Track Cycling

From CPP: Pandemic prompts cycling in cities, but NC politics could apply the brakes – Mountain Xpress

By Jack Igelman, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

Pandemic restrictions have led to an explosion of interest in biking on North Carolina roadways and optimism about the future of cycling for transportation, according to Mike Sule, executive director of the urban cycling advocacy group Asheville on Bikes.

“COVID has presented us with an opportunity to rethink how we allocate the public right of way to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists,” Sule said. “This is really our oyster to grab.”

Sule and other cycling and pedestrian advocates said the state government will be a pivotal partner in developing safer and more efficient modes of pedestrian transportation. But politics in Raleigh and a lack of funding for pedestrian and cycling facilities could squander the momentum to redesign and invest in public pedestrian spaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed what advocates have known for years: that most North Carolina cities and towns lack functional public transit and pedestrian infrastructure, said Terry Lansdell of BikeWalk NC, a statewide advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists.

“People experienced neighborhoods again during the shutdown,” he said. “They went outside, became more active and realized that a lot was lacking. They realized there was not a continuous sidewalk. They realized there weren’t bike lanes. During COVID, they became aware of their surroundings like they never have before.

“When we get back to normal, we still live in that place, and there may be no real choice other than to drive. But we have to build options and look to leaders to do it.”

The moment of possibility for biking is not the first. Bicycle ridership spiked in the U.S. during the 1973 oil crisis, which strained the U.S. fuel supply, Sule said.

Yet once the oil flowed again, he said, drivers settled back behind the wheel of their automobiles.

He is hoping this time is different.

Making plans

On Feb. 16, North Carolina released its first long-range transportation plan. Known as NC Moves 2050, the multimodal transportation plan proposes eight strategies and 32 actions to improve the state’s transportation system over the next three decades.

The strategies include expanding multimodal options such as public transportation, cycling facilities, greenways and other shared-use paths for pedestrians.

According to the report, one of the challenges to building more sidewalks and bike routes is the lack of funding: The N.C. Department of Transportation budget of $4.96 billion allocates just $800,000 to cycling.

“What really draws people to bikes are safe facilities,” Sule said, but “so much of our infrastructure puts cyclists and pedestrians in peril.”

A former middle school teacher, Sule launched Asheville on Bikes in 2006, aiming to build an urban cycling culture in Asheville by making it safer and more accessible. Among the organization’s recent achievements is advocating for a protected bike lane — the city’s only stretch — along a recently reengineered section of road in the city’s River Arts District.

“People are going to see and experience features like this and are going to want more of it,” he said.