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CYCLING AND SAFETY: Adding safety infrastructure for cyclists easier said than done

Designated bike routes and road crossings have become an increased presence in Fort Wayne. (By Justin Kenny of The News-Sentinel)
The planned Pufferbelly Trail from northern Allen County to the Rivergreenway will stretch 13 miles, including a bridge over State Boulevard near Wells Street. (Courtesy illustration)

The perception to some is that the City of Fort Wayne should be doing much more for its pedestrian and cycling traffic than it currently does.

Reality is, as usual, much more complicated.

The News-Sentinel sat down with city officials this past week to discuss safety on the roads, particularly for cyclists.

By the middle of next month, Fort Wayne will surpass the 100-mile mark of bike and pedestrian trails, a major milestone.

It is just one in a series of steps to make Fort Wayne more welcoming to an increasing number bicycles — from avid road bikers to commuters to and from work.

“We have put the greenways and trails in the public works area instead of recreation, which has allowed us to grow by over 120 percent in 10 years in the amount of trails in our network,” said Frank Suarez, Fort Wayne’s Public Information Officer. “We look at (cycling) as a means of transportation, and that is a big improvement (over most other cities.”

Designated bike lanes, sharrows, bike route signs and sidewalk ramps complying with Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines have all seen increased presences within the city limits.

Downtown Fort Wayne has seen significant upgrades in bike signage and designated lanes. While bike lanes seem like a simple solution to a safety issue, Fort Wayne City Engineer Shan Gunawardena points out the logistical obstacles for even simple bike lanes.

“We have a group of people who really want to ride their bikes…but we have only so much rightaway we have to work with,” Gunawardena said. “I can’t take away capacity on the roadway needed during peak hours for motor vehicles for off-peak ridership.

“I need to make sure my peak-hour traffic is taken care of.”

And that is one of the major issues. While some city streets and avenues of travel could benefit from increased infrastructure for cyclists, investing the capital in the improvements while also taking away space needed for motor vehicles — whether it be regular traffic lanes, turn lanes or parking — isn’t always an option.

Conversely, adding sidewalks or bike paths along city streets is easier said than done as well. Land in private hands must be acquired, sometimes tripling or even quadrupling the cost of a project.

“The challenge for us has been, almost every major street that goes through the city was designed and once functioned as a state highway,” Gunawardena said. “Very few of them were designed as urban streets, so the changes we are talking about to accommodate those changes are not easy and not cheap.”

Budgetary concerns also loom large. In a perfect world, Fort Wayne would be able to address every “problem area” when it comes to motor vehicles and cyclists. Unfortunately, the funding just isn’t there.

Small projects — such as bike lanes and bike route signs — complement larger projects that come about every few years.

For instances, the multi-phase Maplecrest Road project currently under construction comes with a hefty price tag, but will provide safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Pufferbelly Trail is currently only 2.25 miles long, but will eventually cover 13 miles from northern Allen County to the Rivergreenway, complete with notable bridges over Coliseum and State boulevards.

While plans are plentiful going forward, the public can help increase the need for additional projects by walking and riding more from place to place. According to the City of Fort Wayne, 30,000 people live within three miles of downtown, with a third of them working in the immediate downtown area. If even one-fourth of those people walked or rode a bike to and from work, it would put an onus on the need for more in the way of non-motor vehicle infrastructure.

“You could almost say that we have done so many things so wrong for so wrong that the pendulum has swung all the way to the other extreme where people now want everything for themselves,” Gunawardena said. “We are kind of sitting in the middle trying to address both sides. That’s been a hard place to be at sometimes.”

Of course, no amount of infrastructure supersedes the need for proper safety training. The city continues to work to engage with cyclists and motorists alike on proper protocols when it comes to sharing the road.

City Greenway Program Manager Amy Hartzog put it simply.

“The goal is to mass condition drivers to know that they are not the king of the road as much anymore.”

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