February 6, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 36°F


Shifting Gears: City of Ithaca pushes for more bike safety

With helmets strapped on and bikes in gear, several hundred residents and more than 80 volunteers came together at Streets Alive! Ithaca on Sept. 22 to support efforts to make the city’s streets more bike friendly.

The City of Ithaca wants to make its streets safer and easier for bikers to travel on. This vision is reflected in the proposed Bicycle Boulevard Plan, which aims to establish a network of bike boulevards throughout the city.

Bike-accident lawyer James Reed said New York state law affords cyclists the same protection rights as motorists.

“Because a bicycle is considered a ‘vehicle’ under N.Y. law, bikes are governed by the same laws as motor vehicles,” he said in an email. “Although contrary to most motorists’ beliefs, this means that a cyclist has the right to use the full road when necessary to ride safely.”

Adopted by the City of Ithaca Board of Public Works in September of 2012, the bicycle boulevard is set to begin construction during the summer of 2015. It will be a safe route for riders to get from one end of the city to another. According to the plan, the city will install traffic-calming devices like speed bumps, reduce speed limits to 25 mph and paint road markings that clearly label the street a bike boulevard.

The City of Ithaca, in conjunction with the Ithaca City School District, applied for and received about $300,000 in grants through the federally funded Safe Routes to School Project, $184,000 of which will be used in the construction of the Bike Boulevard Plan. Project Manager Kent Johnson said this is enough money to complete approximately 80 percent of the plan.

Streets Alive! Ithaca is a biannual outdoor festival coordinated by the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County. This year, event organizers closed one mile of roadway along Plain Street and Clinton Streets on the south side of Ithaca. Automobile traffic was stopped for three hours, allowing residents to walk and ride in the streets without having to worry about motor vehicles, which is a key component to the city’s new bicycle safety plans.

Bicycle-related objectives are in the works at Ithaca College, too. Senior Moriah Petty, president of Bomber Bikes, said the student club plans to pilot a bike-share program on campus next semester. The program will work like checking out a library book. Students will use their IDs to sign out a bike and be responsible for returning it on time and in good condition. Petty said the logistics still need to be finalized, but she is confident the program will come to fruition.

“The Student Government Association said we have a good chance of getting funding from them,” she said. “We have to write a proposal and get Risk Management on our side, but the administration has actually been really great working with us.”

Petty said Bomber Bikes also plans on seeking funding for the construction of another bike shelter on campus, in addition to the shelter that was erected outside Williams Hall last May. The second shelter will be located either outside the library or by the Circle Apartments, Petty said.

Down the hill, Andrejs Ozolins, a member of the Finger Lakes Cycling Club for more than 20 years, said while there has not been as much bicycle advocacy as he would expect in a college town, there has been consistent advocacy since the inception of the Bicycle Advisory Council in 1990. He said it is difficult to get city officials to listen and follow through with the needs of bicycle advocates in Ithaca because of the demands of a policymaker’s job.

“Their job is to explain to us why they can’t afford to do what we want,” he said.

Johnson said it is easier for city officials to enact changes when a large number of people ask for those changes.

“If not many people are clamoring for improvement, then you tend to focus on other things,” he said. “There’s always a push and pull for the very limited resources and attention span the city has.”

Vikki Armstrong, codirector of Streets Alive! Ithaca, said it is up to the residents of Ithaca to let their elected officials know what bicycle improvements they want.

“The City of Ithaca has staff and politicians who are very much in favor of making biking and walking more a part of the transportation mix,” she said. “They want to do it, but citizens need to come together and have a voice saying this is important to us.”

Initiatives such as Get Your GreenBack Tompkins, which encourages community members to save energy and money in the areas of food, waste, building energy and transportation, are looking to get the city’s attention. For GreenBack coordinator Karim Beers, the city is not doing enough right now.

“The city is doing so many good things, and they’re really taking steps in terms of supporting active transportation, but we really have such a long way to go,” he said. “In Ithaca, we pride ourselves in being very environmentally conscientious about these things, but if you compare us to other cities, we’re lagging behind.”

According to a 2010 study conducted by the American Community Survey, 2 percent of Ithaca residents ride their bikes to work. Beers compared that data with Portland, Ore., in which 6.1 percent of residents use their bikes to get to work, according to the 2012 American Community Survey. The League of American Bicyclists recognizes communities for being bike-friendly, and Portland is one of only four communities to be given platinum status, which is the highest award. With a population of 533,492, it is also the biggest city to receive this honor, making Portland the quintessential biking city in the United States.

Beers said he believes Ithaca does not have the proper infrastructure to make bikers feel safe. However, Petty said she doesn’t worry about cars when she rides her bike downtown.

Ozolins said he agrees that Ithaca is a great place to ride a bicycle, but not necessarily as a result of city-implemented programs. Rather, the low traffic and quiet roads in good condition lend themselves to enjoyable bike riding. Ozolins said while he loves Ithaca, there is untapped potential for the city to become a bike-friendly community.

Armstrong said the assumption that roads are made solely for motor vehicles needs to be challenged to show that cars and bicycles can coexist.

“There’s a quote by Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá,” she said. “He says a great city isn’t one with great roads, but it’s a city where a child can get around safely by bicycle. And that’s what we want in Ithaca.”