State studies expanding bicycle network on roads

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MONTPELIER >> The state is completing the first phase of a bicycle route study that will lend "a sense of priority" to making bike travel easier on the state's highway network.

Jon Kaplan, bicycle and pedestrian program manager at the Agency of Transportation (VTrans), released a map last week that shows the volume of bike traffic on state highways.

The map shows the volume of bike traffic on nearly all state roads, and the priorities for building or improving bike lanes. With that map finalized, the so-called On-Road Bicycle Plan initiative will next examine safety and accident data on the map's high-priority corridors and identify safety strategies.

The highway map depicts the state's roads as blue, green or yellow, depending on whether improvement to bike access is a high, moderate or low priority, respectively. The three priorities are evenly split, with each access level identified on roughly one-third of Vermont's highway system.

Stakeholders depicted their priorities for better bike access by marking the routes in question on an interactive on-line "wikimap." To see where bike traffic was concentrated, the mapmakers also used so-called Strava data, locational information transmitted by cyclists carrying a mobile app for the purpose. More than 2,100 Vermonters furnished input for the wikimap, while more than 10,000 contributed Strava data.

All that information, along with interviews with bike touring companies, comments from emails and public meetings, and an analysis of land-use data, was then scored and weighted to describe actual and potential usage of highway segments numerically.

The map's three colors depict segments of non-limited-access, state-maintained highways. State-numbered highways under town or city jurisdiction, such as Route 23 in Addison County, are excluded. So are interstate highways, where cycling is illegal, although the limited-access, partially completed "Circ" – the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway – in Essex is included, with the hope that it may someday be opened to cyclists.

"Everyone here is looking forward to the day they can bicycle on it," said Peter Keating, at a videoconference held last week.

The map also omits, for example, municipal bike paths and the Cross Vermont Bike Trail, which a nonprofit association is working to build from Burlington to Wells River. Nor does the map depict U.S. Bike Route 7, which was designated part of a nationwide bike-route system in 2014 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. That route follows a variety of roads and trails roughly paralleling Route 7 from Massachusetts to Canada.

The On-Road Bicycle Plan routes include village and city streets, rail trails (unused rail rights-of-way that have been transformed into trails) and even "rails-with-trails," where bicyclists and pedestrians can travel alongside active rail lines, whose rights-of-way are often as wide as 100 feet. As of June 2014, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation had 217 rails-with-trails running alongside a spectrum of freight and passenger lines.

Kaplan said that VTrans had looked at the rail-with-trail option elsewhere in the state, but safety concerns were raised. One possible route would go between Rutland and Bennington.

Washington County likewise has a state-owned and little-utilized rail line, which runs through Montpelier, Berlin and Barre, but here the state is looking at Route 302 – the Barre-Montpelier Road – as a prospective bike route. VTrans is planning to reconfigure part of the busy road during next year's construction season to create bike lanes in both directions.

The 302 project will proceed in some degree of isolation. The remake will not affect the highway in Montpelier or Barre, which bookend the segment. A two mile section from the Barre-Berlin line to Barre's downtown, for example, will continue to lack bike lanes.

"If our lane reconfiguration is successful, then we could I think do something to reach out to [Barre City] to see if they would be willing to mark [lanes]. I do think they have the room," Kaplan said. "Certainly we'd be looking for that kind of [Barre-Montpelier] continuity."

"We recognize that this effort may ultimately grow" to encompass city thoroughfares, VTrans assistant director Kevin Marchia said at the videoconference, "but you've got to start somewhere."

Kaplan said VTrans' main focus is bike lanes for state-maintained highways, which are supposed to be improved under a 1985 state statute which says that "any construction, or reconstruction, including upgrading and resurfacing projects on [major state] highways, shall maintain or improve existing access and road surface conditions for bicycles and pedestrians along the shoulders of these highways . . . unless the agency deems it to be cost-prohibitive."

The wiggle room in that law and the perennial pressures to constrain state spending could continue to hamper construction of bike access lanes.

Kaplan said while the VTrans plan focuses on high priority roads, "we don't want people to feel, on the lower-priority roads, that we're not going to make improvements on those roads, too."

Several participants at the videoconference meeting said favorite routes had gotten short shrift. Kaplan summarized those sentiments: "'I can't believe such and such is yellow! It should be at least green!,'"

"We're going to definitely look at that feedback. . . . and make final adjustments" to the master design, he said.

VTrans is accepting comments on the map until Dec. 16.


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