SPIN CITY

Syracuse appears on the brink of becoming a bicycle-friendly place.






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: English-Bowers, Molly
Date published: May 12, 2010

Twelve years ago, the FOCUS (Forging Our Community's United Strength) Greater Syracuse Vision Fair received a surprise answer to its question on how to best improve the area: Build bicycle and walking paths wherever possible. "It stunned everyone there that No. 1 was building leisure trails," notes Jon Cooley, director of recreation and public programs for Onondaga County Parks. And while that group consensus didn't result in an immediate burst of trail construction, some progress has been made in that regard.

Loop the Lake-a 13-mile, linked trail around Onondaga Lake-remains a dream, but the city of Syracuse has reconfigured some roadways to create, if not dedicated bike lanes, then at least marked-pavement bike routes. A good portion of Route 31, as it wends its way from Cicero to Baldwinsville, has signage indicating that it's a bike route, but the traffic-heavy corridor from Morgan Road to Gaskin Road leaves much to be desired.

Part of the problem there in the town of Clay, and in many spots, is motorist ignorance, apathy and even hostility toward their two-wheeled colleagues. The bottom line is that bicycles are subject to and allowed the same courtesy of motor vehicle law-but there's always a smart-ass out there that refuses to yield the right-of-way or tries to turn into traffic even though the cyclist is traffic.

Syracuse musician Tim Herron began road biking about three years ago, and doesn't see an improvement in motorist courtesy, especially once you get outside city limits. "The North Shore of Oneida Lake, along Route 49, it's frightening up there," he says. "I've never gotten run off the road but I got buzzed pretty close a couple times by these guys driving giant trucks. It just felt to me like they were doing it on purpose. Now, when I worked at Elmcrest Children's Center, on Salt Springs Road, and lived on Tipperary Hill, I would bike straight through the city and never had any problems."

Better driver education would help, but so would a change in the culture of Central New York toward people who aren't in a car. (Truth be told, however, bad driving seems to be on the upswing regardless of the increase of cyclists on the roadways.) It'll be a gradual process, but with the added emphasis on the environment and healthy habits, we may see as many bicycles downtown as we do cars and Centro buses.

And let's not inject the weather as a reason to commute to work in our cozy cars. Of the top 10 most bikeable cities, according to Bicycling magazine, seven are in northern climes, places that receive a fair amount of snow and can be pretty darned cold in February.

"There's a popular misconception about Syracuse being too cold to bike," notes Paul Mercurio, a transportation planner for the city's Department of Public Works. "It's a complete myth. Portland, Ore. {perennially No. 1 until Minneapolis dethroned it last year}, is not a warm place. In Europe, where biking is huge, in Amsterdam, Copenhagen- those are not warm places. The cooler weather climates are better for bikers, in fact, because you don't get sweaty biking to work."

Bicycling magazine cites Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., as Nos. 1 and 2 on the list, followed by Boulder, Colo.; Seattle; Eugene, Ore.; San Francisco; Madison, Wisc.; New York City; Tucson, Ariz.; and Chicago. "Seven of those 10 are places that get substantial snow," Cooley notes. "Worldwide, of course, Europe is far ahead of us. Amsterdam is listed as the top cycling city in the world, where 40 percent of commuters are on bikes. Copenhagen, Denmark, has 32 percent bike commuters."

In an effort to draw attention to the bikeablility of the Salt City, the Onondaga County Health Department put together Cycle in the City, a family-friendly event, for Saturday, May 15, from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Participants should gather at the Museum of Science and Technology, 500 S. Franklin St., for guided 5- and 10-mile rides through the city, as well as a bike-safety rodeo geared toward kids ages 4 to 12 put on by Syracuse Bicycle. The event is free; for more information, call 435-3280.

"The group didn't want to bite off more than it could chew with this event," says Cooley, a member of the Cycle the City committee, "and if you're looking to point out that you can bike in the city reasonably safely, then it really shouldn't have to be a special event. The ultimate goal is not to close roads but to use the paved surfaces to ride your bike. This small program, which I hope we get hundreds to participate in, will be a statement that we're behind making Onondaga County and the city a walkable, bikeable community."

WHEELS OF FORTUNE

Syracuse currently has 12 miles of bike lanes scattered throughout the East Side, down South Salina Street to south of Seneca Turnpike, and on Water Street heading into downtown from near Teall Avenue. This year, new lanes along Erie Boulevard West from downtown to the city line will become a reality. "The overall vision," Mercurio says, "is to make sure we have a north, south, east, west connection into downtown." To help matters along, last year the administration of ex-Mayor Matt Driscoll got eight bike racks installed throughout downtown, at a cost of $250 per two-bike rack.

"Not only are these bike racks a warm and charming addition to the downtown landscape," said Driscoll at their May 1, 2009, installation, "they are another feature of Syracuse as a sustainable community, encouraging people to adopt a healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle."

Funding exists to develop more bike lanes in the city-it's just hung up in the bureaucracy of the federal government. Mercurio calls that plan, slated for 2013-2014, the Waverly Project, and it will involve a lane reduction-what, in parlance, is referred to as a lane diet-on several key streets that abut Syracuse University.

"Already there is a bike lane on Colvin and Euclid, where it meets Comstock," Mercurio says. "The recommendation is to continue the bike lane to Waverly and have it go down Waverly and then have bike lanes down South Crouse facing north. We have been budgeted for the money. We requested $1 million to do that. It may be a low-end, and we may need to go to the county for more funding. There's no reason why we can't do this. If you have a road network that isn't complete, it's not going to make you want to drive a lot.

"If you build it, they will come," he continues, acknowledging the Field of Dreams cliché. "That's been proven in New York City and in Portland, Ore., that you build the biking infrastructure so it can be used."

Musician Hanna Richardson commutes to her job as associate deputy director of the Renee Crown University Honors Program at SU using her classic English three-speed bike. Her experience illuminates part of the problems bike commuters face. "It's five minutes on the bike but I avoid the main routes into SU because the traffic is so nutty when I'm riding," she says. "I only get onto Euclid when I have to and then I get on the sidewalk, even though I know I'm not supposed to be there."

While that portion of Euclid Avenue, from Westcott Street to Comstock Avenue, is marked for bike traffic, both sides also serve as spots for Syracuse's infamous alternate-street parking. "Euclid is a marked bike route," Mercurio points out, "but it's also a share-the-road facility. There is marking and we have signs up that say share the road with cyclists. It's not an official bike lane, by federal standards or in the traditional sense, but it's us trying to make the best of what we have. Still, when cars are parking on the left side of the road, the right side is free. It's confusing because cars are only parking on one side of the street at a time."

Despite the impediments, Richardson intends to keep commuting to work, by bike, when the weather cooperates. "I did it all last year starting in May, and was able to ride through early December. Now I'm starting up again. I don't want to pay for parking, and it's good for my health and it's fun and it makes me feel young."

So it's baby steps toward the development of a bike-friendly culture in Syracuse. But the quest is not impossible. "If we're going to develop a bike culture and get community leadership to embrace connective pathways and trails," Cooley says, "people need to see it happening and people need to participate. And people need to see it in other places. In New York City, there are hundreds of miles of bike paths, and they're adding scores of miles every year. The 240,000 people who commute to work on bicycles every day there represent 1.8 million commuter miles."

In fact, the explosion in bike commuting in the Big Apple is nothing short of remarkable. Witness a new monthly column in the Sunday New York Times Metropolitan section, and a blog, called "Spokes." Then there is the 66 percent increase in cycling in New York City over the past two years, according to Janette Sadik-Khan, the city's transportation commissioner who happens to commute on her bike. Currently, more than 500,000 New Yorkers ride their bikes instead of hopping into their cars.

On that Bicycling magazine list of the top 10 bike-friendly cities, New York City ranks seventh, which is pretty stunning to those of us who visualize rude, honking motorists and what seems like a million buses rumbling through Times Square. If developing a bike culture can work in a city of 8 million people, only the naysayers would pooh-pooh the idea for Onondaga County and its 600,000 residents. Interestingly, Rochester placed 50th on the list, thanks in part to the Rochester Bicycling Club's 300-plus ride-map library.

"Downtown Syracuse, from my perspective," Cooley says, "there's six lanes of pavement on most streets, and they're not all needed for vehicles. If New York City can reduce lanes on Broadway, then we can absolutely do that here in Syracuse without spending a lot of money."

The largest expenditure from creating bike lanes, points out Mercurio, is not implementing the road diet and reducing the existing roadways from four lanes to three or even two, but maintaining the bike lanes once they're in place. "It's not very expensive to put in a bike lane; the expense comes from maintaining it. Every bike lane you put in is that much more paint that you need to restripe each year. Along Meadowbrook, the paint wears away quickly; it's just an unfortunate condition of our weather around here. And it's not an upfront expense; it's a down-the-road, maintenance issue."

PEDAL PUSHERS

Like most culture-changing initiatives, getting something done requires cooperation among a slew of entities-government, educational, community and business. "Government responds to the needs of a community, and a key need is to support the businesses that help the community thrive economically," says Wayne Miner, president of the Onondaga Cycling Club (OCC). "Government is constrained by budget and by policy. By engaging companies, you're creating a larger economic force."

Corporations are often considered conservative, sluggish dinosaurs that are slow to change with the times. But those that recognize the importance of jumping on board with, or even spearheading, novel initiatives often attract the best and the brightest. Miner lists a handful of Syracuse corporations that support their employees biking to work or on their lunch hour. And it's not as easy as telling a 9-to-5 worker he can park his bike in his office or cubicle. Showers are necessary to a friendly work environment, for starters.

"It's a mixed bag of companies that support cycling, or not," he says. "I sent out some survey questions a year ago in this regard. Some employers aren't particularly supportive; others are. Those include Upstate Hospital, Syracuse University, CXtec, SRC and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

"There are some employees that both have those facilities and some that support the opportunity," he continues. "SRC, for example, is a great company: They have a cycling culture because they have a place where employees can lock up their bikes under a roof and shower facilities. They either commute to work or during lunch hour get out and go on a ride."

Indeed, says SRC director of communications and public relations Lisa Mondello, "It's not uncommon to see employees in their biking gear going through the halls and heading out to take a ride at lunch." SRC installed bike racks in an enclosed back lobby, with shower facilities and locker rooms, and promotes an in-house wellness program that encourages people to exercise. "The environmental aspects of employees who bike to work is very important to us."

A club since the late 1960s, the OCC is the largest and oldest cycling association in Central New York, with nearly 500 members. Steady growth has occurred over the last few years, which Miner attributes to the growing popularity of triathlon, although the club's membership peaked at 800 many years ago.

"The organization has a long history of supporting and developing cycling at all levels. But not just the racing. The idea is promoting and supporting cycling as part of a healthy lifestyle, and that includes commuting. It's not always easy to get from one location to another, but many do. We have one member that commutes almost daily from Memphis right into downtown, a doctor who works at Upstate Hospital, and a colleague who commutes from Cazenovia to Bristol on a regular basis."

Beyond promoting the sport as a healthy lifestyle, the OCC focuses on community engagement. As such, it is hosting its largest event of the year, the 16th Tour de Syracuse, which takes place over two days and attracts participants from across the Northeast and Canada. "It predominantly focuses on the amateurs in the sport, as well as the Lance Armstrong Junior Race Series (LAJRS), designed to get 10- to 18-year-olds into the sport, and to develop some of these young people. Some of these late teens have futures as professionals, if they choose."

A week after the decidedly more casual Cycle the City, the Syracuse Criterium, several .9-mile loops around Onondaga Park, depending on which race you choose, starts at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 22. A kids' race, at 12:30 p.m., for ages 2 to 14, also takes place around Hiawatha Lake, in Onondaga Park, accessible from Roberts Road in the Strathmore neighborhood. On Sunday, May 23, a Crooked Lake Time Trial, a 3-mile race in Tully, starting at 8:30 a.m., and the Song Mountain Road Race, beginning at 10:30 a.m., offer a variety of distances depending on age and gender of each participant.

Information on all these races can be found at www.tourdesyracuse.com. The OCC's website, www.onondagacyclingclub.org, provides the skinny on club activities, a link to a membership application (a mere $20 for adults), maps and bike routes, upcoming races and competitions, group rides and a club listserv for posting concerns, questions and answers. "We are always looking for ways to reach out to people, and this opportunity with the county, Cycle the City, is a great way to get people engaged in the sport," Miner says.

Although he doesn't consider Syracuse a particularly rider-friendly city, Syracuse Bicycle co-owner Paul Komanecky remains hopeful. "There's not too many places to store your bike once you get downtown, there's not showers when you get to work, there's not that many bike lanes. Hopefully, we'll start to see it. More people ride to work than ever before, and I think eventually we're going to get there. As more riders get on the road, it keeps the drivers aware, and people get a little more accustomed to it."

Like tennis, cycling is one of those lifelong sports that you can pursue as casually or as avidly as you like. But unlike outdoor tennis, you can cycle around town probably 10 months out of the year, and even opt to tool to work occasionally. If all the pieces fall into place, that is.

"Will people bike to work? Absolutely," claims Cooley. "So many of us would love to if we could do it safely, or if we knew where the routes are. There are thousands of people out there within the metro area and the close suburbs who absolutely would be bicycling to work and bicycling to play if we can promote better what's existing and then build the bandwagon. The infrastructure is there; now we have to lead people to it."

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