Q: My understanding through the grapevine is that Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski has killed the plan to eliminate vehicular lanes on one-way Linden and Turner streets and replace them with bicycle lanes. Is this true? I hope so, because I thought it was a foolish plan that would cause chronic traffic jams downtown, particularly after the hockey arena opens. Even without the bike lanes, I anticipate downtown gridlock after games or events. They say there is enough traffic capacity, but judging by figures in a city consultant's report on the bike lanes, I don't believe it for a minute. Unless they switch all of the streets around the arena to one-way outgoing after games, it will take about six hours to unlock the gridlock.
— Terry Lindner, Allentown
A: The mayor hasn't sent the controversial plan to replace vehicular lanes with bicycle lanes on Turner and Linden streets to the scrap yard quite yet, Terry. He has, however, flashed the plan a cautionary yellow light.
The proposal, according to mayoral spokesman Mike Moore, "is on hold."
City Public Works Director Rich Young used the same phrase. "It's on hold," he said.
The main-road cause for the caution is the recent departure of former Parks and Recreation Director Greg Weitzel, a proponent of the bike lanes plan in particular and of the broader Connecting Our Community development plan of which it is a part. Weitzel, the highest-profile public promoter of COC and the Linden/Turner plan, left the city's employ in May to take a similar job in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
For a recap, here's the road map Weitzel was trying to draw for Linden and Turner streets.
One of the two motor-vehicle travel lanes would be eliminated on one-way Linden Street from 10th Street to 18th, and on one-way Turner Street from 22nd Street to Fourth. This would restrict 26 blocks' worth of vehicular traffic, including almost the entirety of Turner. Wide bicycle-only lanes would replace the vehicle lanes, providing a safer path for cyclists — particularly parents with kids and other less-frequent riders who fear for their safety if they two-wheeled it onto city streets.
Work-commuting cyclists and other frequent riders who know from experience how to speed through the city with determination, well-accustomed to riding in traffic and well aware of their rights and responsibilities, prefer the "shared road" or "sharrows" concept in which symbols are painted on vehicle lanes to remind motorists that cyclists have as much right to be there as they do.
Basically, bike lane and shared-road proponents are riding on opposite sides of the road in the Linden/Turner discussion.
Weitzel, city design consultants and others insist that bike lanes promote safer bike riding, and thus more riding among infrequent participants, including young people who could benefit most through the exercise it provides. The health challenges of many young Americans, stemming in part from inactivity, are well documented.
Judging by input at several meetings I've attended, I think most members of a citizens advisory committee on COC favor the bike lane proposal. That certainly includes the chairwoman, Julie Ambrose. who said recently she hadn't heard much about the plan since Weitzel's departure, but thinks it will pick up speed again after his replacement is hired. "It's my belief the project will be moving forward at some point," said Ambrose, who's also vice president of the Allentown School Board.
But sharrows advocates including Steve Schmitt of the Bethlehem-based Coalition for Appropriate Transportation, COC committee member and certified cycling instructor Brian Sherry and others insist that bike lanes, far from being safer, actually torque up the threat by offering a false sense of security and raising the opportunity for traffic conflicts with vehicles making turns at intersections.
There's a third issue: Residents such as yourself, Terry, as well as some police, traffic and engineering officials, chiefly are concerned about the loss of traffic capacity on Linden and Turner, particularly with the anticipated arrival of the hockey arena — Allentown's best and brightest hope for the city's long-awaited renaissance in decades. A study by Sam Schwartz Engineering of New York City concluded the two streets posses sufficient capacity to adequately handle a single-lane traffic load for most of the average day, though there could be problems for brief "rush" periods at some intersections. But some city officials are skeptical of that, which steers them in the direction of the shared-road advocates.
Setting aside the traffic-flow issue, my GPS initially sent me toward the shared-lane concept. But later in the journey, swayed by input at public meetings, I began to double back toward the dedicated bike lanes. What I was missing at first, I now think, were some basic questions: Should the city favor the relatively few fearless cyclists who already roam the streets, and always will? Or should public policy side with reluctant residents who might give biking a try if they had greater protection?
The avid riders have far less need for public support. Sure, the city could paint shared-road markings on more streets to remind the motorists of their responsibilities. But there's far more to be gained by luring the leery crowd onto bicycles. Even incremental success would be worthwhile; the cost is low, so there's little to lose.
Traffic capacity is the wild card. Are Schwartz's conclusions correct, or would the worst fears of opponents materialize in the form of chronic traffic jams? Nobody knows for sure. That being the case, and since the plan has been put into neutral, why not keep it there until the arena opens, possibly as early as fall 2013?
That would give everyone, including city police and traffic engineers, a chance to observe real-world traffic flow on Linden and Turner, and in turn to offer the mayor and city council better-informed bike lane advice. Bike lanes on Linden and Turner might very well promote safer cycling, and more of it, bringing only limited, acceptable consequences to bear for traffic flow. But there's really no rush to find out.
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