Potential seen to make Augusta more bike-friendly

Fifteen years ago, Milwaukee had a small but dedicated cycling community, much like Augusta's.

There were maybe seven miles of bicycle lanes for the entire city and convincing city officials to stripe new roads with bicycle lanes was a struggle, recalls Dave Schlabowske, director of communications for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

Today, Milwaukee is listed No. 25 on Bicycling Magazine's most bicycle-friendly cities in the United States. The city's Web site has a page dedicated to cycling in Milwaukee, including a map of bicycle lanes, trails, clubs and relevant laws and ordinances. The No. 1 city, Minneapolis, offers similar information on its Web site after years without catering to its cyclists.

"Everything was stagnant until they built bike lanes," said Schlabowske. "Suddenly in one year they built 33 miles (of lanes) and bicycle use went up."

The number of wrecks involving cyclists dropped, too -- something that local cycling enthusiasts would like to see happen.

There have been 30 bike/vehicle accidents in Augusta so far this year, including two fatalities, according to the Richmond County Sheriff's Office. Two of the more serious incidents have occurred this month. Dr. Dan Dickinson, 57, was killed Aug. 1 commuting to work on Belair Road; Ernest Tanner was critically injured riding a bicycle on Tobacco Road. In nearby Beech Island, Dr. Matthew Burke suffered serious injuries on a bike ride in October in Aiken County. He died in February.

In Minneapolis and Milwaukee, the number of bike/vehicles accidents went down after they put in more bicycle lanes, officials there say. In Milwaukee, the number of incidents went down 75 percent despite a 250 percent increase in cyclists over five years, Schlabowske said.

In Minneapolis, the crash rate with cyclists dropped from 12 percent in 1997 to 3 percent in 2009, data shows.

Hilary Reeves, the communications manager for Transit for Livable Communities in Minneapolis, said besides the physical separation between cyclists and motorists, bicycle lanes carry a psychological power, too. Motorists see the lanes and are more alert for cyclists, she said.

IT'S HARD TO SAY how many miles of bicycle lanes are in Augusta because there is no map or comprehensive list of locations. A survey was started in early June by planning and transportation officials to catalogue where Augusta's bicycle lanes are, but it won't be completed until this fall.

Anecdotal and visual evidence suggests that the lanes are inadequate.

Take the lane on Wheeler Road at Bobby Jones Expressway, for instance. It's four-tenths of a mile and connects with no other lanes. Most of the bicycle lanes in place are usually a result of new construction, such as the St. Sebastian Way overpass downtown and Alexander Drive, between Washington Road and Riverwatch Parkway.

But cyclists also say there have been missed opportunities to add lanes. Recent resurfacing on Furys Ferry Road is an example. David Riggans pedals that road regularly and said only about a mile of it was given a bicycle lane and that's on just one side.

"There isn't anywhere to go from there," he said. For recreational cycling, pedaling a half-mile bicycle lane 27 times "just isn't feasible," he said.

Some Augusta routes, such as Milledge Road, don't have bicycle lanes, but bear "Share the Road" signs or small markers that designate it as a bicycle route.

Frank Williams said that makes no difference if there aren't actual bicycle lanes or wide shoulders to keep cyclists from traffic. Usually cyclists stick to routes that they know are relatively safe and allow them to pick up a little speed. But it's not foolproof.

"Even routes we are accustomed to can be dangerous and they often are," said Williams, who has twice been hit by a car.

Williams said there are a lot of wide roads in Augusta with the potential for bicycle lanes, such as Laney Walker Boulevard and Sand Bar Ferry Road.

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver also sees promise in the city's existing infrastructure. One method under consideration is to take portions of roads like Broad Street and reduce them from four lanes to two, with the extra space used for bicycle lanes, Copenhaver said.

The city is also working on developing a trail system that connects the existing trails along the levee to Columbia County and even North Augusta's Greeneway. Copenhaver said the city has already acquired a large portion of the property buffer zones in those areas.

"The key is connectivity," he said. "It's been done in other cities and we can do it here."

TO MAKE VISIONS become reality for cyclists requires endorsement from city leaders and money, Reeves said.

A federal pilot program to make the Minneapolis-St. Paul area more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians pumped $22 million into the cities in 2005. Since then, bicycling is up 33 percent and walking is up 17 percent, she said.

That effort couldn't have happened, though, without a grassroots pressure to make things happen.

"I consistently hear that (citizens) have been pushing these things for 10 years and finally the pieces align," she said.

Brent Buice, executive director of Georgia Bikes!, said Augusta is about even with other Georgia cities -- including Macon, Columbus and Albany -- in bicycle lanes.

Augusta has the advantage of some of Georgia's older towns, such as Athens, because its roads were laid out before vehicles were common. That makes it easier to lay out bicycle lanes versus places like Atlanta where some roads were built just to move vehicles as fast as possible, he said.

He cautions that bicycle lanes are not a catch-all safety device. It's up to motorists and cyclists to be aware of the surroundings. When drivers are distracted, their car goes "from machine to weapon real fast," Buice said.

Randy DuTeau with Augusta Sports Council believes city leaders see the potential for Augusta to become a major cycling hub in the United States. The economic impact of June's USA National Cycling Championship and other cycling events cannot be ignored, he said.

What's important is that after everyone leaves town, Augusta still caters to its local cyclists and does its due diligence, he said.

Riggans commuted by bicycle when he lived in Houston and said conditions for cyclists are much more favorable in Augusta. But they still come up short.

"That's part of the frustration," he said. "There's so much potential for Augusta to be a bicycle-friendly city."

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TOP 25

The top 25 bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S., according to Bicycling Magazine:

1. Minneapolis

2. Portland, Ore.

3. Boulder, Colo.

4. Seattle

5. Eugene, Ore.

6. San Francisco

7. Madison, Wis.

8. New York City

9. Tucson, Ariz.

10. Chicago

11. Austin, Texas

12. Denver

13. Washington, D.C.

14. Ann Arbor, Mich.

15. Phoenix/Tempe, Ariz.

16. Gainesville, Fla.

17. Albuquerque, N.M.

18. Colorado Springs, Colo.

19. Salem, Ore.

20. Scottsdale, Ariz.

21. Louisville, Ky.

22. Chattanooga, Tenn.

23. Long Beach, Calif.

24. Cary, N.C.

25. Milwaukee

Learn more

- See Bicycling Magazine's top 50 bicycle-friendly cities at http://www.bicycling.com/news/featured-stories/bicyclings-top-50

- See a graphic of the bicycle/motorcycle crash rate in Minneapolis at http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/bicycles/CrashRate1993to2009.pdf

Safer rides

Closest cities to Augusta on Bicycling Magazine's list of top 50 most bike-friendly:

16. Gainesville, Fla.

22. Chattanooga, Tenn.

24. Cary, N.C.

29. Charleston, S.C.

40. Greensboro, N.C.