Region races to keep up with cycling demands
The last time John Sfan was hit by a vehicle, he was commuting to work on his road bike from Prosser to Truckee. As the logging truck blew past Sfan, it bumped him off the road on to a dirt shoulder. It was the second time he’d been bumped by a logging truck.”They said I looked like I saw a ghost when I got (to work),” said Sfan, a manager at The Back Country bike shop in Truckee.As a result of the incident, the Washington, D.C. native who moved to Tahoe four years ago for the biking (“There it’s much more bike friendly”) won’t commute to work on the same route. Sfan’s wife Heather shares a similar story: an RV knocked her off her bike in early spring on Boca-Stampede Road. Neither reported the incidents to the California Highway Patrol. They didn’t see the need or want the hassle. Both were simply happy to be alive and relatively injury-free.For cyclists who have had similar run-ins, this is a common mind-set. They understand riding on the highways, though completely legal, comes with palpable risks – logging and construction trucks, gawking and/or negligent drivers, narrow to negligible shoulders, gravel. Like Sfan, they also believe if there is a minor brush, chances are little can be done about it. The records of several local law enforcement and emergency agencies reflect few if any meetings of motorists and bicyclists, because of such reticence. But according to Sfan, that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for concern.”All it takes is one injury. We don’t need a lot of statistics to have a problem,” Sfan said. “I can’t believe someone hasn’t gotten killed yet.”Riding on the road isn’t solely the concern of the people riding bikes. “Bicycling is big bucks,” said Chris Morfas, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition. Besides being a $1 billion a year industry in California, bicycling has impacts that reach beyond getting exercise or going to work.Each summer, three things come to the Truckee-Tahoe area: long sunny days, cooling breezes over the mountaintops and people from the Bay Area, Central Valley and elsewhere, in their cars, escaping the heavy heat of the lowlands. With these visitors come a conundrum for our communities: how to balance the crucial tourist dollar with, at peak times of day and holidays, inevitable python-like traffic woes.It is this traffic that has been the pervasive bane of Lake Tahoe for decades. Spurring not only a time and space problem in Tahoe, congestion is also a gas guzzler. With traffic comes another grave concern for the basin: pollution and its perpetual threat to lake clarity and crisp mountain air. As a result, almost every local government agency has studied how to reduce the glut of traffic by incorporating bikeways into their community plans.Smooth pavement, lots of obstaclesBike friendly is a bicycling buzzword to describe community acceptance and viability of bicycling. It is “a physical environment that cyclists can safely ride in and a cultural environment that supports cyclists,” said Morfas.Many, including Sfan, gave mixed reviews when asked if the Tahoe region was bike friendly. Gordon Shaw, vice president of LSC Transportation Consultants, said Tahoe is bike friendly depending on the type of bicyclist.”It’s easy to think of all bicyclists as one group, but there are really many different groups,” said Shaw, who has consulted other resort destinations such as Jackson, Wyo., and Aspen on bike plans. In the Truckee-Tahoe area, there are families and recreational cyclists along with road bikers, but, Shaw said, “Those two groups are looking for two very different facilities. Tahoe is more bike friendly for the recreational rider, especially for those riding the bike trail system – it’s good, but not perfect. The Truckee River Trail is a great facility. Tahoe is less bike friendly for the serious cyclists because we don’t have good consistent paved shoulders around the lake.”Anyone who has tried to ride the road along the West Shore of Lake Tahoe knows what Shaw means by less bike friendly.”If you ride down the West Shore you take your life into your hands,” said Sfan.The West Shore of Lake Tahoe isn’t the only dangerous area for road cyclists with its thin shoulders (Shaw considers bike friendly shoulders for road cyclists to be at least 3 feet wide). Highway 89 north of Truckee remains a concern. Sections of the East Shore south of Incline Village and near South Lake Tahoe can turn a seasoned road rider’s handful of brass to a pile of pulpy nerves with the rumblings of a Winnebago. Fellow The Back Country employee Matt Duniho, 31, echoed these sentiments about riding around the lake.”Where there are no bike paths, it’s really dangerous. Bikes or not, there’s a problem in Tahoe with all the rubberneckers looking at the lake,” said Duniho.But even the bike trail contains obstacles, he said.”In peak summertime, it’s really dangerous on the bike trails, with drunk cyclists, out of control dogs, flying fish hooks, rafts in varying states of inflation, rollerbladers not paying attention. There’s a lack of education and awareness on the bike. The trail is still a dangerous thing. Every serious cyclist I know has a story about a run-in with a car,” said Duniho.Currently, the Truckee River Trail from Tahoe City to Squaw Valley Road, which had 400,000 users last year (not all bicyclists), in Shaw’s words, “dumps the rider” into Tahoe City. However, this should change with the construction of a new path that will connect the river trail through Tahoe City with the North Shore bike path. But user conflict remains as bicyclists vie for space with pedestrians, rafters and strollers on the trail and cars on the street. All have equal rights to use the infrastructure.Nor does the problem only exist around Lake Tahoe. Sfan and Duniho both had accidents in the Truckee area. Glenshire Road is avoided by some cyclists because of its high traffic and narrow shoulders. Sfan said The Back Country would rent bikes out of Truckee if the town had a continuous bike lane around Donner Lake.”You can’t convince a family with kids to ride down (Donner Lake) now,” Sfan said.According to Gavin Ball, associate planner for the Town of Truckee, Truckee is cognizant of this and is completing a comprehensive look of an on-street bikeway system that links all different communities of Truckee and surrounding areas. The two-year study, their Trails & Bikeways Master Plan, encompasses 32 square miles and is expected to be adopted by the end of the summer.”Truckee’s really not bike friendly, but slowly it’s becoming more bike friendly,” said Ball.Although still in the draft stage and with a long-term approach to implementation, the Truckee Trails Bikeway Master Plan will nonetheless facilitate cycling in the area, making biking to work, school or for fun more accessible and safer.”We think it’s crucial for the health of our community, particularly for a growing community,” said Ball.A strong headwindThese problems historically stem from several sources: finances, planning and awareness. Although Governor Gray Davis recently added $15 million over five years to the state’s Bicycle Transportation Account, only $5 million is allocated statewide for bicycling related projects each year. And money is distributed based on population and need.When a technical project like the Midway Bridge between Alpine Meadows and Olympic Valley costs $2.4 million for seven-tenths of a mile, it’s not easy to get the necessary funding. On top of that is maintenance, which often falls to local government and agencies to address.For instance, the Tahoe City Public Utility District generally spends $200,000 on bike trail maintenance each year ($250,000 for 2001) for 18 miles of path that are primarily used from April or May to the first snowfall in the fall, said Parks and Recreation Director Bob Duffield. Of that $250,000, Caltrans picks up $163,360 since the bike trail is in Caltrans’ right of way. But with the amount of use it gets, especially from visitors and second homeowners, the maintenance cost is worth it, Duffield said.”Overall we’re pretty friendly, and we hear that. Many come here just to ride our trails,” said Duffield.Truckee has little maintenance costs because there are no bike trails, only bike lanes, which fall under Caltrans or Nevada County jurisdiction. Incline Village and Washoe maintenance costs were not available.Leaning into the turnCyclists aren’t the only ones aware of the lack of bikeways. Numerous agencies from the federal level to the TCPUD and the Town of Truckee, have taken issue with deficiencies in multi-modal transportation planning. Caltrans, considered by Shaw and others as unfocused on bikes in the past, has become more concerned with impacts of roads on communities than previously. “Currently, we’re trying to put bicycle elements wherever possible. TRPA, CTC (California Tahoe Conservancy) have bike master plans, so when we do projects – rehab projects – roadway projects, we include bike elements wherever possible. It’s an important part of what we look at,” said Tim Sobelman, Caltrans project manager for the Lake Tahoe Basin. Such projects include the possible widening of Hwy. 89 south of Tahoe City.With the advent of its Bikeway 2000 plan, the TRPA has demonstrated a strong commitment to bicycles as a sustainable alternative form of transportation with 90 miles of new bike trails proposed.”From air quality and transportation to recreational needs, bicycling is increasing in importance,” said Pam Drum of TRPA. “With the bike trail projects Tahoe is getting more and more bike friendly every day. We continue to make progress in our goal to have a complete bikeway system around the basin.”(Bike trails) are a critical component of the whole Lake Tahoe experience that people want. When people are looking for a destination for a vacation, they’re looking for places that have as many amenities as they can find.”Such plans include Tahoe City’s Lakeside Trail.The first phase, to be built this summer, consists of extending the trail from the 64-Acres Bridge to a site south of Fanny Bridge. Duffield expects the last phases of the project – through Tahoe State Recreation Area on the north end of Tahoe City – to be completed by the fall of 2003 at an estimated project cost of $4.4 million.Since 1997, Incline Village has seen $600,000 in improvements to sidewalks and bikeways with several new bike paths going in on Tanager between Village Boulevard and Oriole. In addition to these bikeways, Incline Village and Washoe County maintain the bike paths year-round, allowing for easier bicycle commuting, something Tahoe City has not been able to do.”To some degree the bike path is not designed for plowing. We’ve got all these great goals for making (Tahoe City) pedestrian friendly, but you can’t walk anywhere in winter without walking in a traffic lane,” said Shaw. Measure E, the proposed transportation tax which failed to pass a vote last summer, would have provided some funding for Tahoe City and Truckee River Bike trail maintenance in the winter.Dick Minto, Washoe County road supervisor for Incline Village, said maintenance of the bike paths in winter has proved successful.”You do see them get a lot of use,” said Minto. “I didn’t agree with it at first. I didn’t think anyone would use them in winter. And it’s not that bad to maintain in terms of cost.”However, more bicycle trails isn’t the answer to traffic woes.”We’re not going to solve traffic problems by building bike trails,” said Shaw. “We, as a community, haven’t put in the money to improve traffic problems.”But Shaw and others believe every person who gets out of the car and onto a bicycle helps. And, says Shaw, it’s critical to give people some options.Even with the improvements, it might not be enough to get people out of their cars. It’s still up to the individual. However, Morfas does see irony in the environmental efforts of some people.”It’s funny to see the Keep Tahoe Blue stickers on bumpers of SUVs, but the real people keeping Tahoe blue are those who are riding their bikes.”
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