Walking and biking aren’t just recreational

Published 10:40 am Tuesday, June 22, 2010

One of the things I like about living in Albert Lea is biking around Fountain Lake or taking the Blazing Star Trail out to the state park. On the bike, I’m much more aware of what’s around me: Sunshine flickering across blue (well, OK, sometimes green) water. Trees waving in the breeze. Birds calling out to each other. People of all ages fishing from boats or bridges. Getting out on my bike helps keep even the most frustrating or tedious day from being completely unbearable.

I realize that “quality of life” issues — like bike trails — might seem trivial in a week when families made homeless by tornadoes are putting their lives back together, but those sort of trivial “qualities” in a community reveal the kind of people who choose to live in it. We are the kind of people who risk our lives to assist our neighbors during a disaster, and who volunteer our time and resources to help them recover afterwards. And, yes, we are the kind of people who spend money to make cycling and walking easier and safer. Even in the shadow of the last week’s destruction, those trails make me glad we chose to live here.

Many years ago, I lived in the city of Erlangen in Germany; it’s one of the most pedestrian and bike-friendly communities in Europe, with bike lanes on many streets and separate pedestrian and bike paths, bridges and tunnels all over the city. Even in winter, I didn’t need a car to get to class, buy bread at the bakery or vegetables at the market, since the bikeways were cleared just like the streets.

Email newsletter signup

As I compare where I lived then to where I live now, what I miss most is the ability to easily and safely walk or use my bicycle to do errands. Here, despite Albert Lea’s small size, it’s hard to get around safely and easily on a bicycle. I’m always competing for space with vehicles that are much heavier. We in Albert Lea need to recognize that walking and cycling are also ways to take care of errands and get to appointments, not just a way to help build a healthier lifestyle for residents.

Next Monday’s City Council meeting will include a presentation and public hearing about proposed bike lanes for Front Street, stretching from Southwest Middle School all the way to the beginning of the Blazing Star Recreational Trail. Front Street is a good choice for a cross town bike route, at least for people who live south of Main Street. And if the route continued as Front Street turns into Garfield Avenue, it would be even better, giving people living in the southwest and northeast quadrants of Albert Lea easier, safer ways to use their feet or bikes to get to schools, stores and the swimming pool, among other destinations.

So, it’s a good idea, this bike lane proposal. But having lived in a city which made the investment in separate bike and pedestrian paths, I’m not overwhelmed by my enthusiasm.

This is partly because of resentment of the way we’ve let our ideas about getting around town be directed by our dependency on cars, like leaving out sidewalks in newer neighborhoods and on major thoroughfares. Why do walkers and cyclists always have to defer to the desires of drivers? Why weren’t the abandoned rail lines that once criss-crossed the city turned into bike and pedestrian paths years ago? Why weren’t bike lanes automatically included in reconstruction projects on major thoroughfares?

Part of my lack of enthusiasm for bike lanes on Front Street, however, is more practical. Removing the loading zones at Southwest and Sibley will create a major headache for the schools and the families who pick up their kids along that street. It may end up creating a dangerous situation for students, outweighing the safety and convenience bike lanes offer to cyclists.

Should the bike lane only be on the north side of Front at that location? Cars aren’t supposed to stop to pick up kids on that side of the street anyway. Would having a separate bikeway at the stretch be a better option, even though it would be more expensive?

I don’t know what’s going to be the best solution. I hope something can be worked out. More importantly, whatever the City Council decides to do, planning and work on ways for cyclists and pedestrians to get around town needs to continue. It’s a quieter way of demonstrating our priorities than helping out during and after a disaster, but it’s still significant.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.