Cape Girardeau could take a lesson from Oregon, Alabama cities

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Editor's note: Matt Wittmer is a Cape Girardeau native and an avid cyclist. He is helping to plot a bike route from Canada to Key West, Fla., as part of the East Coast Greenway. Wittmer's portion of the ride started in September in Washington, D.C., and will end in Key West in November.

The East Coast Greenway has a purpose. Fifteen years of deliberate thought and action went into it. It's based on the fact that bicycle travel can literally change communities from the ground up. I've met some people this week who convinced me it is, in fact, visionary.

I chanced upon the first-ever Charleston, S.C., Bike Summit and attended a Coastal Georgia Greenways meeting in Savannah. I was privileged to speak at both and, more importantly, to listen and learn.

Working off a blueprint designed by the League of American Bicyclists, Charleston aims to become a Bicycle Friendly Community. If that sounds like a soft designation, Andy Clarke, executive director of the League, begs to differ.

Bicycling addresses many of the most pressing societal issues of our time: the obesity epidemic, our dependence on foreign oil, air pollution, road congestion and, yes, global warming. Even if you consider that last one liberal phooey, I doubt you can deny the rest. More than 40 percent of American car trips are under two miles; many more could be taken by bike or on foot.

The league has a rating system for cities extending from bronze through platinum. It bases its judgments on five E's: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation and planning. A community has to apply, be prepared to be turned down, reassert itself and apply again.

The process of making a city bike-friendly can be momentous. It takes grassroots mobilization, cooperation and money. I've met landscape architects, urban planners, city council members and local advocates and activists.

Cape Girardeau shouldn't take these larger cities as examples. We should look to Corvallis, Ore., or Auburn, Ala. -- communities of comparable size that are executing plans to make themselves places where bicycling is safe, convenient, enjoyable and accepted.

The Osage Trail is great. I'm certain it's increased our overall fitness, enhanced civic pride and decreased accidents, but it's only a start. Barring a motor vehicle, how is it accessed? To my knowledge there isn't a single bike lane in the city.

For starters, I suggest some spurs off the current trail. People walk and ride along Independence coming from Aldi's, Kmart, Schnucks or Hastings. Wouldn't it be nice to grant them safe passage from the trail to those spots?

I see folks riding Route K from Kingshighway. There's a wide shoulder, but couldn't it be improved with a little paint and some bike symbols?

Why not make William Street an east/west corridor connecting downtown and Interstate 55? Once drivers are aware of safer bike/ped routes, they're on their way to becoming accustomed to sharing road space.

Outside the city core, though, beyond the confines of the university, does anyone really choose to forgo their vehicle? Why would the city put money and effort toward a marginal activity with the potential for low usage?

In short, stripe it and sign it, educate and inform, and it's proven numbers will slowly increase. People will begin riding and walking to work, on errands and for recreation.

We should solicit the Safe Routes to School Program. Every state offers grants. It promotes activity and strengthens neighborhoods by assisting communities in enabling and encouraging children to safely walk and bike to school.

And Cape Girardeau should set a goal to become the first Bicycle Friendly Community in Missouri. It will take planning, effort, reallocated money and patience. It's not too late. I and my bicycling friends only modestly ask to be considered in the growth process and current modification of our roads.

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