Last week the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization tweeted an article in Wired Magazine that described the evolution of a Dutch strategy to create protected bicycle lanes through major traffic intersections.  As a cyclist, I couldn’t be more pleased that Nashville’s city planners are finally starting to think about safety for cyclists.  Watch the video to learn how a concept like this one may help increase safety for non motorists in Nashville.

safe-cycling-design-concept

Concept for safe biking / walking lane design, proposed for the George Mason University 2014 Cameron Rian Hays “Outside the Box” Competition.

I have seen personally how European countries have promoted cycling to alleviate urban traffic and promote healthier air quality in dense urban areas. The Dutch are famous for their bicycle friendly towns and having a flat, low lying terrain certainly helps.

When I received the tweet I was excited for two reasons:

  1. That such an idea was being forwarded by a US planning organization.
  2. That a major U.S. city planning organization was using Twitter!

In fact, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has embarked on a significant program to improve cycling and pedestrian accessibility in Nashville. Like many U.S. cities, Nashville is primarily designed for automobile travel, and our residents’ travel habits are still very much entrenched in the ease and flexibility of taking the car.  The challenge is to upgrade the pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, providing safe connection routes to avoid an increases in auto/ pedestrian or auto / cyclist accidents while the pedestrian and cyclist numbers increase.

One of the most dangerous intersections I regularly transect on my bicycle is the intersection of Highway 70 and Old Hickory Boulevard in Bellevue, a classic example of a road that was designed primarily for promoting automobile traffic and has had a designated cycle lane added to it.

dangerous-intersection-nashville

The intersection of Old Hickory Boulevard and Highway 70 in Belvue.

The intersection in Bellevue is the de-facto city center of this suburban community, which was first incorporated in 1794. The intersection is notoriously unsafe for both pedestrian and bicyclists, despite Highway 70’s recently added cycle lanes and cross walks, which are so oddly laid out that it brings a certain – adventure we’ll call it – to anyone trying to cross.

This Google Earth image shows how a simple pedestrian route from the Northeast corner to the Kroger Grocery store on the Southeast corner requires travel to an undefined ‘island’ between right-turning traffic and waiting cars. This, on a highway with a 45 mile speed limit in less than half a mile on either side of this intersection.

This is one of many examples of unsafe cycling conditions that are common throughout Nashville. Brentwood, Inglewood, West End and Hermitage all have issues providing safe pedestrian and cycle travel.

Motorists vs. Non Motorists

It is to be expected that as the routes of dedicated cycle and pedestrian travel increase, the potential for motorist /non-motorist incidents will also increase.

The TN Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Research, Planning and Development produces an annual report breaking down the numbers of incident types and for the last four years pedestrian / vehicle incidences have been steady to even declining given the sharp drop in 2012 but motorist/ cycling incidences have steadily increased, essentially doubling from 2010.

These numbers are relatively low compared to total motorist incidences, however the number of Nashville cyclists who travel daily is very low compared to other U.S. cities that have embarked on establishing improved cycling activity for leisure and commuters.

Non-Motorists Incidents as Reported by the TN Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Research, Planning and Development

Pedestrians Pedalcyclists Fatalities YTD Total

Year           Pedestrians      Pedalcyclists      Total

2010               89                       4                     93

2011               83                       5                     88

2012               68                       8                     76

2013               87                       8                     95

 

Can Nashville Become Bike-Friendly?

Is it possible for Nashville to become a bike-friendly town while growing at the rate it is expected to grow? Can we reasonably expect that Nashville can create a bicycle friendly environment when so many commuters comfortably travel by car to work each day?

Let’s look comparatively at other major cities that have embraced cycling as a major mode of commuter transportation. Nashville can benefit from following cities that have done it successfully.

As rated by the Bicycling Magazine, the most bicycle friendly cities are:

  1. Portland, Oregon – Population: 603,000 (roughly equal to Nashville, TN)
  2. Minneapolis, Mn – Population: 390,000
  3. Boulder, Co. – Population: 100,000
  4. Washington D.C. – Population: 610,000
  5. Chicago, Il. – Population: pop. 2,600,000
bike routes in Nashville

Comparison of Nashville bike routes to Portland, Oregon’s bike routes.

Portland and Nashville are roughly the same size and growing at the same rate, but in the early 1960’s when revolts against unwanted highway construction began to break out in cities all across the U.S., Portland was one of those cities. But it became especially noteworthy for taking federal funds that had been meant for highways and appropriating them for other things, like transit. In 1971, former Oregon Governor Tom McCall signed the ‘bike bill’ to appropriate 1 percent of all highway funds be spent on making roads and new infrastructure accessible to cyclists and pedestrians.

Portland, Oregon celebrated rather quietly that there were no bicycle/ motorist fatalities in 2013.

In 2010, Portland had recorded daily commuter cycling increases of 225 percent from 2001. The total numbers of daily cycling commuters is almost 20,000 traveling over the four area bridges and close to 40,000 for non bridge traffic. Portland’s total population is about 600,000 people in the city center, so that means roughly 10 percent of the population uses bicycles to commute on a daily basis. Nashville could potentially face a dramatic rise in cyclist/ motorist incidents if the number of cycling commuters approaches even a quarter of the cyclists daily commuting in Portland, Oregon.

The cycling numbers are unavailable for Nashville because we have not embraced cycling as an alternate means of transport until recently.

But there may be another reason why cycling is not as popular here as in Portland.

The area of Portland is 133.4 sqare miles, with 4,375 people per square mile. But Nashville is much more spread out. Nashville covers an area of 475.1 square miles, or 1,265 people per square mile. At a density of less than one-sixth of Portland, it makes sense to drive versus cycle – unless you are willing to also train for the olympics while commuting to your job in Cool Springs from East Nashville – a 40-mile round trip.

Fortunately, Nashville’s Mayor Dean has set a goal of connecting all of the Greenways, a common strategy for municipalities to provide safe cycling away from developed highway arteries already dedicated to automobile travel.

The following Google cycling maps shows us how far Nashville has to go.

The longer distances to connect communities should not be ignored because cities like Washington D.C. have successfully connected The University of Maryland, Reston, Va and Arlington, Va. which encompasses an area almost equivalent to the greater Nashville metro area.

By Tom Cooper