The New Mexican published a pretty good commentary on the surge of bicycling during the pandemic in the hope the surge would have staying power (“Support cycling to keep wheels turning,” My View, April 19). That said, we must identify specific issues in Santa Fe needing improvement to keep those wheels turning. For National Bike Month, here is my list.
Our trail system, while wonderful in some respects, often doesn’t go where you need to go as a transportation resource. Much of retail Santa Fe is built up along major corridors such as Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive. But there is not dedicated bicycle accommodation along these corridors. This seriously impedes using a bicycle for local commerce.
Trails don’t work by themselves. The Rail, Chamisa, River and Acequia trails depend on relatively safe streets knitting them together into a system in order to get from point A to point B. We also need better wayfinding so new riders or visitors can make these connections. As an example of how connections can work, I can ride the River Trail from home in Casa Solana to Frenchy’s Field Park, then ride Osage Avenue to get to the Ace Hardware at St. Michael’s Drive and Cerrillos Road. But to bicycle to Rob and Charlie’s bike shop or a number of stores on St. Michael’s Drive, I must negotiate a multilane urban “highway” designed to move cars as quickly and efficiently as possible; a bicyclist is an afterthought to both planners and motorists on these big, fast roads.
Which brings up a jurisdictional point. While the city has been improving conditions for cycling, the state’s roadway jurisdictions (Cerrillos Road, St. Francis Drive, St. Michael’s Drive and a few other urban roads under state control) are often intimidating to a bicyclist. St. Francis Drive, rebuilt more than a decade ago with six lanes, eliminated any feasible way to include bicycle accommodation in its right of way, trading bike lanes for increased motor vehicle service. Meanwhile, slapping a pair of bike lanes on the rebuilt Cerrillos Road super-arterial doesn’t make it bicycle-friendly. The high travel speeds ensure any crash will be gruesome, and the massive number of traffic lanes ensures a bicyclist is almost sure to be overlooked by turning and crossing vehicular traffic.
What this points to is that the planning and design of infrastructure matters. Vision Zero principles tell us to assume operator error is inevitable. We must design our transportation infrastructure to minimize calamities when these errors happen.
It makes little sense to design a separate bicycle infrastructure, even if feasible, while leaving the lion’s share of infrastructure inviting high-consequence accidents to happen to everyone else. But redesigning infrastructure is expensive and time-consuming. Meanwhile, we can lower the speed limits to a point where a crash is not gruesome.
For example, Albuquerque has put in at least one “bicycle boulevard” with a speed limit of 18 mph. But practically, you cannot control speeds with a few signs. You have to design a road so it looks like it should be driven at lower speeds; this can possibly be done in some locations using ingenuity rather than bushels of money.
Finally, if you allow urban sprawl to take root (such as Albuquerque’s Santolina proposal or some development ideas closer to home), a bicycle, even an electronic-assisted bike, could become impractical. Infill is a good idea not only to ensure there is plenty of tax base per acre but to ensure that bicycling, mass transit and walking are not untenable for someone on an actual schedule.
Rather than building out, we should be building in and up. For example, zoning the midtown campus for residential housing at a density commensurate with the center of a city. Let’s recall that the most desirable parts of the city are walkable, dense and where it is often hard to find parking. Parts of the city that are dense but not walkable or bikeable may not be so desirable.
It’s all complicated and politically fraught, but if you are trying to change the urban transportation paradigm to one of sustainability and less fossil fuel dependence, an integrated examination of urban designs, zoning plans and multimodal equity all matter.