they need to be successful.”
Penalosa, who has consulted with 350 cities, said there will always be opposing forces. “Change is not going to happen unless we make it happen.”
Public transit also needs to be for all, including the rich. It needs to have “speed, connectivity and frequency or people will not use it.”
Mayor Rasham Nassar asked if downtown Winslow should be the focus of connections since it’s in the middle of the island. Penalosa said half of all trips taken in the U.S. are three miles are less. He also said on e-bikes it’s “easier to do long distance.” He also said parks and schools should promote walking and biking. In the old days, people used to walk 80% of the time and use cars 20%. “How do we get that back?”
Dawn Janow of the parks department said moms spend a lot of time driving kids to activities. Penalosa said it “doesn’t make sense to drive them all over the place” when they could use their bikes if a safe bike network is constructed.
Jenny Lange of the land trust asked how transportation trails can be mixed with wildlife. Penalosa answered, “Nature is absolutely necessary for mental and physical health.” Roads for cars are harder on wildlife than trails for bikers, he added.
Schools superintendent Peter Bang Knudsen asked about BI’s declining population of students and the need for affordable housing. Penalosa said government needs to intervene “otherwise it’s not going to happen.” He said BI needs to become more kid-friendly — “not a Disney World for (ages) 50 to 80. That doesn’t make a good city in the long run.”
In response to a parks foundation question about paving trails creating “a lot of resistance,” Penalosa said there needs to be a combination of surfaces, although pavement makes it easier for all ages. He did say bikers who want to go 30 mph need to ride with cars, not on trails. Walkers like to daydream and enjoy nature, so they need a separate path, he said.
The event concluded with a video on Victoria, B.C. Penalosa wanted to show what can be done in a nearby city with a similar climate. The movie showed how changes funded by a gas tax reduced greenhouse gases and, “it’s actually good for business.” He said they didn’t have to “convert people to ride bikes all the time,” but they do provide options. They created a “great pedestrian downtown with active, livable streets that inspire people to walk.”