ANY WALKABLE AND BIKABLE BUSY STREET IN VERMONT? NOPE, NOT YET
Burlington, VT and other U.S. cities qualify through sincere and good works designations as “bicycle friendly” and “walk friendly” communities. Yet Burlington like practically Vermont communities and others in North America rarely feature a single both walkable and bikable busy street for all regardless of all age and skill.
True, Burlington does rightfully boast of its three-decade old Church Street Marketplace, a totally walkable four-block long plaza with three substantial cross street intersections where safe “shared space” takes place with all vehicles yielding to plaza walkers. Actually, for about two early morning hours when coffee and breakfast eateries operate, an informal bicycle and walker use occurs, a brief period each day when the Marketplace truly achieves a completely walkable and bikable status.
What qualifies as “bikable or walkable”?
A reasonable definition of a walkable and bikable busy street requires a context where those who walk and bike—regardless of age and skill—can move comfortably with a minimum of delay and with a high level of safety. Until the advent of the modern roundabout in 1956—particularly single lane roundabout designs which now almost erase delay for all users and for walkers reduce injury rates by 90%--walkability could only occur through plazas and undergrounds other designs which ban cars. Now corridors, nodes and areas involving busy streets can attain a walkable status using roundabouts, sometimes supplemented by other traffic calming devices. Of course street segments throughout this discussion presumably include sidewalks. Walker safety depends first and foremost on restraining vehicle speeds, something roundabouts uniquely do by design besides featuring median treatments as part of crossings so the walker deals when crossing with traffic operating in only one direction at a time.
Vermont boasts downtown roundabouts in Montpelier and Middlebury with walkability nodes extending a block or so outwards, modest but still important contributions to qualified walkable streets. Manchester Center joined the Church Street Marketplace as the second walkable corridor in Vermont last November with the completion of the second and third roundabouts along busy Main Street including one roundabout turning “malfunction junction” as it was called in the past for traffic jams during busy times in the upscale retail area to the “function junction” with the new roundabout.
A bikable busy street remained elusive until the introduction a few years ago in North America of a second European innovation “cycle track”, a bike lane separated from vehicle travelways by curbing, planters, bollards or other barrier types. The two-mile east-west Montreal DeMaisonneuve cycle track completed in 2007 highlights a major effort in bicycle network investments. This City project and other bikeway installations extending several miles through the center of Montreal may well have inspired the “bixi” bike, a shared bike system invented and first installed in that City in 2008 and since exported with equivalent rousing success to cities like Melbourne, New York City, London Washington, DC, Boston and Minneapolis.
While cycle track along with grade separated bikepaths or shared paths can place a street near a “bikable” status, busy intersections, mostly signalized, remain both a delay and safety risk, curtailing bike use by the less skilled, old and young. In Burlington, the shared path along Riverside Avenue from the Community Health Center to the Winooski Bridge represents a similar case in point—walkable and bikable except for the complex signalized intersections at the Health Center, a second intersection about mid-way to the Winooski Bridge and the final intersection at Colchester Avenue/Riverside Avenue/Barrett, site of a walker fatality in 2012.
Walkable and bikable now doable—cycle track along street sections and roundabouts at key intersections
But a bikable corridor can be fashioned with cycle track and a “pathed” roundabout at key intersections. This reaches a bikable and walkable level. A roundabout at key intersections with pathing designed to handle both walkers and bicyclists—separately or in a shared format. An alternate design—a shared or separate bike and walkway also rates as both walkable and bikable. A perfect example of a pathed roundabout can be found just south of the City of Plattsburg on NY 9 where a sidepath composed of a two-way bicycle path and a separately marked walkway on the east side of the highway then crosses a roundabout on the east leg—an example of a short walkable and bikable corridor because of the distance between major intersections.
This emergence of a new paradigm of walkability and bikability owes a great deal to the Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel who gave a major boost for cycle track since 2010 with his commitment to build 100 mile of cycle track in his first term, and the initial pages of a new book this year extolling the Mayor’s commitment. That book, “Reconsidering the Bicycle”, by University of Vermont Professor Luis Vivanco, touted as the first anthropological study of the bicycle, builds on Professor Vivanco’s work as a Burlington bicycle advocate and historian. Perhaps more important in the roundabout-path connection comes in two secondary research findings in a 1994 Dutch study authored by Chris Schoon and Jaap van Minnen and another study from the Swedish transportation research agency in 2000 (VTI). In the two nations where a cross section of the population bikes and walks, each study identified the high level of safety gain at intersections converted to single lane roundabouts for bicyclists as for walkers (as compared to signed and traffic signal intersections) when roundabouts are combined with paths so that bicycles avoid having to “take the lane” to travel through the roundabout and instead use the separate or shared use crosswalks.
In sum, the formula for converting existing streets and building new streets to attain walkability and bikability remains straight forward—cycle track/separate bike or shared paths for bicyclists, shared paths or sidewalks for walkers, and pathed roundabouts at key intersections. Plans already exist plans in Vermont and elsewhere either ready to go or easily revamped to carry out the new walkable-bikable design formulas. Case in point, again, Manchester Center where its 1995 called for a pedestrian circulation plan of all roundabouts on its T shaped street grid of Main Street and Depot Street. The Main Street corridor of roundabouts completes the Main Street part of the plan and a revision of the Depot Street plan to include cycle track appears feasible and the completion of Depot Street includes about three roundabouts, including converting two traffic signals. The entire shopping mecca becomes a walkable area and its east west spine—walkable and bikable. And not a single traffic light in sight! Putney Road in Brattleboro awaits construction funding for converting the three traffic signals south of the Keene Turn Roundabout to roundabouts and installing full walking and bicycling on each side of the roadway—thereby reaching full walkable and bikable status. Now all that remains is for Vermont transportation planners and policy makers at all levels to use the walkable and bikable formula to remake our urban areas and town centers into truly havens for walking and bicycling.