Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Local politics - fury at the Jefferson bikeway

This is, on the one hand, a very local story. Local, that is, to my neighborhood of Macalester-Groveland, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

On the other hand, it's a universal story. Life is fractal. The smallest sample of political strife captures almost every detail of the national scene.

It's a story about a well intended program to identify a St Paul road, Jefferson Avenue, as a "bikeway". This doesn't mean bicycle lanes or parking restrictions; it means the city uses federal funds to make the road friendlier to bicycles and pedestrians and reduce through traffic.

This was very welcome along most of the road. The changes will increase property values and make resident life more pleasant. The problem, and it was a loud problem, arose in a wealthier neighborhood. There Jefferson was already somewhat pedestrian friendly, save for two dangerous cross streets -- Cleveland and Cretin.

For some residents along that part of Jefferson there was tremendous anger at the idea of the bikeway in particular and bicycling in general. This anger was stoked by mistakes made by city planners. A community meeting was called, and so, for the first time in my relatively political life, I attended a public meeting.

It was at once a painful and fascinating experience. The painful part came from the yelling and occasional ranting of several of the local opponents. It was almost as bad as sitting through AM talk radio. Their emotions were raw, and initially mysterious. Much of what they actually said was illogical; some spoke as though bands of chain wielding lycra-crazed fetishists were going to be keying their cars.

Sadly, although there was quite a good turnout of supporters, the opposition was much louder and perhaps more numerous. I know several friends of mine with active and busy lives were unable to attend, and that my own attendance will cost me sleep time. A public forum, by its nature, is friendlier to the retired and the inactive.

Pain aside, this was also a fascinating experience. Listening to things said and unsaid, it became apparent that for many of the locals, the real fear was not the packs of rabid riders they spoke of (who'd never go this route of course -- racing packs need space!). It wasn't even the stated anger at cyclists running stop signs.

In reality, and some even admitted this, many of the elderly audience feared injuring a cyclist. Worst of all, injuring a child. They know they, or their spouses, are not the drivers they were. They accept the cost and annoyance of a low speed collision with a car. That's just money. A collision with a cyclist, or even dooring a cyclist, is another matter.

There were other sources of anger. A number, particularly from the less elderly opposition, were angered that any amount of taxpayer money was going to spent on what they perceived as a foolish activity - riding a bicycle. They had difficulty with the concept of their taxes serving anything but their personal wants.

The fascinating bit was to see the emergence of common ground. Even many of those who yelled objections, recognized that as pedestrians they were unable to safely cross Cleveland and Cretin. One opponent, primed by a prior speaker, admitted with some surprise that she'd had to wait for "53" cars to pass before she was able to cross Cleveland. (Minnesota drivers are, by and large, unaware of the state crosswalk law. If they do know it, they pretend not to. We Minnesotans are not particularly good drivers.)

A reasonable compromise seemed, at least to me, to be evident. Both locals and family cyclists would love to have a pedestrian activated crosswalk stop and signage at both Cleveland and Cretin. The north-south drivers, after all, are largely suburban commuters. None of us mind slowing them.

Perhaps we could even forego the bikeway markings and signs. The most contentious road area is, save for the dangerous crosswalks, quite bicycle friendly already. It could become a de facto bikeway even as it became more supportive of resident pedestrians. In time, many of the fears will fade. Everyone, one day, will be happier.

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