CHAMPAIGN — City officials on both sides of Wright Street are peddling a new trend: They're building bike lanes, and compared with other Illinois communities, they're pretty persistent.
Urbana is already regarded as a "bicycle-friendly community" by the League of American Bicyclists, and Champaign officials hope to crack the list this year. It is not easy to achieve — only four other Illinois cities can claim the distinction.
Bold bicyclists and fist-shaking drivers don't always get along, but they will need to get comfortable with each other. The list of "bicycle-friendly communities" is growing, and the trend will not stop any time soon in Champaign or Urbana.
"The United States is having a renaissance of bicycling infrastructure," said Urbana city planner Rebecca Bird. "There were communities that were doing bicycle planning up until the '60s and '70s, and it kind of went away and the car became king."
Now it's back. Bird said bicycling has garnered more attention as gas prices and obesity issues have come to the foreground of Americans' minds.
City planners say the benefits are many — fewer cars on the road, less congestion and the public health benefit are among them.
"It's just a whole list of all of these things that are kind of converging now and pushing forward bicycling," Bird said.
Champaign has installed about 9 miles of bike lanes during the past couple years, most noticeably on First, Randolph and State streets through the campus and downtown areas.
"Those were significant projects that really changed the culture of bicycle commuting in Champaign," said Assistant Planning Director Rob Kowalski.
City officials are hoping it has changed the culture enough that Champaign can be named the sixth "bicycle-friendly community" in the state. They have submitted an application for the designation, and they hope to be named later this spring.
The city of Champaign as an organization is already considered a "bicycle-friendly business," and it is not the only local group on the list. The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, Common Ground Food Co-Op and That's Rentertainment are on the list of Illinois' 10 bicycle-friendly businesses. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the state's only "bicycle-friendly university."
In other words, Champaign-Urbana groups appear more often than any other Illinois community, including Chicago.
Gary Cziko, an avid bicyclist and past president of Champaign County Bikes, said the culture change is important. Motorists have to know that they are required to respect the rights of bicyclists, he said, and bicyclists need to know they have to follow the rules of the road.
"That's the key thing that really makes this work," Cziko said.
No free rides
City officials have more projects in the hopper, including a 2-mile stretch on John Street from Prospect Avenue to Kenwood Drive.
There is a cost, Kowalski said, but compared with other kinds of road projects, it is relatively inexpensive to stripe bike lanes or "sharrows," which are road markings that indicate drivers and bicyclists are expected to share the lane.
Champaign budgets about $90,000 every other year to provide for bicycling infrastructure. That is enough to do about 2 miles of bike lanes, stripes and road signs, Kowalski said. He expects that the John Street project will exhaust that funding.
"It's not enough to do all the projects we'd like to do," Kowalski said. "But sometimes there are street improvement projects that are being done otherwise."
That strategy is used in both Champaign and Urbana. A lot of bike lane installation can be done — for a little bit cheaper — when crews are doing traditional road maintenance anyway.
Bike lanes will be included, for example, when the city and the state do side-by-side projects to overhaul the Windsor Road bridge over Interstate 57 this year. Workers will add bicycle lanes and sidewalks to North Market Street during a resurfacing project this year, too.
Of the two cities, Urbana has the more robust bicycle plan, a physical document that is consulted whenever public works officials are planning a road project.
The plan "normalizes it and makes it included in what the public works department is doing anyway," Bird said.
It puts what planners refer to as "complete streets," which are roads that provide means for safe travel for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, to the front of engineers' minds.
"Now, bicycle planning isn't just an afterthought," Bird said.
Unlike Champaign, officials in Urbana do not even fund bicycle installations differently than any other project. Instead of a separate line-item for bicycles, all the money is included in the massive capital improvement plan.
Some of the money can come as a gift. Last year, Urbana was awarded a $199,000 grant from Safe Routes to School to install bike lanes within a 1.5 mile radius of Urbana Middle School.
The network included 2.2 miles of bike lanes, a half-mile of shared bike/parking lanes and 5.6 miles of bike routes. The project also included installation of 112 new spaces on bike racks.
The safe road
Urbana is a bronze-level bicycle-friendly community, and Bird said officials are looking to be upgraded to silver level this year. Evanston and Chicago are the only silver-level cities in Illinois.
But with more bicyclists on the road comes more opportunity for conflict.
In 2011, the most recent data available, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported a 1.9 percent decrease in total fatalities on American roads. But during that same time, bicyclist fatalities increased 8.7 percent, from 623 in 2010 to 677 in 2011.
Champaign County had one bicyclist fatality in 2009, none in 2010 and two in 2011, according to the NHTSA.
Kowalski said he thinks that strengthens the argument for bike lanes and sharrows. They raise awareness and slow drivers down.
"We believe that the bike lanes actually help reduce some of the conflicts right now," Kowalski said. "It gives the bicyclist a dedicated space to ride."
Cziko said that compared with other places he's been, Champaign-Urbana is a very safe place to ride.
"How safe you are is primarily a function of how you behave as a cyclist," Cziko said.
Drivers in this area, he said, are knowledgeable about how to interact with bicyclists.
"Cyclists get pretty good respect here if the cyclists are acting in a predictable, lawful way," Cziko said.
As far as becoming a bicycle-friendly community, physical infrastructure is not the only thing that matters. The League of American Bicyclists expects the top cities to educate their residents and enforce their laws.
Kowalski said that is a top reason why he thinks Champaign will make the cut.
"No. 1 is the great amount of education and outreach we've done for bicycling in the community, including participation in bike rodeos and safety classes," Kowalski said.
Jeff Yockey, the president of Champaign County Bikes, said he was a lifelong bicyclist and very comfortable riding through Champaign, Urbana and campus. But even he learned a few things about riding in urbanized areas when he took a riding course offered by his group last year.
"I'm a more confident rider now," Yockey said.
Cziko said Champaign could use a little work on the enforcement aspect. Urbana has an ordinance on the books that police can use to write tickets to drivers who do not interact well with cyclists, and he hopes Champaign follows suit.
Even more important than physical bike infrastructure, Cziko said, is that everyone has to remember that "the road is for people, not cars," and that everyone is more safe when they follow the rules.
"When you do that, it's quite amazing how easy it is to ride anywhere," Cziko said.
'The Five Es'
Physical bike infrastructure is not the only thing the League of American Bicyclists wants to see in its "bicycle-friendly communities."
"The Five Es" are what city planners use to improve the bicycle culture in their communities. The more Es that a city can say it is proficient in, the higher the level of bicycle-friendliness it can achieve.
Urbana is considered strong in the "engineering" of the Es, according to the league, but has not yet received distinction in the other four — hence its bronze-level status. Urbana city planner Rebecca Bird said the city will evaluate its other Es to make a case for a promotion to silver level.
— Engineering: According to the League of American Bicyclists' website, this is defined as "what is on the ground; what has been built to promote cycling in the community." Bicycle lanes, multi-use paths and bike parking are all included.
— Education: Not just for cyclists, but also drivers. "Education includes teaching cyclists of all ages how to ride safely on multi-use paths and congested city streets as well as teaching motorists how to share the road safely with cyclists."
— Encouragement: The league looks at the level of promotion a community does. "Good promotional measures are Bike Month and Bike to Work Week events as well as community bike maps, route-finding signage, community bike rides, commuter incentive programs, and having a Safe Routes to School program."
— Enforcement: The level of police involvement in the bicycling community "and the existence of bicycling-related laws such as penalties for failing to yield to a cyclist while turning or penalties for motorists that 'door' cyclists."
— Evaluation and planning: Communities are judged on the systems in place to evaluate their work, including "measuring the amount of cycling taking place in the community, the crash and fatality rates, and ways that the community works to improve these numbers."