A sign at the front gates of Louisiana College proclaims “Pineville: A Great Place to Call Home.” In many ways, this is perhaps hopeful at best, as Pineville, like the rest of the Alexandria Metro area, has many obstacles to overcome in order to be a truly great place to call home. But, they are working on it, and kudos to Mayor Fields and all who are working to improve the quality of life across the river.
Today, I explored the (still under construction) Pineville riverfront bike trail. I was actually out looking for a good place for an afternoon ride before the rain hit. Unfortunately, good cycling routes are surprisingly hard to come by here in CenLa. I say surprising, because if you ask most cyclists out on the trails in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, they’ll gladly talk about how much they enjoy coming to Central Louisiana for biking trips.
Most of these eco-tourists, if you will, frequent Hot Wells Road, Cotile and Kincaid Lakes, and areas north of town. Some ride south of Alexandria and many explore the forests west of here as well. But, as was discussed in one of CenLamar’s most popular articles, Alexandria’s walkability (and in this case rideability) is the one black hole in an otherwise great region for outdoor activities.
Alexandria (and for the purposes of this article I am referring to the entire metro area and particularly our dual downtown core of Alexandria-Pineville) is very much a car city. Simply put, you pretty much must have a car to live in our area. Granted, Alexandria is better than some cities. It is far more pedestrian friendly than Shreveport, Lake Charles, and Monroe, probably on par with Lafayette, yet far behind Baton Rouge and is blown away by New Orleans. We tend to come out ahead of many places merely based on our shape. Even with the alarming urban sprawl our area has experienced, much of our population still lives and works within a fairly contiguous, densely populated urban zone. Where we fall far behind however is in the safety of walking or riding within this zone.
The ease with which citizens can navigate the streets and neighborhoods of their city greatly influences the likelihood that they will actually use public transportation, frequent neighborhood businesses, walk and ride bikes, and actually take an active role in the vitality of their city.
This walking/biking, non-car driving existence is the core premise behind most every urban renewal and smart growth initiative out there. Alexandria is ripe for smart growth, and $4 a gallon fuel last year certainly has given our residents a taste for something of a lifestyle that is not so closely tied to their gas tanks. This leads us back to walkability.
Walkability in the sense of moving toward a pedestrian-centric urban core can be addressed at many levels. Certainly ensuring that master plans and new developments include pedestrian thoroughfares in the form of jogging, biking, and walking trails is a noble ideal. But the fact is, most master plans rarely leave the surface of the pages on which they’re written. No, to move a community toward safe easily navigable streets we must start not in lofty development goals, but in adapting and improving existing infrastructure. Lower cost conversion of sidewalks, trails, and road lanes provides an easily reachable goal with minimal logistic or financial strain on the community, and in a time of ever tightening budgetary belts, improving quality of life without straining the coffers is just the route we need to take.
From my own experience I can tell you that our metro area is dangerous and unpleasant to ride through. There are several areas of improvement that could remedy this quite easily. Many improvements could be made with little or no cost.
1. Cleanliness. Simply put, we have dirty roads. Throughout our area many otherwise fine roads are so littered with debris that riding becomes awkward if not dangerous. Keep in mind that the surface area of a bicycle tire is much smaller than that of a car. Thus, debris such as limbs, clods of dirt, nuts and bolts and screws and such can easily cause an accident to a cyclist. In addition, nails and glass and such can pierce the tire of a bicycle (and a car for that matter) or even cause a walker or jogger to slip and fall. The remedy is simple:
a. Enforce existing litter laws. Adopt a zero tolerance policy toward litterers. Whether it’s a refrigerator or a cigarette butt, litter is litter and only through absolute enforcement and prosecution will those who disrespect our environment ever be made to change their ways.
b. Adopt a schedule of regular street sweeping and cleaning throughout the cities and along highways throughout the parish. Not only do dirty streets create a hazard, but an unclean community is often cited as a major deterrent to development and a factor many companies cite in choosing new homes.
c. Use inmate labor teams to maintain and clean sidewalks and intersections where debris, gravel, and plant matter tend to collect.
d. Actively enforce existing city ordinances requiring property owners to ensure yards, bushes, and trees are well kempt and trimmed to maintain clear right of ways and unobscured views.
2. Lack of Safe Routes: There are certain roads that are safer for cyclists than others simply because of traffic, topography, crime statistics, etc. Some roads, regardless of condition tend to be difficult to ride on because of the placement of intersections or wind patterns or
grade. Not knowing the best way to go, or whether there is a certain route that is safe or easy, or even whether a given road will lead to a certain destination is a constant challenge to cyclist.
a. Work with police, road officials, and business owners, and cycling enthusiasts to identify and mark bike routes in both rural and city environments.
b. Ensure that these routes allow safe passage between neighborhoods and city resources such as shopping and working areas.
c. Mark routes with clearly identifiable route markers and assign unique bike route numbers. Make sure the routes direction is easily known and easy to follow while riding. Provide necessary safety and traffic signs and ensure that busy intersections include cyclist/pedestrian crossing signals.
d. Provide a map of bike routes and add local routes to existing mapping services.
e. Coordinate with local businesses to provide water/air points for cyclists and when not available construct rest areas (usually these are only a picnic table or small pavilion with an air supply, a water faucet, and sometimes a police callbox).
f. When possible, adjust lane markings to include a bike lane and make it illegal for motor vehicles to use this lane.
3. Infrastructure Problems: Pineville beats Alexandria hands down on their maintenance of sidewalks. However, they lose out in the fact that most their city has no sidewalks at all. Alexandria has sidewalks in most areas, but these are rarely contiguous, were never updated to ADA standards and often just stop abruptly with no reason. Ideally, cyclists should ride on the streets a under state law they are vehicles. Unfortunately, in many areas that is simply not practical due to the design of the roads themselves.
a. Repair existing sidewalks by replacing broken sections and patching holes.
b. In places where sidewalks do not slope to the road surface at intersections, reconstruct these surfaces. This provides not only an easily navigable surface for cyclists, but provides access to those in wheelchairs and ensure easy operation of strollers and baby carriages as
well as a smooth stable surface for walkers and runners.
c. Ensure that on-street parking does not impede the view of intersections. Mark areas near intersections as no parking areas and actively tow violators.
d. Properly mark intersections and roadways to warn motorists of pedestrians and cyclists and place stop lines behind the crossing point of sidewalks.
4. Education: Probably the single worst danger to cyclists in CenLa is the lack of attention from drivers. Cyclists are legally treated just as cars. They must follow the same traffic laws, and car drivers must treat them as their equals. Cyclists ride in the traffic lane (toward the right) unless a designated bike lane is provided. Cars must give them the same right of way, and courtesy they would provide to another car.
a. Educate the public on the laws regarding cyclists and pedestrians and on how cars are suppose to interact with them.
b. Issue an operator’s license. Require that cyclists take a safety class and pass a knowledge test. Either include bicycle safety as part of the standard driver’s license testing procedure, or issue a separate license.
c. Actively inform the public about bike routes and promote caution among drivers and cyclists.
d. Provide bicycle safety classes in Elementary schools.
5. Law Enforcement: Cyclists and Pedestrians are currently ignored usually by our local law enforcement officials. To ensure safe riding environments and to promote safe operation laws must be enforced and infractions must be prosecuted.
a. Ticket Cyclists. Before I can say anything about ticketing motorists, to be fair, if a cyclist breaks the law, he should be ticketed in the same way with the infraction going on his driving record.
b. Ticket Motorists. A car is much larger than a bicycle and the law is really the only defense and fighting chance cyclists have against injury from careless or purposefully malicious drivers.
c. Actively pursue crimes that endanger cyclists and pedestrians including running of red lights, failure to fully stop at stop signs, and failure to give right way when making turns, and driving on the shoulder.
d. Enforce litter laws and actively seek out litterers.
e. Place police on bikes and have them patrol bike routes. Give them the ability to cite vehicles and other cyclists and ensure regular visible law enforcement is available at all times.
There are more things we could do to make our community a better place to bike and walk. The construction of new pedestrian thoroughfares and separate bike paths would be ideal. But these recommendations are inexpensive if not free. They should already be in place and would
rectify existing problems that need fixing, regardless. And, they more than anything, simply require some active promotion of our existing resources and laws.
One thing I have left out of the above listing but that is also extremely important is adjusting zoning and building regulations to require businesses to provide bike racks. This is actually a big problem in the US, as no matter how willing someone is to ride their bike to work or to shopping, if they have no safe and secure place to store their bicycles, they still won’t be able to do it. Bikes are expensive, and bike theft is a major concern. Bike racks are inexpensive and can cheaply and easily be added to existing properties and included in new building design.
If your business has a bike rack available, or if you know of businesses that do, please tell us by commenting.
(Editor’s Note: The Mayor’s Office of Economic Development now has, in its possession and ready for distribution, bicycle route maps for the entire state. Just call Lamar or Daniel at 318-449-5009. Copies are also available at Spirits, Red River Cyclery, and Finnegans Wake).